The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

The verb to be really gets us into a lot of trouble

‘The verb to be . . . really gets us into a lot of trouble… The verb (to be) generally relates to a steady state. “You are male”. Yeah, I can say that. “You are an alcoholic”. Is that a steady state and incurable? We may have been seduced into this assumption with the (word) is.’
Steve de Shazer

In drawing our attention to the traps that language presents us with, and just how easily we fall into those traps, Steve de Shazer repeatedly drew on (and cited) the work of his ‘favourite’ philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In ‘More than Miracles’ he quotes Wittgenstein saying: ‘Language sets everyone the same traps . . . What I have to do then is to erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points.’ (1984) And here in this quote Steve is helpfully erecting a sign-post, inviting us to notice the dangers inherent in ‘the verb to be’.

To say about a client ‘he is depressed’ potentially obscures, hides from view, exactly those things that are of most interest and use to a solution focused practitioner, namely those times when the client is not depressed or those times when the client is less depressed. In exactly the same way when people are (rather disrespectfully in my view) described as ‘cutters’, this shines a light on and highlights the cutting behaviour but hides the ‘non-cutting’, those times when the client might feel the urge to cut and yet resists that urge. And it is in ‘non-cutting’ that people can most easily find a pathway forward, a route towards a preferred future. The Italian Systemic Psychotherapists from Milan, Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin, back in the 1980’s attempted to partially resolve this ‘trap’ by using the Italian word ‘mostrare’ meaning to show. So instead of ‘he is depressed’ they would say ‘he shows depression’ which perhaps loosens the rigidity of the connection between the person and the state. It was also intended to insert more of an idea of ‘intention’ into the description in order to highlight the manifestation of the state as a relational communication, as an activity.

As the Bee Gees reminded us back in 1968 in their song Words ‘it’s only words, and words are all I have’ before they then add ‘to take your heart away’ since after all the song is a love song! (Wittgenstein expresses something similar when he writes 'The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.') If this is true, that ‘words are all we have’, then we need to be using them with care and constantly paying attention to the ‘traps’ that haven’t been charted, those that will only serve to make change, and therefore our work with our clients, harder.

de Shazer, S,, Dolan, Y., Korman, H., Trepper, T., MacCollum, E. and Berg, I K. (2007) More Then Miracles: the state of the art of solution focused therapy. New York: Haworth Wittgenstein, L. (1984) Culture and Value. (trans P. Winch) Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1962) Tractatus Logico-Philosophocus (trans. C. K. Ogden) London: Routledge

Evan George