The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

The alchemist’s dream – or making something out of nothing.


Human beings have over time been preoccupied with the impossible dream of making something out of nothing. Alchemists worked and studied to try to turn base metal into gold. Lotteries promised, and indeed continue to promise, to turn us into millionaires. In the USA the story of the ‘self-made man (or woman)’, extraordinary wealth out of nothing, continues to exert a powerful hold, as Donald J Trump ‘my father only lent me a small sum, one million dollars, (or was it four or seven)’ demonstrates. Indeed a distant cousin of mine dedicated his life (unsuccessfully and unhappily of course) to attempting to create a perpetual motion machine, an aspiration informed by the same core ambition.

And yet where so many have failed Steve de Shazer succeeded. Why was Steve able to succeed where so many others were not? Maybe it was because of his musical training. Musicians know that the tune, the melody is as much constructed by the gaps between the notes as by the notes themselves. If all of the members of an orchestra just played the notes, ignoring the gaps, then the music would descend into chaos. But therapists in the past seem largely only to have seen the notes – tantrum, tantrum, tantrum, another tantrum and another – ignoring the hours, days, even weeks possibly, in-between.

But Steve peered into the emptiness, the nothingness, the gaps and made something out of them. Indeed what he proposed was that the nothings between the somethings, were the truly precious part, the gold. Because as Steve saw it at these exception times, the times when the problem is not happening, the client has a small part of the ‘solved state’ – precious indeed. Thus all the client needed to do was more of whatever they were doing when they were not doing their problem. Until Steve turned up these gaps were at best regarded as insignificant, or at worst were studied in order to provide some sort of ‘triggering explanation’, what had happened during the gap to provoke the re-occurrence of the problem behaviour.

So Steve did indeed make something rare and precious out of nothing and this exciting discovery fundamentally altered the way that the interaction between client and therapist was typically framed. Until Steve de Shazer, if we allow ourselves to be a little simplistic, it tended to be assumed that the client brought the problem to therapy and the therapist brought the solution. The therapist’s job was to get the client to do the therapist’s solution, whether that resided in thinking, feeling or action. But after Steve, in the post-Steve therapy world we could say, that framing all changes. Now it is the therapist’s job merely to elicit the client’s own ‘solution behaviour’. And with this shift back-ground and fore-ground change place. The client steps forward into the lime-light and the therapist steps back, no longer the hero, merely a facilitator of the client’s own solutions, asking good question such that the client notices what was always there, hidden in the nothings between the somethings. Maybe Claude Debussy got it when he wrote “Music is the space between the notes”.

Evan George
November 2016