The power of asking ‘What’s been better?’
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
It’s important to acknowledge that these are unprecedented times. One could say that we are at ‘war’ with Covid-19. Our lives have changed radically and quickly and we are uncertain when and how we will return to ‘normal’ life.
This situation is difficult and it is completely understandable and normal for it to cause fear and anxiety. We need to understand that feeling that way is ok, that it needs to be acknowledged and felt and expressed.
Solution-focused practice is by no means about underplaying the potential effects of this pandemic. But do we truly believe that this will cause a mental health pandemic?
Yes, we need to support people's mental wellbeing around this current issue. But wouldn't inviting people to notice the small things that show they are coping and managing, as well as giving people time to acknowledge how they feel, allow them to have hope in the situation and the future?
Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t
When I meet with someone in a solution-focused follow-up session, I always ask 'what's been better?’. This builds on the assumption that no problem happens all of the time and that change is happening all of the time.
Obviously, we have no choice but to accept what is being imposed on us in lockdown, and people may not think they are coping very well, that they are saturated by the problem. This is very common. People often find it hard to notice how they cope and manage, no matter how small.
We are much better at describing the problem or what we can't do. Solution-focused practice invites people gently, not solution-forced, to notice what's been better and how they cope and manage. We invite people to notice their existing strengths and resources, and to give hope and possibility to the situation, no matter how difficult.
This needs to be done sensitively. We need to give time for people to share what they are struggling with and how they feel, and this needs to be heard and acknowledged.
The solution-focused approach is not just about positivity, it's more about understanding whilst being pragmatic. It’s about useful change. It goes at the pace of the individual and we only respond based on what they tell us.
However, when someone tells us the ‘problem', we invite them to share how they have coped and managed, and we will ask them what they would want instead, or 'if you were coping that little bit more, what would be different?’. Obviously, the situation we are in is sensitive and difficult, but asking 'what's been better?’ still works.
Young people coping with lockdown
When I started my online sessions in lockdown, I was aware that the last time I‘d spoken to the young people I work with regularly, we did not know that this would happen.
A lot of them are year 11-13. They are no longer doing their GCSE's or A levels this year and they are unable to see their friends. Their final year in school ended so abruptly.
Before we talked, I asked myself what will I do differently, what will I ask them first? I decided that I would still ask that same question - ‘what’s been better?’
By doing this, these young people were still able to share with me what was difficult, as well as noticing - despite the situation - what had actually been better. When they spoke of their frustrations, I was able to ask them how they had coped and managed.
I noticed that, as we spoke and they shared how they had coped, they told me that they hadn't noticed that about themselves. This led me to ask them ‘what difference does it make to be able to notice that?’ and they told me that it enabled them to see that they were coping better than they thought.
Also, a good proportion of these young people told me that they were spending more time with their families and less times in their bedrooms. Also, that they were resolving conflicts more quickly with their family. Here is some of the feedback these young people have given me on what it is like to be asked 'what's been better?' and 'how are you coping?’
"It's useful to be asked about how I am coping during lockdown, as it gives me time to reflect upon the situation. It was such a sudden change. It has also made me realise that everyone is in the same situation, which adds comfort to the stress I have at the moment concerning the uncertainty surrounding how my grades will be calculated. I was upset about not having to do exams as I wanted to prove myself, but asking me about what's actually been better has made me realise that my hard work throughout my two years has been useful, that hard work is all that is needed to be successful, and that success is not defined by a letter on a piece of paper.”
“I think that when you begin to look at all this extra time as a blessing, it becomes far less overwhelming to deal with it. It’s important to know how to let go of the things that prohibit you from getting out of bed in the morning, and rather focus on what keeps you proactive. It’s also crucial to immerse yourself in things that you enjoy and learn what works best for you.”
So, I would invite you to consider how we can support the people that we are working with in a crisis like this. The solution-focused approach is a compassionate, powerful approach that truly listens. It acknowledges a person’s issues and gently invites them to consider how they cope and manage and to even consider what's been better, despite the situation.