Once upon a time when Solution Focused Brief Therapy was young and relatively unknown to the world our conversations with our clients were designed primarily to gather information! It seems a long time ago and quite hard to imagine that that is what we were up to. The miracle question was used to ‘establish goals’, to find out what the client wanted, and exception questions allowed us to figure out what our clients were doing that worked and to devise tasks (or homework) that would encourage our clients to do more of whatever it was. Change happened by ‘getting’ our clients - yes I am using the word advisedly -to do things. Compliments at the end of session were used to create a ‘yes-set’ in other words, following Milton Erikson’s thinking, to soften the client up so that the client would be more likely to do the task and as a result of doing the task, with luck, change. And between the compliments and the task a ‘bridging statement’ constructed so that the task would make sense to the client and therefore, again, that they would be more likely to do it. Even though the model was called ‘solution focused’, this way of thinking has much more in common with traditional problem focused ways of working than we might have liked to have accepted.
So what happened next? Well in Steve de Shazer’s fourth book Putting Difference to Work (1991) he refers to ‘progressive narratives’. The idea of what we are doing with people in Solution Focused Brief Therapy was changing. We were no longer figuring out what clients were doing that is working and getting them to do more of it, but inviting them into a progressive narrative, and by implication of course, out of a regressive one. (The word ‘inviting’ is I think important, implying a more collaborative form of interaction, with the therapist of course taking overall directional responsibility, but constantly paying attention to the client’s responses, to the feedback.) The idea of ‘patterned behaviour’, so prominent in Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy (1985) and of course at the core of the MRI Problem-resolution Brief Therapy approach, was fading into the background and a different idea of change was emerging. And what was taking the place of patterns and changing patterns was description. We were beginning to work on the basis that reality is constructed in conversation, that we are not changing behaviour but inviting clients to describe their lives differently and with that shift will come, almost inevitably, behaviourial change. Post-modernism is now playing its part in our thinking and the conversation in therapy is taking centre stage. And with this change we begin to see more of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his idea of ‘language games’ emerging in Solution Focused texts.
Naturally this change had a major effect on the way that we thought about ending our solution focused conversations. At BRIEF we began to question the necessity for any end-of-session task at all. The word task (or indeed homework) in itself began to jar and when we considered whether some sort of ‘intervention,’ (you can see me struggling for adequate words to fit our thinking), might be of use we began to use the word ‘suggestion’ (Ratner et al. 2012 pp 143 – 144). At least this word loses the ‘hierarchical’ implications of the word homework and of the phrase ‘prescribing a task’, with its quasi-medical, somewhat scientifico-technical ring. And after all a ‘suggestion’ can only be offered, not prescribed, and if the ‘suggestion’ is no good to the client, the client will just ignore it. No resistance, no challenge – just another less than useful suggestion!
So at BRIEF for a while we ended sessions when the talking was done – best hopes, preferred future, scale – done! But now, for Evan at least, the idea of ‘suggestion’ has sneaked back in under another guise, namely ‘being helpful to the client’. So typically at the end of a first conversation, if the client has indicated an intention of returning for a follow-up, Evan says to the client ‘when you come back the first question that I will ask you is ‘what’s been better’, so if you start watching out now for any changes in a good direction however tiny it will make the next session easier for you’. No tasks, no homework, no suggestions – just the therapist being helpful!
So is this a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose or are these shifts and changes important. And of course, following Steve de Shazer and Wittgenstein, I would say that our descriptions are crucial – how we think about things and describe them is crucial.
de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1991) Putting Difference to Work. New York: Norton.
Ratner, Harvey, George, Evan and Iveson, Chris (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. London: Routledge.