The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

BRIEF Practice notes: Language

Right at the beginning of de Shazer’s 1994 book Words Were Originally Magic he quotes, perhaps rather gleefully, Sigmund Freud: “words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient” (p3). The emphasis on language, on the words that we use to construct our questions, is constant and central. “Therapy happens within language and language is what therapists and clients use to do therapy” (de Shazer. 1994. p 3) de Shazer writes. Indeed he liked to describe therapy as “nothing but a bunch of talk” (de Shazer, 1989). Language, words, description are at the heart of what we do, and of course how we describe what we do, how we describe our work is also important, since the way that we describe our work shapes how we do our work. So with our advanced programmes we are very ‘picky’ about language, about the words that people use to talk about their work.

A group were sharing their experience of completing an exercise on a course recently. It was a simple exercise starting with the question ‘so what are your best hopes from this training programme?’, followed by 12 askings of ‘and what difference would that make?’ each asking building upon the last answer. The exercise is an interesting one and the feedback in the post-exercise discussion was interesting too. One comment, and it is not unusual for people to say this, was that with each question we were ‘going deeper’ (or something pretty much on those lines). The word ‘deeper’ of course implies below the surface, and below the surface implies hidden and the deeper and the below the surface and the hidden tends to be viewed in psychotherapy generally as more significant, as more important than the visible, the on the surface. Now in Solution Focused practice the idea of ‘deeper’ is of course problematic. You will remember Steve de Shazer’s reported comment ‘Too often people who want to learn SFBT fall into the trap of not being able to see that the difficulty is to stay on the surface when the temptation to look behind and beneath is at its strongest’ (Lee, Sebold & Uken, (2003)). And so as the detail accumulates, as people add more and more detail in their answers we have no view on which piece of detail is more significant than any other, no one is deeper than any other, we are merely enriching the description together. We are detailing or perhaps if we want to use a spatial metaphor, we are ‘broadening’ (Ratner, George and Iveson, 2012). ‘Deeper’ is not a word that is consistent with the way that we think in the approach.

Later in the same conversation one of the participants was identifying their role in one of the exercises and said, in order to clarify, ‘I was on the receiving end’ and of course we all know precisely what was meant by this, it is obvious. She was the ‘client’ in the exercise and the other was the worker asking the questions. Natural as it is to describe the process in this way I wonder whether it is helpful to us. In Keys (1985) de Shazer writes ‘. . . therapeutic change is an interactional process involving both client and therapist. It is not something the therapist does to clients . . .’ . If we think in terms of ‘receiving ends’ then it suggests that the worker is imposing things on the other but is this what we are doing. It is true that typically the worker initiates the conversation with a question ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ and the client responds and then the worker builds a question that takes account of and often uses the words that the client has offered in their response and the client responds again and the worker takes account of that response and builds a question. So in this way the client is on the receiving end of the worker’s questions and the worker is on the receiving end of the client’s answers and every question that the worker constructs is shaped by the client’s responses. Thus both are on the ‘receiving end’ if we want to think this way. Personally I would prefer to think that the worker and client are conversational partners, each with their particular role to play in shaping a conversation that makes a difference.

So it is true that here at BRIEF we are picky about words, about language, however if that is the case Steve de Shazer was ten times more so! Listen to him worrying about the very ‘to be’: ‘The verb to be . . . really gets us into a lot of trouble… The verb (to be) generally relates to a steady state. “You are male”. Yeah, I can say that. “You are an alcoholic”. Is that a steady state and incurable? We may have been seduced into this assumption with the (word) is’. And of course, yet again, he was right!

de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.

de Shazer, Steve (1989) Therapy is nothing but a bunch of talk. Paper presented at Social Work symposium. Poughkeepsie: New York.

de Shazer, Steve (1994) Words were originally magic. New York: Norton.

Lee, Mo Yee, Sebold, John, Uken, Adriana (2003) Solution-Focused Treatment of Domestic Violence Offenders: accountability for change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ratner, Harvey, George, Evan and Iveson, Chris (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. London: Routledge.

Evan George


15 October 2023


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