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Kyle Ross, Washington State University

Kyle Ross.jpgThis article introduces solution-focused advising, a framework built and adapted from solution-focused counseling theory, as another tool for advisors to utilize within their approaches.  Solution-focused advising empowers the student to make their own decisions through a series of intentional questions by the advisor.  It also is designed to be brief and maximize the limited time advisors have with their students in very few appointments (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).

Overview of Solution-Focused Counseling

During the late 1970s, Steve De Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg opened the Brief Family Therapy Center (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).  The Brief Family Therapy Center team’s following statement outlines how they developed solution-focused counseling:

We discovered that problems do not happen all the time.  Even the most chronic problems have periods or times when the difficulties do not occur or are less intense.  By studying these times when problems are less severe or even absent, we discovered that people do many positive things that they are not fully aware of.  By bringing these small successes into their awareness and repeating successful things they do when the problem is less severe, people improve their lives and become more confident about themselves. (Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association, n.d., para. 2)

De Shazer and Kim Berg emphasized the notion of exploring exceptions to clients’ problems in solution-focused counseling (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).  Exceptions allow clients and counselors to identify client strengths and sometimes how the problem can be fixed.  Most importantly, counselors and clients do not spend the entire session focusing on the problem (Tarragona, 2008).  While clarity is important, it is a higher priority that time is spent on exploring exceptions, strengths, and solutions.

Suggested Steps for Solution-Focused Advising

Solution-focused advising follows five steps that each have specific techniques to accomplish that step and move on to the next.  This outline adapts De Jong’s and Kim Berg’s (2002) counseling framework and Burg’s and Mayhall’s (2002) article that articulated the purposes of each questioning technique.  

Solution-focused advising follows this process:

1. Define the Problem: Open-Ended Questions.

Advisors should spend time on understanding the student’s problem not only so they can have clarity, but also for the student to feel listened to, valued, and connected.  Here, the basic counseling techniques of open-ended questions, reflections of feelings and thoughts, paraphrasing, and summarizing are ways of defining the problem and connecting the student and advisor (Barnett, Roach, & Smith, 2006).  These techniques foster a positive student-advisor relationship from which they can collaboratively work to help the student.

2. Set Goals: The “Miracle Question.”

Once advisors establish a positive relationship and acquire a clear understanding of the student’s problem, the advisor and student set goals for how they might want to address the problem.  While the student clearly wants to overcome the problem, goals help define what the student would like to see in place of the problem (Tarragona, 2008).

One method that De Shazer and Kim Berg developed to help students set goals and describe ideal solutions is through the “miracle question” (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).  Miracle questions allow students to think without restriction on what they would like their solution to be.  An example of a miracle question is the following:

Suppose that while you are sleeping tonight and the entire house is quiet, a miracle happens.  The miracle is that the problem which brought you here is solved.  However, because you are 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? (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002, p. 85)

In this format, it is important to preface the miracle question with a statement like “I am going to ask you a question that sounds a little silly, but allows you to think freely on your situation.”  Advisors can tailor a miracle question to the student, the presenting problem (the concern the student brings into the appointment), and their own advising style.  The miracle question can be as simple as “If your problem was suddenly fixed, how would you know it was fixed, and what would your situation look like without the problem?”  If the student cannot identify a realistic scenario, the advisor could provide a few options they are aware of that can help overcome the problem.

3. Exploring Exceptions and Identifying Strengths: Presuppositional Questions.

Once the problem is defined and the ideal solution is described, the advisor and student work toward understanding the student’s strengths that will help the student toward the ideal solution.  By exploring with the student when the problem was less intense or absent, it demonstrates that the student took some positive action to ameliorate the problem (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).  Exceptions to the problem highlight student strengths.  Those positive steps can be repeated to continue resolving the problem.  Oftentimes, students completely forget they have done those steps in the past or did not recognize it.  For example, a student may have difficulties staying organized, but a few years ago, had adopted a color-coding system for their planner and forgot that was useful. 

One way to help students explore exceptions in the past is by asking presuppositional questions (Burg & Mayhall, 2002; Mayhall & Burg, 2002).  Presuppositional questions are formatted in a way that assumes there is an answer and the answer is implied in the question.  For example, when working with exploratory students, advisors can ask the presuppositional question “At what times have you felt confident in the past about making a decision?” instead of “Have you ever felt confident making a decision?” (Mayhall & Burg, 2002, p. 78).  The difference is the first question assumes there were times when the student was confident rather than asking a closed question that can easily yield a “No.”  Instead, students have to think about their previous situations and find at least one time the problem was improved.

4. Develop Steps: Scaling Questions.  

Developing steps toward the goal solution helps students feel empowered to overcome their problems.  Instead of perceiving the problem to solution process like a cliff face to climb, steps make the problem seem much more resolvable.  In an advising setting, the student must make their own decisions about what steps to take.  Advisors can offer information or steps that the student may not be aware of, but it is ultimately the student’s responsibility. 

Scaling questions help make objective and tangible steps.  Scaling questions ask where the severity of the student’s problem lies on a spectrum and what it would take to move it one notch closer in the spectrum toward the ideal situation (Tarragona, 2008).  Advisors can also incorporate a timeline into a scaling question.  An example would be the following: “If you are at a 3 in your organizational skills out of 10, what would need to happen within these next two weeks to bring you to a 4 in your organizational skills?”

Not every situation is an opportunity to utilize solution-focused advising.  One example is students who are not ready to take responsibility for or control of their problems.  The purpose of solution-focused advising is for the student to develop steps they can personally do, not to expect other people to carry out steps to overcome the situation (Tarragona, 2008).

5. Follow-Up: Assigning Tasks and Providing Feedback.  

Once the student has a set plan for the next step to take, it is essential that advisors follow-up and confirm whether the student did or did not accomplish that step.  If students did, advisors can encourage students to continue with their process and perhaps identify a new step.  If they did not, advisors can take that moment to encourage them to try again. 

Assigning tasks is a valuable strategy in solution-focused advising (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).  Because students are addressing their own problems, they are likely to be motivated to carry out an assigned task.  Providing feedback is also an important technique for advisors (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).  Supportive and encouraging comments help students feel like they can overcome their problem.  Sometimes when students reach a point where the problem has diminished enough for a minimally satisfactory situation, they stop trying to overcome the problem.  Advisors need to encourage them along to continue working toward that ideal solution.

Adaptability to Advising

Solution-focused advising is an ideal framework for advisors with limited time for each student appointment.  De Jong and Kim Berg (2002) conducted a study where they found 77% of clients improved after solution-focused counseling with a median of two sessions.  This was compared to 66% of client improvement after other treatment modalities and a median of six sessions.

This framework also allows advisors to continue with their advising practice and incorporate a few of the presented techniques.  Solution-focused techniques can be implemented throughout the six phases of Appreciative Advising (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008).  For example, presuppositional questions help discover past solutions, while the “miracle question” and scaling questions can help design a plan.  This model also fits well with strengths-based advising (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005), as it is adopted from a strengths perspective (Tarragona, 2008).  Many topics can be addressed with solution-focused advising, from exploring majors to health and wellness (Lamprecht et al., 2007; Mayhall & Burg, 2002; Smock et al., 2008).  Because it is not normative, this model can also be incorporated into advising various cultures and diverse populations (Gingerich & Eisengart, 2000; Roeden, Bannink, Maaskant, & Curfs, 2009; Seidel & Hedley, 2008; Shin, 2009).  This framework is not the answer to every advising situation, but it is adaptable enough to fit within many advisors’ practices, even if it means only utilizing one or two of the techniques mentioned in this article.

Kyle Ross
Academic Coordinator
College of Nursing
Washington State University
[email protected]


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Bloom, J. L., Huston, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing.

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Seidel, A., & Hedley, D. (2008). The use of solution-focused brief therapy with older adults in Mexico: A preliminary study. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 242-252.

Shin, S. (2009). Effects of a solution-focused program on the reduction of aggressiveness and the improvement of social readjustment for Korean youth probationers. Journal of Social Service Research, 35, 274-284.

Smock, S. A., Trepper, T. S., Wetchler, J. L., McCollum, E. E., Ray, R., & Pierce, K. (2008). Solution-focused group therapy for level 1 substance abusers. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(1), 107-120.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association. (n.d.). About solution-focused brief therapy. Retrieved from http://www.sfbta.org/what-we-do

Tarragona, M. (2008). Postmodern/poststructuralist therapies. In J. L. Lebow (Ed.), Twenty-first century psychotherapies (pp. 167-205). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cite this article using APA style as: Ross., K. (2017, September). Adapting solution-focused questioning into advising. Academic Advising Today, 40(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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