The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Never Mind Descartes


It is more than 350 years since the French philosopher, René Descartes, died yet he still has a colossal influence on how we think about the world and the way we live in it. His famous assertion, ‘I think therefore I am’ could be seen as the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy if translated into ‘you think therefore you do’. If this were true then all ‘talking cures’ would put reason at the heart of their method: change the thinking and the rest will follow. Sometimes this does work but often it doesn’t.

Maybe because Insoo Kim Berg, the therapist who inspired the development of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, came from an eastern culture, less influenced by Descartes’ division of mind and body, it has more easily lent itself to a different and more creative philosophical understanding. Last week’s stories from clients showed how some people changed through thinking differently and others through feeling differently the common factor being that they all heard their own voices say new things. Recent developments in both philosophy and psychology offer some understanding of the connection between hearing oneself speak and doing one’s life in a seemingly and often dramatically, new way.

At one level we have always known that Descartes’ mind-body division is false; our everyday experience of life tells us that. Now science and technology is providing the evidence that our experience is valid; neuroscience, microanalysis and other technologies are beginning to show thoughts, feelings and actions are so intertwined that they must be all part of some ‘whole’ for which we do not yet have a common name. They are a threesome that cannot exist except as a threesome: we can’t have one without the other two. We are able to see them as separate because at critical times, the times when we are most likely to notice, one aspect of the whole appears to dominate: “actions speak louder than words”, “look before you leap”, “follow your heart” and “face the fear” are common phrases supporting the separation, each leaving one of the threesome out of the equation.

This interchangeability or interdependence of thoughts, feelings and actions gives us one clue about why a client’s answer might be associated with greater happiness and well-being. We see it all the time in therapy. My colleague, Harvey Ratner, has a wonderful tape of a session with a young man, in which he mistakes Harvey’s question “What puts you at four?” (on a scale where ten represents you getting on with your life exactly as you want and zero is the opposite) as meaning “What puts you that low?” The client’s body and voice completely slump as he begins to describe his difficulties. When Harvey clarifies that he means “What puts you that high?” the young man becomes excited animated and gives a totally different account. It is impossible to see what comes first in these two interactions – there are feelings (despondency and excitement) there are actions (slumping and sitting upright) and there are thoughts (words are spoken). Both accounts – problems and improvements – will be accurate and, therefore, both represent possibilities for the future. Being Solution Focused Harvey gives precedence to the account which engenders animation and excitement. Is there a connection between the young man ‘living’ his description and then getting on with his life in the same vein? Does he experience the actions he describes as part of a possible future which he then continues to live.

Similarly did Gerry, the truanting boy I wrote about last week, experience his description of the life he wanted to lead in a way which led him to think it was perfectly possible? And did Carrie’s assertion that she could “feel” the changes she wanted mean that she actually experienced them in a way that made them a part of her future, a future where she was free from post-traumatic stress and free to show her love for her children. These notions would fit with the idea that the mind is not as we tend to think (thanks to Descartes) located in the head but is actually located within our bodies of which our head is just a part, albeit an important part.
So maybe one understanding of why a Solution Focused conversation can have such immediate and lasting effect is because talking is not necessarily just head stuff – it affects and directly involves our thoughts, feelings and actions, our whole person. If talk influences how we do, feel and think about ourselves then it should not be surprising that when directed towards hope and possibility talk has the power to create corresponding emotions and actions – in effect, real experiences.

More next week meanwhile you might want to check out the debate on the SFT-L email list or look up my colleagues Mark McKergow and Guy Shennan who have been devoting much time to these questions.

Chris Iveson
March 2017



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