Solution-focused Career Theory

Judi Miller 2004


Miller, based on the work of Brown & Brooks (1996) argues that there are two main premises underlying a constructivist approach (Miller, 2004, p.3):

  1. Individual clients create their own reality based on their understanding of, and participation in, their previous experience (Brown & Brooks, 1996. p.13).
  2. The clients’ whole environment, as well as the interactions within it, influence behaviour (Miller, 2004, p.3)

Both of these, that clients create their own understanding and the context within which they do this, as well as the meanings derived from that context, need to be included in a successful and meaningful intervention. Miller (2004) argues that we don’t work ‘on’ the client but ‘with’ the client to encourage their self-helpfulness.


Solution-focused counselling was developed in the 1980s by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. For career counselling or career guidance as well, because the client’s story is at the centre of our work and how we work with them, is respectful of their social and personal context, whatever it is, if executed well.

From this, translated to career guidance and career counselling, we can deduce that the career professional doesn’t ‘do career guidance to the client’, as is the case in traditional environmental theory (the client is made aware by the career professional/’specialist’ that they fit a reality/career out there and which reality this is), but works in collaboration with the client and their story in a process of inquiry that supports the client in taking responsibility for the direction they take and the decisions they make in their career management.

Miller (2004, p.4) posits that, within the solution-focused approach, it is essential for both the client and the counsellor, to shift the main attention:

  • Away from problems (what is wrong)
  • Towards possibilities and hope (what is wanted)

This focuses away from the past and present (exploring the problem) and towards the future, imagining what life would be like when the client is in a situation where their ‘want’ is resolved using the client’s agency to get to that point. An implied technique within this is, of course, visualisation and the motivation this can create within the client.

Miller also notes that instead of the career professional concentrating their work on thinking for the client (‘what about…’), they adopt a stance of curiosity (Miller, 2004, p.4). So the career professional is not the person offering advice, but asking questions, prompting the client to use their own agency and resources to come to a solution. Asking questions which anticipate the client’s resourcefulness is key. However, a confidence in being able with the client’s responses to those questions is crucial. Embedded within these answers or responses, are the client’s self-helpfulness and resourcefulness that enable them to realise their career goals (Miller, 2004, p.4).

Miller’s Solution-focused theory in practice

Much of what follows is a summary of Miller’s paper titled ‘Building a Solution-focused Strategy into Career Counselling’ which, along with the webinar further down, I found extremely helpful in clarifying how the theory can be put in practice (full reference further down for those interested). Miller proposes a 3 stage strategy. (For a good idea of how this works it may be useful to watch the webinar in the ‘useful links’ section at the bottom).

  • Stage 1.: Problem clarification and development of client-identified goals.
    • The client’s construction of the problem and the preferred goal is listened to with care. Questions Miller proposes (Miller, 2004, P.5) could be:
      • ‘What would you like to get out of this career counselling session?’
      • ‘How do you think coming here today will help you?’
      • ‘What is your goal in coming here today?’
      • ‘What thoughts do you have about your goal?’
    • In solution based practice, the career professional is looking for the positive change clients are seeking instead of a description of the problem. Key within this is:
      1. Building a good working alliance with the client.
      2. Being respectful of the client’s needs and concerns while shifting focus towards solutions.
    • This can be achieved by being clear with the client, from the start, of your work with the client on exploring ways for the client to move towards self-identified goals.
      • respectful listening -to- acknowledging the problem the client is describing -to- asking goal setting questions.
        • eg.: “Given that you came here with this issue… what will you feel will be different after the meeting?” to change the focus away from the problem to the solution.
    • Miller states that it woujld be imporant to use questions that emphasise the cleint’s behaviour and interactions. Changes in behaviour are easier to observe than changes in feelings or emotions (Miller, 2004, p.7)
  • Stage 2.: Building client self-helpfulness.
    • There are many ways to achieve this stage, Miller focuses on two:
      • Exploring exceptions – observing periods when the problem doesn’t occur or is less severe… what is different? Why are these periods different? You can use the EARS technique (de Jong and Berg, 2002, p.149) – there is a good example of a conversation using this technique on page 150 of their book – to help the client feel less ‘stuck’ and help the client realise possible techniques towards a solution:
        • E – Eliciting the exception.
        • A – Amplifying it by asking for detail in the difference between the periods when the problem does occur and when it doesn’t.
        • R – Reinforcing successes and strengths in the exception
        • S – Start again by asking: “What else is better?”
      • Using scales – Miller (2004) argues that an effective scale can be used to help the client describe a problem and it’s severety for them, explore goals and exceptions, check motivation etc… Example questions could be: “out of a scale of one to ten, where do you feel…”. The client can take ownership, with the career professional, what the different scales mean, what the end point and start point means etc…
        • Questions can then be asked towards what their score means, what would help them gain a higher score, what having a higher score would feel like in detail, etc…
      • Using Career information – if the client feels career information would help, then this will provide detail about the context of career goals. The career professional can aks competence based questions about when the client will know when they have explored enough.
  • Stage 3.: Constructing a meaningful message.
    • Miller declares “effective solution-focused counselling is brief, it focuses on client’s plans and it encourages them to leave the session with a clear sense of how to move towards achieving their goals.” (Miller, 2004, p.11)
    • According to Miller (2004), solution-focused counsellors finish the session with a formal procedure. One of these is the introduction of a short break at the end to think about what the client said and to develop some hopefully helpful feedback. This short break need to be signalled at the start of the intervention, so the client expects it. This is a technique de Shazer (1985) uses in counselling sessions. In his sessions the client is left to wait in the waiting room or allowed to explore some career information. I’m not sure how feasible this for some of us is however, with the realities of how we work. But if you’re interested, it may pay to track down a copy of de Chazer’s book (it’s long but there is a lot in it!!) and explore this technique in more detail. The key point to stage 3 is feedback with within it, three parts:
      • Compliments – recall client’s successes and strengths
      • A bridge or rationale – to put in context what is to follow.
      • Usually a task – taking into acocunt the cleint’s self-helpfulness, resourcefulness and hope they recognised. Tasks that are perceived by the client to be logincal, reasonable and relevant are more likelyt to be achievable (Miller, 2004, p.12). It’s obviously imoportant to make the task relevant to the client’s goals or expectations to further motivate the client to follow through.
    • The homework message includes the following steps:
      • Congratulate the client on what they have said that is self-helpful and on the things they have done to keep focus.
      • Restate the client’s goal with a linking phrase.
      • Suggest the client attempts a small homework task of activity that is in line with the goal the client wants to achieve.

Theory by Judi Miller: Key Techniques for Solution-focused Career Counselling.Critique

Even though my practice is largely built around a solution-based approach already, I found this theory particularly helpful in assising me on reflecting on how I structure interventions. I am going to try this out with clients, even though I use quite a few of the techniques mentioned already, such as using scales and using career information. Apart from being helpful in structuring an intervention, I am keen to try out the EARS technique as well, though this is not strictly Miller’s.

The part I struggle most with is the 3rd stage of Miller’s model. I am not sure how many people can afford to have a break towards the end and then to come back with structured feedback. I certainly haven’t. On the other hand, I am sure I can adapt this stage to fit in with how I work. So I am going to start using parts of this and think about how to structure the 3rd stage, though I do offer feedback already in a similar, but not as formal a format. What do you think?

  • Is this model or theory something you can use ‘as is’? Or would you need to think carefully, like I do, in order to be able to use it? As a side note, watching the webinar may be helpful…
  • Here too, have a look at Brown to assess this theory more fully.
  • Do you already use some of the techniques away from this theory? If so, which ones and how does your use differ from the context of Miller’s work?
  • Are there groups of clients you have that this would work particularly well with… or maybe not at all with?
  • Would this work in a school context with young people? If so, from what age group?


  • Brown, D. & Brooks., L., (1996). Introduction to theories of career development and choice. In D. Brown & L. Brooks (Eds.), Career choice and development (3rd ed., pp. 1-30) San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.
  • de Jong, P. & Berg, I. K. (2002) Interviewing for solutions. (2nd Ed) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solutions in brief therapy. NY: W.W. Norton.
  • Miller, J.H. (2004) Building a Solution-Focused Strategy into Career Counselling. New Zealand Journal of Counselling, 25(1), pp. 18-30.

Useful links