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Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is a therapeutic approach which is effective and brief. By focusing on the future – rather than dwelling on the past – and identifying for the strengths and resources of the client, SFBT aims to build solutions rather than solve problems. Research shows that it produces lasting change in over 80% of cases, in less than 5 sessions on average.

Solution Focused approaches are becoming increasingly popular in the helping professions where practitioners do not see themselves as doing therapy but nevertheless are using counselling skills. Professions like teaching, social work, speech and language therapy, mental health care, special needs, pastoral care….. The list is long. In short, anywhere that supportive conversation is an aspect of the work, being able to work in a Solution Focused way brings huge benefits for both the practitioner and the client or service user.

Solution Focused Brief Therapy is one of a family of approaches, known as a systems therapies, developed over the past 50 years or so, first in the USA, and eventually evolving around the world. The title SFBT, and the specific steps involved in its practice, are attributed to Steve de Shazer and his team at the Brief Family Therapy Family Center in Milwaukee, USA.

Their work in the early 1980s built on that of a number of other innovators, among them Milton Erickson, and the group at the Mental Research Institute at Palo Alto – Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, Virginia Satir, Jay Haley and others. All these names are important, not just as pioneers of a new way of doing therapy but also because their various collaborations and writings represent nothing short of a revolution in the way we think about social functioning and mental health and well being.

SFBT is now in increasing demand. It’s effectiveness is well established and supported by a solid and ever increasing body of research. Solution-focused thinking has earned its place and is widely accepted in the fields of therapy, social care, education and business…. pretty well anywhere that people come together to make something happen.

Professor of Social Work and SFBT researcher Wally Gingerich, says, “Solution Focused Brief Therapy 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.”

Key Assumptions in Solution Focused Brief Therapy

  • Understanding the cause of the problem is not necessary to resolve it. Attempting to do so may, unwittingly, lengthen or complicate therapy
  • The client’s attempted solution (e.g. avoidance in the case of anxiety) eventually becomes part of the problem. Therefore, changing patterns of response – doing something different – is fundamental to the approach
  • Change happens anyway. However severe the problem, there are times when it is absent, less severe or intense. The therapist must help identify and amplify this change
  • Clients have resources and strengths which can be brought to bear in resolving the complaint. These often go overlooked in problem focused approaches
  • Clear, salient and realistic goals are a vital factor in eliciting successful outcomes
  • Poorly defined or absent goals can prolong or complicate therapy
  • A small change is all that is necessary. Clients are frequently able to manage alone if we can ‘start the ball rolling’
  • The client defines the goals and decides when therapy should end
  • Rapid change is possible, even where there is a history of persistent symptoms
  • The relationship between therapist and client is critical; collaboration and a ‘robust’ working relationship are more important than theory and expertise
  • Each client is unique in their skills, resources and the way they view their problem. There is therefore no ‘one size fits all’ solution
  • The focus is on the present and the future, on where the client wants to go rather than where they have come from
  • SFBT sees ‘resistance’ or hostility as a function of the relationship rather than the permanent disposition of the client.

Suggested reading

O’Hanlon, W., Weiner-Davis, M., (1989), In Search of Solutions, a new Direction in Psychotherapy, W.W. Norton, New York,

Seligman, M., (1998), Learned Optimism; How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Simon & Schuster, New York,

Walter, J. & Peller, J., (1992), Becoming Solution Focused in Brief Therapy, Brunner Mazel, Brunner, Mazel

Watzlawick, P., (1997), The Language of Change, W.W. Norton, New York,

Winbolt, B., (2011) Solution Focused Therapy for the Helping Professions, Jessica Kingsley, London

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