A couple of weeks ago I attended a 4-day introductory course in Solution Focused Practice (SFP), otherwise known as BRIEF therapy. The practice doesn’t analyse by delving into a person’s historical hurts (what Caroline Myss might call “woundology”) but rather excavates nuggets of resourcefulness, identifying moments of resilience at times of difficulty. The theory is that looking at what people are already doing that is working, and helping them do it more, can shape a more positive future. In the same way that forgiveness is a process which requires a shift of perspective away from the story of hurt feelings, SFP is a process which reframes the narrative of the past away from debilitating thoughts and emotions. This kind of learning resonates strongly with me because, as many stories in The Forgiveness Project (TFP) demonstrate, perspective change is not about being coerced into a different mind-set but about discovering “the gift in the wound.”
Indeed, The Forgiveness Project shares many common principles with SFP. For instance SFP is positive, reflective, based on real life events and doesn’t give advice or tell people what to think. Essentially it’s a tool with which to ask questions and help people find their own answers. The idea is that if you ask the right questions very often people find their own way forward. In other words it’s not about fixing people but about searching out and creating an alternative narrative. I would say exactly the same about the work that we do, whether in prisons, schools or the community.
SFP recognises the corrosive power of regret. In a similar way that the process of forgiveness can reframe a pain narrative, allowing for what the German political theorist, Hannah Arendt, termed as the only reaction ‘unconditioned by the act which provoked it’, so too is SFP an opportunity for people to imagine another possibility. It is an invitation to think in terms of aspiration. This is also The Forgiveness Project’s emphasis in the RESTORE prison programme which focuses on strengths not risks, and fits in neatly with desistance theory. Criminologist, Professor Shadd Maruna, states in his desistance paper for the Ministry of Justice (2010): ‘Focusing on strengths rather than over‐emphasising risks is probably a better way to help someone desist. Staff who have low expectations of offenders can create self‐fulfilling prophecies which encourage recidivism. Staff who have high expectations of others are more likely to increase determined attempts to change.’
Dr David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has also identified this paradigm. ‘The more we focus on a problem we have, the more ingrained we make it.’ In other words problem focused therapy makes people defensive and encourages them to go to the blame default position. People in this state of mind will even blame their victims. ‘There is another way’, declares Rock. ‘We can leave the problem wiring where it is, and focus wholly and completely on the creation of new wiring.’ As SFP founder member and trainer, Evan George, puts it: ‘I’m interested in people moving into a place of progress because while they see themselves as “stuck” they won’t move forward.’ The aim of SFP is to work on a goal which is ethical, achievable and imaginable. A similar aim of RESTORE is ‘to open prisoners’ minds to an alternative way of viewing themselves and the world, one that makes a crime-free life seem attractive and attainable’.
Evidence has shown that maximising solution talk and inviting people to have different perspectives is likely to be associated with change. Just as SFP is not about changing people but about supporting a decision to change, our work helps prisoners take a step in this same direction. As one offender in our recent independent evaluation said, when asked about what helped him to change his attitude towards crime:
‘It’s come slowly from The Forgiveness Project. You know, obviously you don’t wake up. You don’t do a course Friday, wake up Monday morning and, everything’s changed..it seeps in, without even realising, it seeps into you.’