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Beyond the Brain: The Solutions Focus
and the Second Cognitive Revolution

Mark McKergow PhD MBA
The Solutions Focus

The Solutions Focus

Presented in a keynote session at the SEAL conference 2005, Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, UK

A 'revolution' is running through the world of psychology and people. Around the world, consultants, educators and trainer are discovering the power and the pragmatic benefits of taking a solutions focus. What happens when, instead of analysing the problem, you analyse the solution instead?

This simple shift can dramatically simplify issues, reveal useful events and resources and be applied to anything from personal problem-solving, via coaching and teams, to corporate strategy. It has been empirically proven in many fields, from corporate change and school behaviour problems to occupational health - more details on our website at www.thesolutionsfocus.com.

Key to Solutions Focused working is finding what works and doing more of it - as simply as possible. We draw on the philosophical principle of Occam's Razor, and keep things as simple as possible by assuming as little as possible and introducing as few concepts, theories and words as possible. This places the Solutions Focus approach at odds with some of the other ideas presented at this conference.

In keeping with the simplicity of the approach, we have devised a set of SIMPLE principles for keeping things as simple as possible (but no simpler):

Solutions, not problems
Inbetween - the action is in the interaction, not the individual
Make use of what's there, not what isn't
Possibilities from past present and future - not certainties
Language - simple, not complicated
Every case is different - beware ill-fitting theory

You can find lots more about the approach in my book The Solutions Focus (Jackson and McKergow, 2002) - see the References section for more information.

The Second Cognitive Revolution

The approach makes practical use of the Second Cognitive Revolution - the shift of focus from analysis of brains to a focus on discourse as the prime mover of thought and action. The first cognitive revolution, led by cognitive scientists like Miller, Bruner and Chomsky, focused on the brain as computing device, processing information. Their method postulates the existence of mental processes and attributes - for example beliefs, attitudes, perception etc.

Taking an Occam's Razor to this approach leads us to discard these notional 'psychological' 'things' - after all, who has ever seen a belief, an attitude or consciousness as such. The discursive view, as championed by Oxford professor of psychology Rom Harré (Harré and Gillett, 1994 and many other books since) rejects the need for them, focussing instead on the two kinds of phenomena we can really observe - brain functioning (through scans etc) and the outer counterpart of brain functioning - namely language, behaviour and discourse - interactions.

It is in discourse that 'mental processes' and so on are found - both in their display and in their naming and discussion. 'Attitudes', for example, are not found somewhere hiding within a person, but are their outward expression. An attitude does not 'cause' behaviour, it is behaviour.

Extelligence and the power of narrative

The stories that have been built up by psychologists and others can be seen to be just that - stories. However, to label any story as 'just' a story is to miss the fundamental power of discourse and language on us as humans. Closer examination reveals that vast tracts of our world are built on stories - taught to children, relayed through drama, media, proverbs - even through the SEAL journal! One fascinating way of looking at this aspect of human society has been provided, unexpectedly, by two top science writers, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen - the idea of 'extelligence' (Stewart and Cohen, 1997).

Extelligence can be viewed as the sum of all the stories we have invented so far. It can be compared to Intelligence, which is interestingly always conceived as a property relating to an individual. We can see how extelligence can be created in discourse, how we use it as a fundamental way of getting about, working together and 'knowing' things. New knowledge is created, we might say, in the interaction of intelligence with extelligence - of a brain with a book, or another brain. And this brings about even more extelligence. Language and life are totally interwoven.

'Consciousness', then, is not to be found inside our heads, but outside, in our interactions and, crucially, in our discussions of consciousness (for a discursive view of consciousness, see Harré (2000). On this basis, trying to learn about consciousness by introspection is like trying to learn about oxygen by putting a plastic bag over your head!

Knowing how to go on

This is leading to a very new way of looking at life and learning. Rather than attempting to use psychological 'instruments' to gather 'data' on the internal workings of the mind, it's much simpler to watch and interact with the external workings - in the form of language and extelligence. Rather than bemoan how someone 'is', we can look instead at how our language, extelligence and interactions are keeping him there, or moving him on. Indeed, this interactional view is at the heart of the Solutions Focus approach - the practical end of the Second Cognitive Revolution.

To sum up; the world consists of molecules and meanings, and confusion reigns when we mistake the one for the other. Meanings are negotiated publicly, as extelligence. Taking care with our language can lead us to the creation of new and helpful meanings, heralding the arrival of a new, simpler, more effective way to look at learning.

References and further reading

Rom Harré, Social Construction and Consciousness, in 'Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness: New Methodologies and Maps', ed Max Velmans, John Benjamin, Amsterdam (2000)
Rom Harré and Grant Gillett, 'The Discursive Mind', Sage (1994)
Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow. 'The Solutions Focus: The SIMPLE Way to Positive Change', Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London (2002)
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, 'Science of Discworld 2: The Globe', Ebury Press, London (2002)
Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, 'Figments of Reality', Cambridge University Press (1997)
Timothy D Wilson, 'Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious', Belknap, Harvard University Press (2002)