I choose to remain convinced that the very first time I met Steve de Shazer in May 1990 that he was wearing jeans held up with braces, a checked ‘lumberjack’ style shirt, and a pair of monkey boots, as they were referred to at the time. Perhaps he was also wearing a cap; he often did. Since he was coming to our NHS clinic to present to the whole staff team in the morning and to consult to Chris, Harvey and myself in the afternoon, Steve’s appearance was decidedly unusual. And when Steve stood up to begin his presentation in the morning to a rather academic clinic, staffed by leaders in the systemic psychotherapy field in London, he began by writing on a flip-chart the three core principles at the heart of Solution Focused Brief Therapy:
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
If it works do more of it
If it doesn’t work do something different.
If his appearance was already, I suspected, leading to raised eyebrows, his description of SFBT was, I felt sure, risking derision and since Steve was my therapeutic hero, I had already read the three books that he had published by then a number of times, I was beginning to feel a little dismayed. Of course I needn’t have worried. Even if many of the clinic team were not ‘persuaded’ it was clear that Steve was not a man to be taken lightly, that his thinking was interesting, was coherent, and indeed was challenging and my passion for and commitment to the approach continued to grow. And looking back there seems to me to be something significant in the way that Steve arrived in our presence all those years ago and the way that he opened his presentation.
In 1991 in Putting Difference to Work Steve wrote ‘Therapy needs to be described in such a way that therapists understand what to do and how to do it’ (p 26). Perhaps in writing this he had at the back of his mind Victor Raimy’s, undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek observation ‘Psychotherapy is an undefined technique applied to unspecified problems with unpredictable outcome. For this we recommend rigorous training’. Indeed Steve liked to describe therapy as ‘Just a bunch of talk’. The shirt, the core principles, the ‘bunch of talk’, the way that Steve was committed to describing therapy all seem to me to fit with a radical demystification of the therapeutic process.
Therapy need not be something mysterious, something quasi-magical for which a whole set of restrictive conditions are required; it is ‘just’ a way of talking with people and that way of talking can be learnt by pretty well anyone who takes the trouble to do so and is prepared to practice. At BRIEF we admit, although with a little pride, that we have taught children down to the age of 9 to use this way of talking with peers in peer support and there are many school-based projects across the UK that have trained older children to become Solution Focused conversation partners.
For those of us using the approach, if we ever find ourselves succumbing to the temptation that self-importance presents, we can just bring to our minds the ‘taxi-driver analogy’. In London if we hail a cab on the streets and jump in the back, then if the cabbie were to see me it is likely that s/he would, without wasting time on small-talk, ask ‘Where to guv?’. It is of course my job to be clear about my destination, the cab-driver cannot know where I want to go, and it is the driver’s job to get me there by the quickest and probably most direct route. We are partners in a joint enterprise, getting from, for example, Tooting Bec station to Catford. And similarly in Solution Focused Brief Therapy the client arrives in my consulting room or into my Zoom Room and I ask ‘what are your best hopes from our talking together?, the SF equivalent of ‘where to guv?’, the client gives us a direction and it is my job to talk with the client such that s/he gets to a point where s/he says ‘that’s fine drop me here’ as quickly as possible. So just the equivalent of cabbies. Now as many of us know cabbies are really useful when it is raining and we are lost and late, but let’s not get too precious about ourselves, let’s not turn the ride into a ‘magical mystery tour’, let’s just get on with it, picking the client up and dropping them when they ask.
Yes - Steve de Shazer and his continuing influence in Solution Focused Practice helps to keep us grounded – yes indeed ‘Just a bunch of talk’! The love affair continues.
25th September 2022