Solution-Focused Communication Skills Training

Communication is the primary activity from which to build a healthy, enjoyable, and fulfilling intimate relationship. Most problems in relationships either develop from or are maintained through either a lack of communication or poor communication.

Because of this, relational issues can really only be resolved effectively through the use of appropriate communication skills. Interestingly, while couples who have open lines of communication usually find support in each other during the more challenging times of their relationship, most couples tend to communicate less when they are having problems in their relationship (Long & Young, 2007).

It is therefore important to encourage a more productive relationship in the couple through helping them communicate openly and directly with each other about their thoughts, feelings, conflicting issues, problems and concerns (Brown & Brown, 2002).

Exercising healthy communication also increases negotiation skills and ultimately helps to enhance the overall quality of interaction between the couple.

Ultimately, teaching communication skills to couples is an important way for therapists to commence treatment because it is through the teaching of communication skills that couples become equipped with important relational skills to help them reach the larger goal of achieving a fulfilling, intimate and healthy functioning romantic relationship (Sheras & Sheras, 2008).

Case Study

Tom was attracted to Sarah because she was outgoing and fun. Since he was somewhat shy, he admired this friendly quality in her. Sarah on the other hand was attracted to Tom because he was the “strong silent type”. She also liked his gentleness, making him different from most men that she has dated.

After two years of dating, they got married. They both thought that they had found a mate that completed them and would bring out new qualities in them. After a year of marriage, Sarah found herself edgy with Tom. Even though he wanted to, he did not present as being too friendly.

He always acted aloof and distant to others including his wife and seemed to get “stuck”. Tom didn’t offer all the information that Sarah wanted. He didn’t think to tell her about little things that occur at work or funny things that happened during his day. In an attempt to open him up, she would ask questions but Tom was not comfortable with what he perceived to be an intrusion of his privacy.

He began to wish that Sarah was more like him and also began to feel that Sarah thought he was inadequate. Sarah began to feel more aggressive toward her husband’s quietness. She would say things like, “You never tell me anything. You don’t want me in your world. What do you think it’s like to live with a stranger?” This would often trigger fights and arguments and lately the fights have been escalating and ending up in screaming matches.

A pattern of “getting along” for a period of time was regularly followed by an eruption of conflict, sometimes lasting for days at a time. Sarah begun to nag, resulting in John becoming totally withdrawn. Both partners agreed that their interactional pattern was becoming destructive to their marriage and neither were enjoying or appreciating the consequences of their partner’s or their own interactions with each other.


Apart from collecting general background information about the couple in the example above, the first part of the session should be dedicated to joining or socialising. Joining refers to the process of where the therapist matches the client’s language, offers positive feedback and demonstrates a willingness to adapt their interviewing style to suit the client. The process of joining aims to form a warm, positive, accepting relationship within the therapeutic process between each person, including couple and therapist, between each other.

It also involves the couple teaching the therapist about their view of the world. The counsellor can achieve ‘joining’ by spending a little time exploring the problems that have brought the couple to therapy.

The therapist can ask about jobs, hobbies, interests, special talents etc. This is also a time to focus on what the couple believes is working in their relationship as it currently stands.

Counsellor to Tom: Working as an accountant must be challenging. It’s the end of the financial year. You must be very busy.

Tom: Yeah, very busy. I like what I do but I never look forward to end of financial year stress

Counsellor: I can imagine. (Turning to Sarah) Sarah, how are your dance classes progressing? You must be enjoying them now that you’ve been doing it for a while”

Sarah: Fantastic. I love it. They are so much fun. It feels good not to be the only one running around like a headless chook.

[They all laugh]

Tom: She seems to be enjoying them. I often catch her practicing with the broom in the kitchen.

Sarah: I am a lot more confident. It’s my escape. Tom has also been very supportive.

Tom: I enjoy watching you dance. I can’t do it. But you look so good when you do those twirls.

Counsellor to Tom: So you have seen her dance?

Tom: I’ve been to a few of her rehearsals.

Sarah: I enjoy having him around. He’s my biggest fan

Counsellor: It seems you guys are supportive of each other?

Sarah: Yeah you could say that.

In this example above, the therapist is making small talk that relates to the interest of each partner outside the issues that have brought them to therapy. This creates a non-confronting environment for clients, strengthens the relationship between the clients and the therapist and encourages cooperation and openness to therapy.

Constructing Goals

It is not uncommon for clients to commence therapy with a lot more knowledge about their problems as a couple than their goals or what they want to achieve in the relationship and how they may like their lives and relationship to be different (Lawson & Prevatt, 1999).

The process of constructing goals helps to get the couple thinking about what they want to achieve from therapy. Goals are best described in concrete, specific, first step, behavioural and self referenced terms; because these kinds of descriptions help both the client and the therapist identify the progress as it occurs.

Counsellor: In what ways would things begin to change in your life so that you would know that coming here every week to talk to me has been helpful?

Tom: For me, I think it would be when I notice my wife has stopped nagging me.

Sarah: I think for me it would be when Tom starts talking to me more and includes me in his life more. Because right now I feel like a total stranger.

Counsellor: If you were to set more specific goals about your marriage and what you want to achieve, what would it be?

Sarah: For me it’s about being able to communicate?

Counsellor: Being able to communicate?

Sarah: Yeah. I want to be able to talk to Tom about everything. I want to be able to express my fears and concerns more freely and for him to do the same. I want him to be able to involve me more in his life. You know, talk to me more. Even small talk about how he spent his day at work… it’s better than nothing I guess. Right now our communication is more like an interrogation. I ask questions, he answers. If I don’t initiate conversation then we can sit at the dinner table with dead silence. It’s awful.

Counsellor: What about you Tom? What would you want to see different about your relationship with Sarah?

Tom: I just want the screaming and the yelling to stop. I feel like she’s always waiting for me to come home so she can start abusing me and calling me names. If she can cool down a little bit more, maybe I can open up a little to her.

Counsellor: So are you saying that you want the conflict in your relationship to stop?

Tom: Yes.

Counsellor: Sarah would you agree? Is that something that you would like to achieve too?

Sarah: Yes, very much.

Counsellor: Just to make sure that I understood both of you correctly, what you want to achieve from this experience is to have better communication, fight less, open up more to each other and show respect for one another? Is that correct?

Sarah: Spot on

Tom: Yeah… that sounds about right.

Counsellor: Anything else to add?

Sarah: No, that’s great… hits the nail on the head.

Tom: No, I’m happy with that. If we can see those things happening, that’d be a big step forward. I’d be chuffed.

Scaling Questions

Scaling questions invite clients to perceive their problem on a continuum. Scaling questions ask clients to consider their position on a scale (usually from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least desirable and 10 being the most desirable). Scaling questions can be a helpful way to track progress toward goals and monitor incremental change.

Counsellor: So… on a scale of 1 to 10; where 10 indicates that you have the relationship you want and 1 indicates that your relationship is the worst that you have ever seen or experienced… where would you put it?

Tom: 4.

Sarah: Probably a 5. I will say 5.

Counsellor: Tom you said that you are a 4… right? What things do you see needing to happen to get your relationship to a 5 or even a 6?

Tom: If I could come home after work and Sarah didn’t nag and scream at me. I guess I would also like to be able to talk to her and tell her about my day and stuff without feeling like I would get slammed for saying the wrong thing.

Counsellor: Right. And you Sarah, you said that your marriage currently stands at a 5 right?

Sarah: Yes (nodding).

Counsellor: So what things would need to occur to bring your relationship with Tom up to a 6 or a 7?

Sarah: If I didn’t have to fight Tom to get him to talk to me. If we could engage in normal conversations like everybody else does. That’d be good.

Counsellor: How will you do that?

Sarah: Well I guess he would need to start including me in his world.

Counsellor: How will he do that?

Sarah: He would need to initiate a conversation. He would need to open up to me more and confide in me. He would need to come home and say things like, “honey I had an awful day… or I had a good day”… or whatever day it was… and how he was feeling about it…

Miracle Question

The miracle question is a technique that counsellors can use in assisting clients to think ‘outside the square’ in regard to new possibilities and outcomes for their future. The miracle question is a question that is asked frequently by therapists who adopt a solution focused approach.

The question has been refined as practitioner’s experiment with different ways of asking it. The question is best asked deliberately and dramatically. The miracle question requests clients to make a leap of faith and imagine how their life would be changed when the problem is solved (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).

Counsellor: Now, I want to ask you a strange question. Suppose that while you are sleeping tonight and the entire house was quiet, a miracle happens. The miracle is that the problem which brought you here is solved. However, because you’re sleeping, you don’t know that the miracle has happened. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what will be different that will tell you that a miracle has happened and the problem which brought you here is solved.

Tom: Wow that is a strange question.

Sarah: Laughs.

Counsellor: I know. A lot of people find it unusual. It’s not something we think about regularly.

Sarah: Our communication would have improved.

Counsellor: How would you communicate differently?

Sarah: I would sit down and talk to him. Now… if something goes wrong… I vent at him.   I can’t talk to him when I’m mad. I either don’t talk to him or I’m venting…That would be different.

Counsellor: Are there any times when you can talk to Tom without venting?

Sarah: Yes, when we do financial planning.

Counsellor: How do you do that without getting upset?

Tom: I guess she trusts me more with the finances because I am an accountant.

Counsellor to Sarah: Is that true? Do you trust his ability to deal with finances?

Sarah: Yes. He has always managed our finances and we are now more financially secure because of his planning. So I tend to agree with his decisions.

Counsellor: How can we get more of this to happen?

Sarah: Tom is more forthcoming with matters relating to finances and keeps me updated. It’s one of the few times that my husband seems like he is actually enjoying talking to me. So maybe if he can extend that to other issues… I just want him to come home and tell me what his day was like for instance.

Tom: What I would see different is being able to come home and have a few minutes to myself. I guess I would also be able to talk to Sarah about things that relate to everyday life. If I have problems I would be able to talk to her more freely…

Counsellor: What stops you from doing that?

Tom: I’m scared to, because I don’t know if I will say the wrong thing and make her angry.

End of session feedback

At the end of each solution-building conversation messages are constructed by the therapist toward each partner that includes compliments and usually some suggestions. The compliments emphasise what clients are already doing that is useful in solving their problems.

The feedback is based on the information that clients have revealed in the conversation about well-formed goals and exceptions. It always focuses on what the clients, given their frame of reference, need to do more of and do differently in order to enhance their chances of success in meeting their goals (De Jong & Kim-Berg, 2002).

Counsellor: We have come to the end of the session. I must compliment you both on your willingness to talk about key issues. You have both demonstrated that you recognize what needs to be changed about your relationship and you are also both aware of what you want to achieve.

You also both seem quiet motivated to achieve those goals too. Some suggestions that I can make is that there may be need for individual changes that we might need to work on more, that can contribute to achieving the desired outcomes.

Sarah: Thank you. You’re right; there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

Tom: My wife means a lot to me and I want to make her happy so I’m willing to put in the work to make my marriage work.


  1. De Jong, P., & Kim Berg, I. (2002). Interviewing for solutions. (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth.
  2. Long, L.L., & Young, M.E. (2007). Couselling and Therapy for Couples. (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson.
  3. Sheras, P.L., & Koch-Sheras, (2008). Commitment first, Communication Later: Dealing with barriers to effective couples therapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 38, 109-117.