Mark McKergow joined us, Chris, Harvey, Denise and myself along with our wonderful diploma group the other day. His topic was SF Research, a subject that Mark can make more engaging than most of us could hope ever so to do. It was a truly enjoyable afternoon.

During the course of the afternoon Mark reminded us of the empirical origins of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, in other words that the approach developed through the observation of practice. Practitioners observed successful practice and developed a model based on those observations, indeed Steve de Shazer repeatedly stated that SFBT came about through his observations of a ‘master clinician’, namely his wife and partner Insoo Kim Berg, working. Naturally this form of development has implications. When we observe practice . . . we see just that . . . practice. We see what the practitioner does. We cannot know for sure why the practitioner is doing whatever it is that the practitioner is doing and we cannot know what the practitioner is thinking. This empirical form of model development does of course have huge strengths, as Mark emphasised, namely that we develop a model based on what works and we do know that it can work. However if we stick strictly to our empirical roots the model contains nothing that can really be termed ‘theory’. And again returning to Steve de Shazer, he always confirmed this absence of theory. When challenged about the theoretical basis of SFBT he would invariably respond by saying that there was no ‘theory’, SFBT was merely a description of a way of doing therapy. In fact it is, as I would see it, a proposition that we need to be careful to describe correctly, namely ‘when we do the following with therapeutic clients it works – try it – it may work for you with your clients’. However the proof of every empirical pudding must reside solely in the eating – does it work for you.

So when Chris, Harvey and I describe the SFBT ‘proposition’ we suggest that the practitioner start the first session by eliciting what clients want from the work, their ‘best hopes’, then follow this by inviting clients to describe their ‘preferred future’, in other words the life that contains the ‘best hopes’, then inviting clients to ‘scale’ where they are currently seeing themselves in relation to those ‘best hopes’ and how they could know that they have moved one point nearer to their own 10. Anything else, a Solution Focused summary and suggestion for example, is seen as ‘optional’. This way of describing the approach should be clear – surely. And as it happens the UKASFP accreditation committee have followed this direction specifying that in order to ‘count’ as accreditable SF practice a submitted session must (or perhaps should) be structured as follows:

Agree desired outcome (contracting)

Elicit description of preferred future

Elicit client’s evaluation of current situation (scale)

Explore what’s working and (if applicable) progress to date

Elicit description of signs of further movement up the scale.

However the question that is bothering me is ‘is this enough?’ What happens when we describe an approach solely in terms of what it does and can we specify in sufficient ‘accurate detail’, to ensure that those of us using SFBT are all doing, more or less, the same thing.

Now is the time for me to be honest about my suspicion. I suspect that all of us who use SFBT have a private, often unstated, theory of change. When challenged we tend to stick to the Steve de Shazer line – ‘no theory, merely a description’. But privately we break rank. Somewhere in our hearts or minds we do have an idea about ‘why’ SFBT works and so do course participants meeting SFBT for the first time. We hear people looking at a session with a client saying things like ‘it’s a very empowering approach’, ‘it’s very positive’, and already they are beginning to shape some ideas about why SFBT makes a difference and how it works. Of course the ideas that those of us who have been using the approach for a while tend to be a little more sophisticated, or at least a little more elaborated. Watching Steve de Shazer work it was hard not to arrive at the conclusion that Steve was informed by a ‘theory’, the idea that behaviour is patterned, and that one way or another he was interested in the idea of devising tasks that might interrupt established patterns and open the possibility of something different happening. However much Steve wrote about social constructionism, however often he cited Wittgenstein and language games, Steve asked questions the answers to which he was interested in in order to shape tasks and it seemed clear that he believed that the tasks that he devised made a difference. An implicit theory of change seemed to be shaping Steve’s activity and indeed if we observe carefully it seems to me that this ‘theory of change’ informing his therapy was not necessarily what he was writing about in his later books.

If it is true that we all have our own hidden or pet theories, as seems to me to be the case, then it seems to me to be equally the case that these unstated theories influence the way that we do, or perhaps express our understanding of, SFBT. It is my view that a SFBT practitioner whose theory of change is substantially centred on a set of narrative ideas, (as mine largely is), will do SFBT differently from another practitioner whose theory could be described as based on ideas of ‘enactive description’. Those two practitioners will inevitably emphasise different aspects of the model, indeed they will, as all ethical practitioners both will and should, emphasise those elements of the model that fit with their ideas about how change happens. Why would we do anything else? So a model that is empirically developed and described in terms of a set of techniques, opens itself on the one hand to the necessity of arguing that the model has no ‘theory of change’, a curious position for therapists to find themselves in, and on the other hand to the inevitability of practitioners developing their own unarticulated ideas and thus taking the approach in a whole host of differing directions. Is this ‘fragmentation’ a problem for us? I am not sure but it is something that I do believe that the SFBT community must consider and discuss.

Evan George
Bahceli/Kalogrea, Cyprus
May 2017