On training programmes I like to show a particular follow-up meeting with a client. I am the therapist and within two minutes of the beginning of the second session I ask a 'what's been better' question. The client responds by saying that 'lots has been better' and the next 30 minutes is spent with the client amplifying this account of 'better'. It is a particularly nice example of a follow-up session. The client is engaging and has a lovely way of describing but what sets this session apart from hundreds of others? Well the reason that I often choose to show this particular session is because I was not the therapist in the previous, the first session; Harvey Ratner was. I sometimes tell people before we start watching and sometimes I start the 'tape' 105 seconds into the session so that the group is not aware of the change of therapist. However what interests me most is that no-one has ever been able to tell, from the quality of the talking, that we have changed therapists, and this, I think, makes an important point about the Solution Focused approach because this experience, the relative ease with which clients manage a change of therapist does seem to me to be characteristic. But what exactly this does tell us about SFBT I find difficult to put into words clearly and precisely.
Insoo Kim Berg is well known for very memorably asserting that as Solution Focused brief therapists we should aspire 'to leave no footprints in the client's life'. Now of course this aspiration is tough for us, since we are inevitably bound to fail each and every time we work with a new client. As soon as we have met the client we have left footprints however what this pithy aphorism reminds us is that we should seek to ensure that those (inevitable) footprints should be as shallow as possible and in so doing we are, I think, centralising the client in the therapeutic process and marginalising ourselves. All we do in SFBT is to ask the client questions and the therapeutic work takes place in the client's answering of those questions. Naturally a great deal of skill and hard work goes into the framing of SF questions; we are constantly making decisions, what to keep alive in the therapeutic conversation and what to let go, but the drama of therapy, if drama there be, is happening in the client's descriptions. Some of you will recall Chris Iveson's client who spontaneously said to him at the end of a session 'when you ask good questions Chris you disappear, I only notice you when you ask bad ones'.
So perhaps where this leads us is to the thought that in SFBT it is the questions that are more important than the person asking the questions and to the hypothesis that in this approach the client connects primarily with a conversational process rather than with the person of the therapist. Steve de Shazer himself perhaps gave some credence to this idea when he would say, not infrequently, that if he, a man 'with no social skills', could make SFBT work, then anyone could. It may also be that the relative marginalisation of the therapist, compared with other models of therapy, and the fact that the client connects with a conversational process rather than with the person of the therapist, may also explain the obvious ease that clients have in finishing SFBT. In so many approaches finishing is a significant issue and needs to be carefully worked though, and yet in SFBT this just does not seem to be the case. We can literally say goodbye and wish our clients good luck and by-and-large this seems to be fine, again evidence perhaps of a different sort of therapeutic connection.
All of this perhaps creates for SFBT our very own 'chicken-and-egg' dilemma, our very own, in other words, 'which came first' question. So on the one hand we notice these relational differences compared with other models and on the other those who know SFBT well will be aware that we virtually never use the word 'relationship', in the sense of therapeutic relationship. This word, relationship, that seems so central and so important in most other therapeutic trainings, hardly surfaces in SFBT. We are not thinking about building a relationship. The client arrives for the first session and typically within 3 minutes at BRIEF, often sooner, we are asking the client 'so what are your best hopes from our talking together'. We assume that the client arrives ready to work and all that is required in order for the client to remain in this state of 'readiness' is that the therapist should 'ask good questions', good questions being defined as questions which are connected to both the client's best hopes and to the last answer that the client gave. It is perhaps this connection back and forward, back to the last answer and forward to the best hopes that allows clients to experience themselves as truly centred in the talking, taken account of at every moment of the conversation. It is the client's therapy not the therapist's.
It may be that one of the toughest things for us to learn to accept when we are getting to grips with SFBT is that the client is the star of the story and that we are merely members of the supporting cast, the ones whose names are rarely remembered. Indeed the evidence of this 'tape' suggests that we may be interchangeable. Solution Focused Brief Therapy is really not about me, the therapist, but about the client and accepting this requires unusual humility.