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Solution-Focused Thinking

The term Solution-Focused is widely used, but it is often used without really understand the meaning of the term Solution-Focused approach, what it means or why it is so valuable.

Solution-Focused (SF) practice has its roots in the therapeutic approach devised by Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and others at the Brief Family Therapy Center, Milwaukee. The approach values simplicity in philosophy and language and aims to discover “what works” in a given situation. For over 40 years Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) has been developed as a positive and pragmatic way to work with individuals, families, and organisations.

Wally Gingerich, Professor of Social Work at Case Western Reserve University, and a leading researcher into the effectiveness of SFBT, says:“Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is a short-term goal-focused therapeutic approach which helps clients change by constructing solutions rather than dwelling on problems. Elements of the desired solution often are already present in the client’s life, and become the basis for ongoing change. The therapist intervenes only to the extent necessary, with treatment usually lasting for less than six sessions.” (www.gingerich.net)

The difference that makes a difference

As the name suggest, it is about being brief and focusing on future solutions, rather than on problems. When there is a problem, many professionals spend a great deal of time thinking, talking, and analysing the problems, while the suffering goes on.

A different school of thought – the one we are interested in – says that rather than focusing on what is wrong (the problem) it is much more effective to talk about solutions. The aim is to  bring a degree of realistic, reasonable relief to the client as quickly as possible.
The approach has been so successful that it is now widely used outside the therapy room in teaching, management, healthcare, social work, government, and many other spheres of activity.

Needless to say, working in this way requires a radical shift in thinking. Many trainers have observed that the people who find it most difficult to make this shift are often those with the most ‘baggage’ in the form of former training or professional belief systems. (See Berg and Miller page?)

Not solutions, but Solution-Focused

Some people are confused about the term ‘solution’. When viewing seemingly intractable difficulties the natural response is to assume that there can be no solution. This is to misunderstand the term. The approach is about the orientation taken by the practitioner – it is solution-focused rather than problem-focused. So the term indicates where we look: forwards, towards solutions, rather than backwards, by studying problems.

SF thinking has it that problems do not happen all the time; even the most chronic problems have period or times when the problem remits, does not occur or is less intense. By enquiring about times when the problem is less severe or even absent, we discover that people do many positive things that they are not fully aware of. This is the starting point to initiating hope, a more positive outlook, and change.

There are a number of the confusions around this area most of which arise because it is easier to criticise or adopt a ‘Yes but…’ approach than it is to try something new. I won’t go into this here but in training we illustrate these obstacles – and how to move beyond them – with demonstrations and practical exercises.

An example is how we tend to confuse cause and effect. When people talk about problems they tend also to look for a cause. Scientific thinking, which has influenced therapy since before Freud, has it that the way to solve a problem is to find the cause and fix it.

Future change

But in therapy we usually do not know the cause, we can only speculate. In any event, therapy is concerned with effects and it is with these that clients need help. Depression, anxiety, relationship problems etc are all effects of something we may not be able to isolate; it will be in the past and therefore too late to change.

But we can change what happens from now on; how people respond to the effects (such as depression, anxiety or relationship problems for example). This is why the most important thing for the client is that they start to experience positive change from the first meeting with their therapist. A SF mantra is “make every session count” This can happen from the first phone conversation if things are going well. Solution-Focused Brief Therapy has been shown to do this consistently and with all possible types of clients, settings and symptoms.

What the Solution-Focused approach is not

SFBT practitioners believe that it is possible to construct a solution to a given problem, but that is not to deny the dominance that some difficulties can assume, or to suggest that some clever practitioner will find a ‘solution’ that others have missed to an intractable problem.
SF thinking does not say “there is a solution for every problem, all we have to do is look and we’ll find it.” The term refers to the process by which the client co-constructs a ‘solution’ – that is finds a way forward – in collaboration with the practitioner.

A language

SFBT is not a model of therapy, it is a way of thinking and talking about things. Practitioners often refer to SFBT as ‘a language’. It provides a range of ‘tools’ which are used to inform thinking and find a way forward, in any setting, therapeutic or otherwise. Since it is not a model it can be used by therapists from any other ‘school’, though it has been noted (as Berg and Miller noted earlier), that people who are already committed to a particular model are the ones who find the approach most difficult; the ‘best’ students are often those with the least prior leaning in therapy. From years of training therapists in this and other approaches I would say that the limitations people find with the approach generally reflect the constraints of their own thinking and beliefs.

I have often said that SFBT is not for the faint-hearted. It requires passion, curiosity, optimism and openness to the approach. Perhaps the hardest part is that it needs us to put aside our socially (and sometimes professionally) inculcated beliefs about problems and the nature of change. We have to quite literally change our way of thinking. This means being open to new ideas and being able to challenge our own beliefs; two of the cornerstones of good counselling practice.

© Barry Winbolt, 2006-09

Suggested reading

O’Hanlon, B., Weiner-Davis,M., (1989) In Search of Solutions, a New Direction in Psychotherapy, Norton, New York
Cooper JF (1995), A Primer of Brief Psychotherapy, Norton, New York
De Shazer, S., (1996), Words were Originally Magic, Norton, London
Furman, B., Ahola, T., (1992) Solution Talk, hosting Therapeutic Conversations, Norton, London
Berg, I.K., Miller, S., (1992), Working with the Problem Drinker: A Solution Focused Approach, Norton, New York
Haley, J., (1986), Uncommon Therapy, the Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H Erickson, Norton, New York
Miller, S., Duncan, B., Hubble, M., (1997) Escape from Babel, Towards a Unifying Language for Psychotherapy Practice, Norton, New York
Watzlawick, P., (1993), The Language of Change: Elements of Therapeutic Communication, Norton, New York

 

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