There’s nothing wrong with talking about problems.

Because solution focused brief therapists don’t ask about problems doesn’t mean that it is not useful for clients to talk about them. We don’t ask for the very good reason that we do not have a theoretical framework within which we can order and make use of the answers. Problem focused questions all spring from one or another of the many theories about problem formation and maintenance: a theory of what causes a problem will lead to questions intended to understand and unravel the causes and a theory about what keeps us locked in a problem cycle doing the same thing over and over again will lead to theories related to pattern or systems. As solution focused brief therapists don’t have these theories they have no means of using the information problem focused questions generate. As Steve de Shazer used to say: “The closest we get to a theory of problem is an old car sticker – ‘Shit happens!’” So instead of a theory about problems solution focused brief therapists have a different sort of theory – more a philosophical than a scientific one. We have the idea that conversation is creative and if we ask questions about possible (and preferable) futures we can help bring those futures into being. That’s why we ask about the future and why, when we ask about the past, we are interested in a different history than the history of the problem. The past also contains the history of all possible ways forward and it is the history of a preferred way forward that we like to seek out. A description of a genuinely possible future and a clear history to support it will, for most clients, do the trick.

And this should not preclude the client talking as much as he or she wants about the problem – as long as it is useful.

It is probably not very useful to go over the same story too many times but, if we have never spoken about the problem before, hearing ourselves describe it is like hearing new information – there is always a difference between an event as it is experienced and the same event later described. Even when we describe it ourselves it gives us a new perspective and often that is all that is necessary for us to move on. I have often asked my clients at the end of sometimes harrowing accounts: “If someone else had told you that story what would you think of them?” Almost always the act of ‘listening from outside’ or hearing yourself speak changes the meaning of the problem and begins to open pathways into a better future.

The therapist’s first job has always been to listen to whatever the client has to say and the closer the listening the briefer the therapy is likely to be.

Chris Iveson
30 November 2012

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