Problem talk is venting. When a person is engaged in problem talk, they are not concerned with solutions or insights that might help them to cope with their struggle. Instead, they are more concerned with expressing their frustrations and talking about “how bad” the problem is. Empathy and concern should be used to show concern and care for the difficulty or crisis the congregant may be experiencing. However, it is very easy to “feel stuck” listening to a congregant vent.
A solution-focused approach, taken from solution-focused brief therapy, offers two solutions that can help a minister efficiently and empathically provide time-sensitive care: empathy and scaling. First, the minister or care-provider should offer empathy. An example of this might be a statement like, “Wow, it sounds like you are really struggling; that must be so hard!” Empathy facilitates the expression of care, concern, and compassion. Next, a scaling question helps the care-seeker avoid or escape problem talk and transition to a solution-focused approach.
A scaling question asks the care-seeker to determine their wellness on a scale of 1-10. For example, a care-provider may ask, “On a scale of 1-10, 1 being terrible and 10 being excellent, how are you doing today?” Next, the care-provider will ask the congregant what they would need to do to move 1 number up from their current location. For example, a care-provider might ask, “If you were to move from a 4 to a 5 this week, how would you know? What are some things that would need to change, or what would you be doing differently?”
A scaling question helps the care-seeker shift from a problem-oriented outlook to a solution-focused position. This can be a very efficient process that does not lack empathy or compassion. These solution-focused tools equip the minister to be efficient and empathic in the practice of care, enable the care-seeker to schedule an additional meeting for pastoral care, and empower the congregant to efficiently transition from being “stuck” in problem talk and move towards a solution-focused orientation.
A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Joseph Kim Paxton is an ICTG Advisor while pursuing doctoral degrees in Practical Theology at the Claremont School of Theology and Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University. His current research areas include clinical-community psychology, pastoral care, social scientific approaches to biblical interpretation, group processes, spiritual struggle, coping, and attitudes.