The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Words - slipping and sliding.

‘The goal is best thought of as some member of the class of ways that the therapist and the client will know that the problem is solved rather than any particular member of that class.’
Steve de Shazer
Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy p93

de Shazer’s definition of ‘goal’ here is really interesting - ‘some member of the class of ways that the therapist and client will know that the problem is solved’. The key word in this definition of course is ‘some’. de Shazer emphasises the point when he adds ‘rather than any particular member of that class’. So the ‘goal’ is no more than one way of knowing that the problem is solved and to some extent it does not matter what the client chooses as the ‘evidence’. This is a very different idea from the way that goals have normally been understood. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) defines the word goal as ‘the object towards which effort or ambition is directed: the destination of a (more or less laborious) journey’. Here it is the word ‘the’ that is important. Not any object but ‘the object’. Here we are not talking about one possible object out of many possible objects. The goal (or object) thus specified has specific significance, it is ‘the’ destination.

So de Shazer’s framing implies a certain arbitrariness and this somewhat arbitrary quality that he introduces challenges, as so much of his work does, more traditional approaches to therapy where the therapist might seek to establish ‘the client’s goal’ and indeed might see it as a cause for concern, a problem in the therapeutic process, if the client is thought to ‘change their goal’. de Shazer’s way of thinking introduces a fluidity, a flexibility, within which definitions and framings can ‘slip and slide’. Problems, and indeed solutions, are ‘constructed out of rather flimsy stuff, not concrete and stone’, which de Shazer reminds us is ‘good news. (Since) even problems that are traditionally seen as “difficult” are subject to rapid transformation under the right conditions” (de Shazer, 1988, p 113).

For most of us learning the Solution Focused approach this is one of the major challenges. How can we let go of the idea that problems are real entities, virtually independent life forms that can live on within us, unless somehow evicted or exorcised? How can we move into this counter-intuitive world where we can say, and believe, that “where you stand determines what you see and what you do not see; it determines also the angle you see it from: a change in where you stand changes everything.” (de Shazer, 1991 p xx – xxi) Yes let’s repeat that “a change in where you stand changes everything” and de Shazer was not a man to take words lightly!

Evan George
August 2016

de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1991) Putting Difference to Work. New York: Norton.
Oxford English Dictionary (1971) Oxford: Oxford University Press