Academic journal article Social Work

How to Interview for Client Strengths

Academic journal article Social Work

How to Interview for Client Strengths

Article excerpt

Articles calling for a "strengths perspective" in social work practice have begun to appear in the professional literature. Although the roots of the strengths perspective reach deep into the history of social work, it was not until 1989 that Weick, Rapp, Sullivan, and Kisthardt first incorporated the words "strengths perspective" into the title of an article. In their article, these authors addressed social work's past emphasis on problems and pathologies and the difficulties this emphasis created for practice, and they offered the ingredients of an alternative strengths perspective. In 1992 Saleebey published a collection of articles in which several authors explained, in considerable detail, the assumptions and principles of strengths-based practice with at-risk populations.

The strengths perspective rests on the following assumptions (Saleebey, 1992): First and foremost, despite life's problems, all people and environments possess strengths that can be marshalled to improve the quality of clients' lives. Practitioners should respect these strengths and the directions in which clients wish to apply them. Second, client motivation is fostered by a consistent emphasis on strengths as the client defines these. Third, discovering strengths requires a process of cooperative exploration between clients and workers; "expert" practitioners do not have the last word on what clients need. Fourth, focusing on strengths turns the practitioner's attention away from the temptation to "blame the victim" and toward discovering how clients have managed to survive even in the most inhospitable of circumstances. And, fifth, all environments -- even the most bleak -- contain resources.

These assumptions are grounded in the poststructural notion that social workers must increasingly respect and engage clients' ways of viewing themselves and their worlds in the helping process. Or, to put it differently, the strengths perspective asserts that the client's "meaning" must count for more in the helping process, and scientific labels and theories must count for less. This shift toward a deeper respect for the frame of reference of a particular client is especially important in this era of practice with increasingly diverse groups.

The literature about applying the strengths perspective to practice settings contains philosophy, practice principles, and general areas to explore for possible strengths. Notably lacking, however, are specific interview questions the worker can use to elicit client strengths. Authors who do address how to determine client strengths recommend using an inventory of potential areas of strength (Cowger, 1992; Rapp, 1992) based on a set of categories that the worker brings to the client. These categories may or may not reflect the categories the client uses to organize his or her experiences.

This article presents a set of interviewing questions that we believe are appropriate to the philosophy and practice principles of the strengths perspective, including the commitment to work within the client's frame of reference. These questions, collectively known as the solution-focused approach to interviewing, have evolved over 20 years of work by de Shazer and his colleagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee (Berg & Miller, 1992; de Shazer, 1988; de Shazer et al., 1986). Although originally developed for use in individual, couples, and family therapy, the questions have evolved to the point where they are useful in a variety of practice settings and client concerns. Indeed, we are persuaded that they are useful alternatives in any practice setting previously calling for problem solving with clients. This article presents the two key concepts behind solution-focused interviewing, the questions themselves, and a discussion of how these questions fit with the key concepts of the strengths perspective.

Solution-Focused Interviewing

Solution-focused interviewing turns on two practice activities. …

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