The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Was Steve right?

When conference and workshop participants asked Steve de Shazer the question ‘what is the theory behind solution focused brief therapy’, (which they frequently did), he tended to answer by saying that there was no theory. And when the questioner, if brave enough, followed up by asking ‘well what is solution focused brief therapy then’, he would respond by saying it was just a description, a description of a way of talking that was associated with clients changing. In other words, and I have said this many times when asked the same question, solution focused brief therapy can be thought of by potential practitioners as a proposition ‘look at this – it seems to work for us with our clients – it might work for you and for the people with whom and for whom you work’. I am now wondering whether what both Steve de Shazer, and rather less importantly what I, said and have continued saying is actually true.

Therapeutic theories tend to have two core aspects:

1. What causes and/or maintains problems?
2. How does change happen?

So if we go back to de Shazer’s second book, generally referred to as Keys (1985), we find six assumptions which seem to me to set out an admittedly minimal ‘therapeutic theory’ underpinning solution focused brief therapy:

“Assumption One
Complaints involve behaviour brought about by the client’s world view.” (p 23)
“Assumption Two
Complaints are maintained by the clients’ idea that what they decided to do about the original difficulty was the only right and logical thing to do. Therefore, clients behave as if trapped into doing more of the same (Watzlawick et al. 1974) because of the rejected and forbidden half of the either/or premise.” (p 25)
“Assumption Three
Minimal changes are needed to initiate solving complaints and once the change is initiated (the therapist’s task), further changes will be generated by the client (the “ripple effect” (Spiegel and Linn, 1969).” (p 33)
“Assumption Four
Ideas about what to change are based on ideas about what the clients’ view of reality might be like without the particular complaint.” (p 38)
“Assumption Five
A new frame or new frames need only be suggested, and new behaviour based on any new frame can promote clients’ resolution of the problem.” (p 39)
“Assumption Six
Brief therapists tend to give primary importance to the systemic concept of wholism: A change in one element of a system or in one of the relationships between elements will affect the other elements and relationships which together comprise the system.” (p 43)

So if we were to simplify this ‘manifesto’ even further, problems are maintained by the way that people view their worlds. The world is systemic and so changes in one part of a system will affect others parts of that system. The change process is based on suggesting new frames and the therapist is informed about how to do that by paying careful attention to the clients’ ideas about how life will be after the problem. All we as therapists need to concern ourselves with is the first small change since the ‘ripple effect’ will serve to amplify that change.

Clearly this is a very minimal ‘theory’. It does not concern itself with aetiology, merely with the maintenance of problems, and the idea of how change happens could almost be reduced to ‘get the client to do something different, based on the suggestion of a different way of viewing’. But a theory it is and in my view even when de Shazer began in later works to talk about ‘narratives’ (1991 pp 92 – 93), ‘constructivism’ and ‘post-structuralism’ (1991 p 43 – 59) and the work of Wittgenstein, throughout the last three of his books, nonetheless this very minimal and simple ‘theory’ seems to me to continue to inform his therapeutic work.

So do we need something more complex? In the field we have always prided ourselves on minimalism and simplicity. Why would we want to add complexity? Would a more complex explanation make us more effective? Or is it just that we are no longer content to be viewed as simpletons by the rest of the therapeutic world and that we want to jump on board the ‘respectability train’ and have a ‘difficult’ theory that will take a four-year course to learn. Would a 'difficult' theory make us more attractive to funders or to our colleagues who might be more likely to be interested in learning the approach if it was a little more like all the rest? And how would a new theory impact on workers’ practice since surely it must? And would it make it more or less likely that we would feel able to introduce these ideas effectively to 9-year-old ‘peer mentors’ in school mediation projects (as at BRIEF we have)? And anyway I have always, in a slightly adolescent sort of way, enjoyed our difference from the rest, enjoyed being radical and challenging, and have rather regretted the process of incorporation into the mainstream which has been going on for some years now.

Since Mark’s workshop on Friday these questions have been ticking around in my mind and I suspect that one way for all of us to take them further would be to make sure to attend next year’s UKASFP Conference which Mark will be hosting at the University of Hertfordshire on May 18 – 19 2017.

Evan George
June 2016

de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1991) Putting Difference to Work. New York: Norton.