Solution-Focused Career Counseling

By Mary Ann Looby


Knowing when to push, when to let go, what to listen to, and what to ignore - all these skills are based on the profound respect for human dignity and working to restore a sense of who they are and what they want to be.”


- Insoo Kim Berg



I was first exposed to the solution-focused approach to career counseling in 2012 through training and consultation provided by expert Teri Pichot at the Denver Center for Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. I was excited to find a model for counseling that encompassed my values and training as a social worker, and many of the principles I had been using professionally for the past 30 years. As I started applying these concepts as a college counselor, I discovered that the solution-focused approach was a strong fit for both individual career development facilitation and group workshops.


In today’s world, efficiency is highly valued. Brief therapeutic interventions are a new trend embraced by psychologists, social workers and counselors alike. Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) was developed in the 1980’s by Steve deShazer and Insoo Kim Berg. This approach was founded on evidence-based practices, and research continues to prove its validity and effectiveness. New adaptations have emerged using solution-focused principles in many helping profession situations. Solution-focused career counseling also provides a framework that is aligned with standards established by the National Career Development Association (NCDA), including the first competency for Career Development Facilitators (CDF): Developing a Helping Relationship:

NCDA CDF Competencies


Solution-Focused Principles


Opening – How can I help? Neutral and non-judgmental stance of the counselor, positioning as interested in being informed and learning more about the client.


Listening to what the client wants. Showing respect by starting where the client is, valuing their unique experiences. Developing an understanding of the client’s view of self and identity, based on his or her own narratives.


Check for understanding. Building trust by demonstrating awareness and appreciation of what the client is experiencing, learning and valuing.


Feedback – compliments and helping to connect meaning. Affirming what is working, successes achieved, insights and connections for moving forward.


Curious approach by asking questions. Showing genuine interest in understanding the client’s perspective. Gentle guidance to help clarify, organize and move forward. This may involve interrupting the client to get back on track with non-intrusive inquiries.


Counselor remains “neutral”, the client is the expert. Using pauses as appropriate, allowing the client to organize thoughts and set a pace that is comfortable.

Identifying Strengths & Barriers

Exceptions, when were things different? Using a systems approach to assist the client in determining what changes are needed and considering the perspectives of others in all affected aspects of his or her life.

The Importance of Hope

Miracle Question – describing what the client wants in detail. Helping the client to recognize the process of identifying an ultimate career goal. This creates hope for the future.


Once the helping relationship is established, and the career counselor has a reasonable grasp on the client’s presenting issues, it is time to move to the cornerstone of a solution-focused approach: the miracle question. The objective of the miracle question is goal formation. This may be explored as early as the first counseling session. The miracle question helps the client to envision their future, what they really want, and would make a difference in their life. Using a curious approach, the counselor asks the client to clearly define the ultimate career dream, which is developed into a goal. A scaling technique assists the client in identifying where they are today in relation to the career goal. For example, if the career goal is a “10”, how does the client define a “1,” and which number between 1 and 10 represents where they are today? Determining actions to move up the scale naturally follows, and helps to establish short and long-term steps for achieving the goal. A systems approach is embraced throughout the process, including scanning the client’s current environment to assess support and barriers that are impacting goal attainment. This may include considering the client’s perception of college, jobs, professional associations, and relationships. Ultimately, this helps to put the client’s values, skills, and networks into the perspective.


The solution-focused approach draws on a set of skills that are not only excellent counseling basics, but also keep the process moving towards a stated career goal. This process can be as brief as a single session or involve several sessions. The goal of each meeting will be defined by the client, respecting their own ability to define what they want and how they will achieve it. Using the solution-focused approach, strengths are identified and the client is encouraged to explore what has worked in the past and how to leverage those successes. The career counselor assists the client in analyzing changes in their life and what is needed systemically to support the career goal, and at the same time recognizing that this too may change and develop over time.


NOTE: Many resources are available for learning more about developing a solution-focused approach to one’s counseling practice. The Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association (SFBTA)http://www.sfbta.org and the Denver Center for Solution-Focused Brief Therapyhttp://www.denversolutions.com are good places to start. Both of these organizations provide training, consultation, and networking opportunities.



Mary Ann LoobyMary Ann Looby is a college counselor at Colorado Mountain College, where she also she serves as adjunct faculty for management coursework. Established in 1997, Mary Ann is the principle of People Dynamics, a consulting firm specializing in personal and professional development. Her earlier career was in human resources management for Fortune 500 Companies: First Data Corporation and the American Express Company. Mary Ann holds her masters in Social Work and Public Administration from the University of Denver and her Bachelors of Psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She completed her CDF certification in December, 2013, and attained the GCDF distinction in 2014. She can be reached at mlooby@coloradomtn.edu

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Leslie Arnold   on Monday 06/02/2014 at 10:30 AM

I will totally use this. I am going to print the Matrix and put it on my bulletin board.

Bernadette Black   on Monday 06/02/2014 at 02:30 PM

Love the idea of a miracle question! Never heard that term before. That is the kicker for so many folks who cannot put words around what is missing! Valuable thoughts here . . thank you!

Vijay Paralkar    on Monday 06/02/2014 at 08:23 PM

Solution focused approach is a basic to gain and maintain the client's trust in today's competitive world.

Mary, I thank you for sharing this article at appropriate time.

Willa Smith   on Thursday 06/05/2014 at 09:44 AM

Mary Ann, you have shown how the basics of good mental health counseling are also the basics of good career counseling. Solution-Focused Brief Counseling is one of many ways counselors can merge the two while maintaining integrity and progress in the counseling relationship. Thank you for providing another tool for our professional tool box.

Angela Zaglul   on Saturday 06/07/2014 at 10:54 AM

Thank you for your article. First introduced to the Solution-Focussed method of Career Counselling by Gillian Johnston, Coordinator of Toronto's George Brown College Career Counselling Program. I believe, this is an innovative and practical approach which is also a consensed version of 10 Steps ACEC (Assessment Component of Employment Counselling) approach aptly lectured by CWC' Part-time program Coordinator Gayle Takahashi. Angela

Craig Farnum   on Monday 06/09/2014 at 11:35 AM

Mary Ann,
This is excellent information and I'm going to adapt this information for my Psychology of Human Relations course! Thank you!

Melissa Martin   on Tuesday 06/10/2014 at 05:23 PM

Mary Ann, you article is so timely and inspiring! I certified in SF interviewing and counselling in 2006 and it transformed my practice. In fact, I delivered it one time at the Cannexus conference and went on to deliver it to career practitioners in workshops.

While working in mental health, I had training in motivational interviewing, which complimented the SF model.

I am considering offering SF training online to career practitioners. Do you think this is a sound idea?

Kindest regards,

Melissa C. Martin B.A., B.Ed.
blog: webinarcareercoach.blogspot.com
Twitter: @raving redhead

Tim Toady   on Wednesday 06/11/2014 at 11:26 AM

I have a concern with the first item in the list "How can I help?". When establishing the working alliance with clients, I feel that it's important not to place oneself in an authority position, which is what this question does. I find it more neutral, and positions the two parties better, when asking 'What brings you here today?", for example.

Mary Ann Looby   on Friday 06/13/2014 at 05:14 PM

I have appreciated all of the ideas posted as well as the suggestions for improvement. It's been a pleasure to correspond with my colleagues' through email as well. Thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts about Solution-Focused Career Counseling!
Mary Ann Looby

Marjorie Weingrow   on Wednesday 06/18/2014 at 03:56 PM

I've found that many students don't know what they want. I've requested them to do informational interviews and review the student guide, Get The Job You Love.

Alex Harrington   on Tuesday 07/08/2014 at 05:56 PM

I liked what you wrote about the miracle question: "The miracle question helps the client to envision their future, what they really want, and would make a difference in their life. Using a curious approach, the counselor asks the client to clearly define the ultimate career dream, which is developed into a goal." Thank you. Great article!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.