In 1987 I fell in love with the Solution Focused approach and this passion, which has lasted 35 years so far, shows no signs of abating! Indeed you could argue that, apart from a short flirtation with Narrative Therapy, I have remained entirely faithful throughout those years and that my relationship with Narrative never threatened my love for Solution Focus; it was never really serious. So what explains this long-standing commitment to just one approach? In attempting to answer this question I am not going to attempt to rank a range of factors – they are all important – but let’s start from the therapeutic cliché that I grew up with, professionally speaking, and that is ‘no pain no gain’. This idea ‘no pain no gain’ seemed to be rooted not just in therapy but in British, rather puritan, thinking more generally, but that concept, it seems to me, came with ‘costs’.
The idea that change was painful and difficult and that change required us to confront and to challenge embedded, deep-rooted, ‘realities’ and that doing so was inevitably ‘disruptive’ naturally limited access to therapy. In order to undergo the supposed ‘rigours’ of therapy people were thought to have to be well-supported, in stable settings, thereby excluding most of the children in care with whom I ever had the experience of working. Therapy for people with long-standing challenges was not only thought to be ‘painful’ but in addition to require long-term interventions, thereby excluding another tranche of people for whom long term, disruptive therapy was never going to be a realistic option, even if the Health Service was funding it. The ‘no pain no gain’ idea certainly thereby came with consequences limiting access to therapy to the few who were living in the right conditions, sufficiently well-supported and who could maintain therapy over a long period of time.
When we started using Solution Focused Brief Therapy in 1987 very quickly we began to notice some interesting ‘side-effects’. We noticed that people seemed to enjoy sessions and that there was a lot of smiling and laughing even when clients came bringing with them distressing stories of abuse, of trauma, of violence, of neglect, of pain and of long-standing difficulty. We noticed that towards the ends of sessions our clients seemed to feel better about themselves, prouder of their achievements, feeling more in control of their lives and they seemed to have a greater sense of possibility. They seemed to have re-discovered hope which for many of them had been absent, or at the very least somewhat hidden, for a long time. And of course they were going to do something useful before we saw them again and we trusted them sufficiently not to need to ‘pin them down’ as to what that ‘something useful’ was going to turn out to be. They would tell us when we next met.
This experience, from the very early days of our use of Solution Focus, challenged the necessity for pain. People changed, they maintained their changes and they did not seem to feel any pain in so doing. So the ‘no pain no gain’ idea was not it appeared a universal truth, applying to every model of therapy, but merely one idea that applied to some models of therapy. Indeed on reflection we realised that there was no reason for change to be painful since after all change, we realised, was happening all the time and indeed the client was already living elements of their preferred future, the exceptions and the instances that so often went unnoticed or at the least unvalued. Further change could be thought of as the client doing more of things that they were already doing. The person that the client wished to be was already there, present albeit in the shadows of the client’s life, unnoticed, and very often all that we were doing was asking questions which invited that version of the client into the lime-light, to take front-stage. Why would this be painful?
Re-shaping our assumptions about the change process made therapy accessible to people who had previously been excluded. We could now work with those children in care in shaky placements without a great deal of support, we could work with people who would never ever have been able to sustain long-term interventions. We could work with people who would have been excluded from therapy in the past. What was there not to love about an approach that allowed this? The love affair was already underway.
07 August 2022