Anne Bodmer Lutz, B.S.N. M.D.

What does “person-centered care” mean? The use of this terminology is frequent, but the concept is vague. “Person-centered care” (PCC) has been recognized as one of the critical elements needed for the redesign of our nation’s health care system (IOM, 2001). The Institute of Medicine (2001) defined PCC as “care that is respectful and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, values, and ensuring the patient values guide all clinical decisions”. Stephanie Morgan, and Linda Yoder have defined PCC “as a holistic (bio-psychosocial-spiritual) approach to delivering care that is respectful and individualized, allowing negotiation of care, and offering choice through a therapeutic relationship where persons are empowered to be involved in health decision at whatever level is desired by that individual who is receiving the care.” (Morgan and Yoder, 2011).

The Solution-Focused approach is one of the most pragmatic ways to implement PCC when having conversations with clients. How does the solution-focused approach fit into PCC? How do you know when you are utilizing a “Solution-Focused PCC” approach? Who is the person in PCC? How might clinicians implement “Solution-Focused PCC”? Here are a few examples illustratng how assessing important relationships in a client’s life broadens “who” the person is and fosters additional possibilities to develop solutions based on each client’s unique social context.
All people live in relationships. Relationships are not only crucial for survival but essential resources that help people solve their problems. Problems are solved in one of two ways, either the problem is solved, or the individual and those most important to them no longer view the behaviors or difficulties as problematic. I think about the many youths who I don’t see who may be considered as having a substance use disorder. What is the reason I don’t see them? Certainly, access is one challenge, but also whether or not this youth and the social context they live in view this as a problem. Perhaps the youth is using substances with their parents, and it is viewed as normal. Perhaps, the parents do not view it as a problem unless their grades have declined. The context may change when the youth is discovered to be selling drugs at school; thus now the school views it as problematic. Or they are caught drinking while driving and legal entities “mandate” them to treatment.

Mapping out a client’s context is critical in understanding and assisting them in building solutions from the multiple perspectives of those most important in their life. I propose the idea of developing a “VIP map,” much like you weave a beautiful quilt that has differing colors, textures, fabrics, and designs. I define VIPs as the relationships that are most important in a client’s life. VIPS are used when negotiating goals as well as when evaluating treatment progress. For example, asking what are would your client say are their VIP’s “best hopes” for them, and incorporating VIPs when asking scaling questions such as: How confident they are that you will remain sober from 1-10? How satisfied from 1-10 would they say things are between you? How confident are they from 1-10 that you can remain safe?

Inquiring about a client’s VIPs early on and throughout the conversation broadens “who” the client is and integrates the social context within the dialog, fostering additional possibilities and hope for solutions. I invite you to consider six categories of VIPs: Classic, Vulnerable, Hidden, Spirit, Pets, and Future VIPs. Categorizing VIPs in this way has been a helpful way for me to organize and map a client’s social context.

“Classic VIPs” are those relationships that we typically think of when considering important people in our life. They may be spouses, children, friends, co-workers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, community supports, clergy, people who have died – whoever the client identifies. It is important not to assume who these relationships are, but instead, ask clients.

“Classic VIP Questions”
1. Who are the most important people in your life?
2. Who else? Who else?
3. What do you most appreciate about them?
4. What else? What else?

When practicing these questions with trainees, they are often surprised by the intimacy and vulnerability that may arise. Frequently, they feel a heightened sense of gratitude and appreciation for those important in their life. These questions can help activate relational resources when clients are experiencing thoughts of suicide. It is often important people and relationships in an individual’s life that stop them from acting on these thoughts contributing to a “resilience assessment” when evaluating safety concerns.

“Hidden VIPs” are those relationships that clients may want out of their life, yet are still important for them in that they may be critical in determining decisions in a client’s life. They may be DCF workers, Probation officers, therapists, psychiatrists, judges, or family members. Hidden VIPs are important to consider for “mandated” or “externally motivated” clients. As a child psychiatrist, there are very few youths who want to come and see me. Most of my clients are “externally motivated” with the goal of not having to see me again. Asking them who would decide when they no longer need to see me often uncovers important relationships in their life. I remember an adolescent girl who I was treating in a residential facility for substance use. When I asked her about her “Classic VIPs,” she could not identify anyone. She had been living on the streets selling and using drugs to survive as both her parents had died. This VIP map was very challenging to develop. When thinking more about her situation, I reflected that someone cared enough about her to get her into treatment, even if she did not think of this as “caring.” It was a teacher at her school. This discovery led to more questions about what she thought the teacher appreciated about her and what her teacher knew about her that she would be successful in her life.


“Hidden VIPs” Questions
1. Who was “worried” or “concerned” about you that they thought coming here would be helpful for you?
2. Whose idea was it for you to come here?
3. What are they saying you need to do so you don’t need to come here anymore or can go back to home, to the school they want, etc.?

Pet VIPs (Very important pets). In my work with children and families, I have increasingly been inspired by how important pets are in people’s lives. They are often a source of comfort, companionship, and reason for living. I discovered this by accident. In my private office, I would sometimes bring my dogs to work when I needed to get paper-work done. Because of this, I had a dog bed hidden in the corner with a small dog toy. I was amazed to discover how often both youth and parents asked whether I would bring a dog to the session. I acknowledged that my dogs are not therapy dogs, but I do enjoy bringing them when not seeing clients. This began a conversation about animals in their life. Do they have pets? Are they important in their life? What do they most appreciate about them? What difference have they made in their life? These relationships are often very beneficial. They may also be painful such as when clients divulge a beloved animal they lost.

It also led me to consider asking them if it would be helpful for them to bring their animal to the session, much like I would invite them to bring other important human family members. I have found clients very honest about whether it would be helpful. Some have said, no – it would just cause them worry about their animal destroying my office or distracting them from what they needed. Others have said it would be very helpful. This has led to the delightful discovery of including some of my client’s pets in sessions. I have met multiple dogs, cats, birds, and even a hedgehog. One particular client brings his dog to every visit. He acknowledges that it is his loving dog that is his reason for living and gives him the motivation to come to his appointments. His dog even knows when the 50 minutes are ending and will jump off the couch and politely wait for his weekly treat!


“Pet VIP Questions”
1. Do you have pets?
2. Are they helpful for you?
3. How are they helpful for you? How else?
4. What do you most appreciate about them?
5. What else? What else?
6. What do your pets most appreciate about you? What else?

“Vulnerable VIPS” are those relationships in a person’s life who are in need of support, special care, protection, and help. One of my prior workshop participants, Erin Sepe, came up with this name and I give her all the credit! Often these people are reasons and motivation for clients to move forward in their life. Another workshop participant who works with boys in detention created a group in which she had the boys identify vulnerable VIPs in their life. She then had them write a letter to them expressing their best hopes for them and what they most appreciate about them. This also helped them develop empathy and normalized their experiences with the others.


“Vulnerable VIP Questions”
1. Whose wellbeing do you feel responsible for?
2. Who relies on you for help and support?
3. Who depends on you?
4. What would they say you have done to help and support them?
5. What would they say they appreciate about you? What else?

“Spiritual VIPs” can be considered a client’s spiritual beliefs and may also include relationships people have lost. Loss is a natural part of life, and I have found this concept a helpful way to strengthen and expand resources when mapping a client’s VIPs. Spiritual VIPs are unique for every client, and can assist them in talking about beliefs around the meaning of their life, connection with others, and provide them with a sense of peace and purpose. Spiritual VIPs often help clients cope in very challenging circumstances. When I ask clients how they have coped and endured incredible loss, they often talk about their faith in God and how this has provided them the strength and endurance to carry on. This can foster hope by exploring in more detail how God has been helpful for them, how else, what they appreciate about God and what God appreciates about them. It can also provide opportunities to compliment them on their faith and how they have nurtured and developed this strength in their own life.

Spiritual VIPs may also include relationships clients have lost. Exploring losses through Spiritual VIPs can further deepen how their loved ones remain in their heart. I had a client who lost her mother, father, and her primary guardian was unable to care for her because of active substance abuse. When I asked her whether there had been important people in her life who she lost, she spoke about her grandmother. I began asking her what she appreciated about her grandmother and what her grandmother would appreciate about her. I asked her what her grandmother would say she is most proud of about her. This opened up a conversation about this loss in a tolerable way and helped her talk about all the ways her grandmother remains in her heart. Rather than feel only the loss and separation, it helped her realize how her grandmother carries on within her heart. I think of the quote by William Shakespeare: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”


“Spiritual VIP” Questions
1. Many people have lost important relationships in their life. Is this something you have coped with?
2. What did you most appreciate about them? What else?
3. Are there small ways in which you have kept them in your heart?
4. How have you kept them in your heart? How else?
5. Has it been helpful for you?
6. How has it been helpful for you?
7. What would they say they most appreciate about you? What else?
8. What would they say they are most proud of supposing they were with us in the room as we are talking? What else?
9. What would their best hopes be for you? What else?

“Future VIPs” are relationships clients hope to develop in the future. This again came from a prior workshop participant! It can be helpful to explore best hopes for relationships in the future and what clients would be “doing” when they are in satisfying relationships. How would they know these relationships were satisfying for them? Has there ever been even a little bit of these future VIP qualities in their current relationships? On a scale from 1-10, how confident are they that will be able to find their future VIP? How satisfied are they from 1-10 with their current VIPS? What is a good enough number? What keeps the number from being lower? How would they discover when it goes up by one point?


“Future VIP” Questions
1. What are your best hopes for a satisfying relationship?
2. What do you know that you need/want in a relationship?
3. What else?
4. What are “green flags” that would tell you this relationship is what you hope for? What else?
5. Are there aspects of your “future VIP” happening even a little bit now in your relationships?
I hope this article helps you to see the beauty, complexity, and challenge of broadening “who” the client is in PCC. I invite you to try some of these questions and co-create a beautiful tapestry that is helpful for your clients and enriching for the privileged work we all do.

Crossing the Quality Chasm. (2001). doi:10.17226/10027
Morgan, S., & Yoder, L. H. (2011). A Concept Analysis of Person-Centered Care. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 30(1), 6-15. doi:10.1177/0898010111412189