If I were to be asked the question ‘of all the Solution Focused texts which you have read over the years which has been the most influential?’ I would have little hesitation in answering. de Shazer’s ‘Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy’ (1985) has undoubtedly been the most influential and if I were asked to recommend just one Solution Focused text to read to understand the approach, rather than perhaps to grasp current Solution Focused practice, then again it would be ‘Keys’ (1). My original copy bears all the marks of my admiration. The spine has broken, some pages are coming loose, the text bears layers of annotation starting in 1987 when I first read the book through to 2023, just the other day, when I noticed something that I had never noticed before. The coffee stains and peach juice marks are further evidence of a well-loved and much-admired work. (The fact that I have a back-up copy, signed by Steve, albeit up-side down, is a relief.) So why the obsession?
This book, points me to so much that has been central and important in my practice and in my understanding of the approach. Let’s start with page 77 where de Shazer writes ‘Any change stands a chance of starting a ripple effect which will lead to a more satisfactory future. Therefore, the brief therapist reacts to any change as an indication that things are starting to go right for the clients. It does not seem to matter if a particular change is new or different behaviour, or if it is an exception to the rules of the complaint, or even if it seemingly has nothing to do with the complaint. Any change is a difference that could well prove different enough to be part of the solution. In any case, any change can become part of the construction of a new set of expectations that will be part of creating the solution.’ Here we see de Shazer setting out a radical position, ‘the brief therapist reacts to any change as an indication that things are starting to go right for the clients’ not just to changes that are ‘an exception to the rules of the complaint’; indeed even ‘if it seemingly has nothing to do with the complaint’ it can ‘become part of the construction of a new set of expectation’. Solution Focused Brief Therapy are centred on change and any change leads to the construction of new and different expectations which in turn are associated with a greater likelihood of more change. Even though the point is implicitly made here, it is perhaps not until ‘Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy’ (de Shazer, 1988) that it is spelled out; ‘change talk may consist of client reports of how things have changed outside the therapy setting, or change talk may consist of observable changes in how the client depicts the situation within the therapy setting. In either case, talk about change is the purpose of the interview’ (p 77). So at the heart of what we are doing in Solution Focus is inviting people into change talk, this is the purpose of the interview, and it is this that we focus on rather than on solving problems or constructing solutions. (2)
If we return to ‘Keys’ on page 14 we find this: ‘it was clear to me that the goal of therapy is not “elimination of the symptom” but, rather, helping the client set up some conditions that allow for the spontaneous achievement of the stated (or inferred) goal’. I like this. We ‘set up the conditions’. This idea of spontaneity seems to me to be important. When we engage people in change talk it is likely that people will spontaneously do something different and the thing that they spontaneously do, which we cannot predict and do not attempt to control and which may or may not have anything to do with the complaint that brought them, may prove to be satisfactory, may prove to be enough. We are indeed co-creating the conditions within which clients change themselves. As Eve Lipchik writes in ‘Beyond Technique’ (2002) ‘You cannot change clients they can only change themselves’ ( p 17). Back in ‘Keys’ 17 years earlier de Shazer writes ‘the formula interventions and the case material illustrate the creativity of clients and the resources they already have before they come to therapy. In some sense, the therapy really adds nothing (the Wizard of Oz technique): The therapist does not tell the clients what to do differently and does not teach the clients any new techniques. These interventions are minimally intrusive and yet their impact seems inordinately large’ (p 136). Elsewhere de Shazer adds ‘this allows the client to view the change as self-generated, minimising’ the therapeutic interference (1985, p 36). The idea of spontaneity which I found in ‘Keys’ has always been important to my understanding of the approach. (3)
And finally . . . . . littered throughout the text are references to ‘description’. On page 76 we find ‘when the therapist helps the arguing couple to describe life together after these arguments are no longer something to complain about, complete with the therapist's open expectation that this future is a good possibility, then the first steps towards a new set of expectations have been taken’. This is what we are doing in Solution Focused conversations, inviting clients to describe, to describe their future as transformed by the presence of their ‘best hopes’ (George et al., 1999), to describe what they are already doing or have done that fits with this future and from the first session onwards to describe change. Our intervention is merely that, an invitation to describe, in rich detail, some very specific things.
Thus in ‘Keys’ I find ‘any’, ‘spontaneity’ and ‘describe’ three of the words that have made most difference to my understanding of what I am doing when I am using the approach. There is of course lots more, not least the centrality of the concept of ‘expectation’. However just recently I found something else that I had never noticed before. de Shazer writes at length about the idea of ‘cooperating with clients’ and on page 21 he writes ‘we also found that accepting nonperformance as a message about the clients’ way of doing things (rather than as a sign of “resistance”) allowed us to develop a cooperating relationship with clients which might not include task assignments. This was a shock to us because we had assumed that tasks were almost always necessary to achieve behavioural change’. I had never noticed that as early as 1985 de Shazer was contemplating the idea that tasks are not always necessary, something that the BRIEF team only realised, and incorporated into our work, quite a bit later.
(1) Of course for a description of BRIEF’s practice you might like to read Ratner, H., George, E., Iveson, C. (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Ideas and Techniques. London: Routledge
(2) You can find more about the importance of the word ‘any’ here https://www.brief.org.uk/blog/2016/02/02/anything/
(3) And more on ‘spontaneity’ here https://www.brief.org.uk/.../%E2%80%98spontaneous%E2%80...
de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
George, Evan, Iveson, Chris, and Ratner, Harvey (2nd edition, 1999) Problem to Solution: brief therapy with individuals and families. London: BT Press.
Lipchik, Eve (2002) Beyond Technique in Solution-Focused Therapy. New York: Guildford.
21 May 2023