Steve de Shazer would often be asked this question and he would most often respond with an enigmatic "I wouldn't ask that question". For some his response was irritating but to others it was a ground-breaking moment. Steve de Shazer for the title of his fifth book took a quote from Sigmund Freud, who had adapted a quote from St John of Gospel fame "Words were originally magic" or nothing existed before the "word".
We create our worlds by the words we use to describe and explain them and the question "How does SFBT work with symptom x or problem y or condition z?" is loaded with the sort of meaning that partly creates the issue in question. The implication is that x, y and z are different types of problem that must require different types of treatment: a marriage on the verge of breakdown, a person on the verge of suicide or an employee on the verge of dismissal must all need different approaches just as burst tyre needs a different treatment to a failed brake or a broken chain.
That is why de Shazer refused to engage with the question because to do so would be to treat people like machines, albeit very complex ones. This medical model is fine for the more machine-like parts of the person, a splint for a broken bone, an antibiotic for an infection or a vaccine for a virus but when it comes to thoughts, feelings and actions knowing how they work together has so far eluded us. We have theories, over 400 of them all making some sense, all providing a framework for the treatment of problems and most going some way to alleviate life's pains but none of them has the same predictable outcome as a puncture repair, new brake pads or chain. Perhaps they work because somewhere in the conversation between client and professional the client hears themselves saying something they have never said before and from this their world begins to take on a new shape. Not so much a problem solved as a new way forward spotted.
If we see a "problem" as something that unduly curtails our life - whether it be checking the doors 100 times, having to sell the family home to pay off gambling debts, feeling too unmotivated to do much more than get up and go to bed - then the 'solution' is to find a way to "get on with life". Whatever the problem, however serious, however long-standing, however complex "getting on with life" in a reasonably satisfying way is the evidence of its resolution. From this standpoint the "problem" is irrelevant to the solution. When we ask "what are your best hopes from our talking together?" we are asking for a "getting on with life" kind of answer. The description of that life will not be connected to the problem but rather to the life that is wanted. Our job as Solution Focused people is to ask the questions that promote that life because, so far, that seems the fastest way for the client to start living it.
Thanks to John Philip Machniak for the question that is the starting point for BRIEF’s reflection.
18th July 2021