This month I teamed up with Emma Burns for a workshop with Kāinga Ora in Hamilton, New Zealand, but neither of us could predict what was about to happen!
This blog is a bit longer than usual, but it is well worth the read.
The background - Emma and I occasionally run 1-day online training for GROW NZ, and over the last 2 years several of the team from Kāinga Ora in Hamilton/Waikato have attended and started using the Solution Focused approach. Their manager Matt Watson loved the approach so much that he invited us to Hamilton to train the whole team over 2 days. Matt asked if he could also invite some colleagues from partner organisations and this is how we got to meet Kahui and Richard, but more about them later.
Kāinga Ora is the Government-run housing organisation in New Zealand. Over the last few years they have not only changed their name but also changed their focus. As one of the staff eloquently put it: "We previously cared for houses and managed people, but now we care for people and manage houses". Their website is full of references to their philosophy to care for people and to build communities. Emma and I were particularly drawn to the 3 core vales of the organisation, and day 2 of our workshop was developed by combining the Solution Focused approach with these 3 values:
Manaakitanga - People at the heart
Mahi Tahi - Better together
Whanake - Be bold
On Day 1 of training we showed a clip from the movie Patch Adams, where Patch is challenged to "look beyond the problem". At lunchtime Kahui (who works for a partner organisation) wandered over and wanted to tell us his story. He was attracted to the idea of looking beyond the problem, especially when there is a person on the other side that can and should be connected to. He then told us his story of an event 7 years ago when he (with a history of extreme violence, drug use and drug dealing, prison) was just about to take his own life, but a police officer attended his house and connected with him. Emma and I were so moved by his story which he concluded by saying that he had never seen the police officer again, but that he wished he had the chance to say "thank you". For the next one and a half days Emma made it her job to track down this police officer.
Our 3 days in Hamilton concluded with Emma organising a surprise meeting between Kahui and Richard. You can read Kahui's detailed description of the meeting on his Facebook page (23 July 2022). Emma and I were in absolute awe of the story and the occasion, hearing about the same event from 2 different perspectives, and being there when they embraced and shared their stories for the first time. Kahui was a hardened and violent criminal; he joined a gang at the age of 13 and later became the youngest President of a chapter of Black Power. Richard was a young police officer who did his job with care, compassion, and humanity, but was completely oblivious to the fact that his brief connection with Kahui was not only the thing that saved his life, but started a transformation in Kahui where he left the gang, stopped the drugs and alcohol, went to bible college, and now works as both a pastor in a church and also for a housing agency supporting others. This brief contact with Richard was the spark that ignited a desire for something better. Kahui did a lot of work (mahi) over this time including a drug detox, handing in his patch, getting an education, reuniting with his children, becoming a Christian, and getting a job. Richard continued doing what he was doing, but oblivious to the fact that this simple but caring intervention had saved a life. He was pretty surprised when we talked to him, but we weren't surprised so much when we heard Richard talk; Richard tries to make every interaction with the public a meaningful and positive one. For example, he explained that for 80% of the public their first contact with police is on the road. So now as a traffic cop Richard will try to turn a negative event (eg driving offence and issuing a ticket) into a positive one e.g. explaining what has happened, engaging with the person and leaving people with a positive feeling wherever he can. He does this in such a humble and unassuming way that we were left inspired.
This event has led me to consider the transformative power of the right words being said at the right time. While there are parallels in this story with the Solution Focused approach, this was not actually a Solution Focused interaction yet it was a life-saving transformative one. There is a common saying in the Solution Focused world; "The action is in the interaction". While I agree in principle, the problem with this statement is that it is actually referring to the conversation but not the relationship. I guess that is my one criticism of the approach - that there is a lot of emphasis on what is being said, especially in the asking of a challenging and thought-provoking question, but no emphasis on the interpersonal therapeutic relationship. This is where nurses have an advantage over other clinical discipline in that we understand that EVERYTHING we do happens within a relationship, and the better the relationship, the better the outcomes, and that is no matter where or in what context the relationship occurs.
Someone recently asked me if this a blind-spot of the solution focused approach, and I think they made a valid point. Solution Focused Brief Therapy is as good as, but no better than, any psychotherapeutic modality. It just happens to be the approach that I like the most. But most change happens within a relationship. You do not need SFBT for change to happen, but you do need a relationship. The stronger this relationship, the better the outcome. So in everything we do, like Richard, let's bring our compassion, care, human presence, and connection. It is this that transforms people and saves lives. SFBT (and any other modality) should only ever be seen as an adjunct to this.