The question ‘how do we define Solution Focus’, what is in and what is out, what can you do and what can't you do, perhaps what must you do, continues to be of interest. Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge is that the fascination, the continuing fascination, with this question is a minority interest. Most practitioners who have been exposed to Solution Focus and who draw on it in their work, to some extent, have relatively little interest in the boundaries of the approach. And clearly service users have no interest at all in the question. All that interests them is the rather more pragmatic question ‘am I changing and is this working?’. And of course as ever in the end service users are right. The only thing that is truly significant is the question of whether service users get fantastic outcomes and if they do who can argue. The question of definition however is of justifiable interest to those of us who teach the approach, to those who research, since after all we need to have a definition of the intervention whose effectiveness we are exploring, and to anyone involved in the accreditation business one way or another.
The early Milwaukee pioneers defined Solution Focus as a description of what we do with our clients in Milwaukee that is associated with good outcomes and thence as a proposition ‘doing this works for us, try it and it may work for you and your clients’. They were also happy to set out a number of ‘Principles and Assumptions’. For example Insoo Kim Berg and Scott Miller in ‘Working with the Problem Drinker’ (1992) summarised the principles in terms of 7 paragraph headings:
Emphasis on Mental Health
An atheoretical/non-normative/client-determined view
Change is inevitable
Present and future orientation
They then appended what they called the central Philosophy summarised in the three rules;
1. If it ain't broke, DON’T FIX IT!
2. Once you know what works, DO MORE OF IT
3. If it doesn't work, then don't do it again, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! (p 17)
However reflecting on the principles, assumptions and rules it is immediately clear that they allow for huge scope. There truly are all sorts of conversations that a worker could have with a client based on these ideas. Elsewhere however the pioneers are more helpful to us in specifying what sort of conversation we might have and how to structure that conversation. For example in their 1986 paper, the paper that announced the birth of SFBT to the world, ‘Brief Therapy: Focused Solution development’, the authors set out a clear structure:
1. Introduction to set-up & procedures
2. Statement of the complaint
3. Exploration of exceptions to the rules of the complaint
4. Establishment of goals for the therapy
5. Definition of potential solutions - ‘miracle picture’
6. Intermission – consultation break
7. Delivery of the message from the team
So now it is clearer what, in the early days of the approach, a Solution Focused conversation looked like. However since those early days the model has changed and indeed Steve and Insoo were always incredibly generous and open to those of us who began to do SFBT differently. However if we are ‘doing’ SFBT differently it perhaps behoves us to be clear about the basis for the changes that we have made, what principles we have drawn on to reach wherever we have reached.
At the heart of my practice lie a default shape for first sessions and a default shape for follow-up sessions. I really do not want, every time I sit down with a new client, to be figuring out ‘what am I going to do?’; I want to concentrate on listening and these conversations seem to work pretty much most of the time. So sessions are structured as follows:
1. Best Hopes for the talking
2. Preferred Future - rich description of the client’s living as transformed by the presence of the ‘best hopes’
3. What is the client already doing that fits with the ‘best hopes living’?
4. Next possible indicators of progress
(Typically for 3 & 4 I use a scale question.)
5. Ending sequence:
1. What did you hear yourself saying that is worth remembering and taking away ?
2. If the client is interested a few things that I have heard the client say that fit with change
3. ‘Benevolent warning’ or ‘friendly heads-up’ –
Follow up session
1. What’s been better? Rich description
2. Scale question
3. Ending sequence (as for opening session)
So how did we at BRIEF, or certainly I, get from the 1986 description of the work to this current description. I think that we took 4 concepts out of the Milwaukee team’s writings and put them at the centre of our developmental thinking:
3. The competent client – ‘the client has the magic’
4. ‘Leaving no footprints’
The concepts of ‘simplicity’ and ‘minimalism’ led us to coin the phrase, many years ago, ‘straightening the line’ (BRIEF, 2016) (1) whilst the concepts of ‘the competent client’ and ‘leaving no footprints’ led us to think about ‘centering the client’ in the change process, striving towards ‘therapist invisibility’ (George, 2016). Following this track we have cut out of the work anything that seemed unnecessary, not required for change to happen, we have thought about the most direct route to the client’s ‘best hopes’ (George et al., 1999), we have tried to make the conversations more humdrum, less memorable, and we have attempted to centre the client’s voice rather than the therapist’s.
So in conclusion I have arrived at a definition of the approach along these lines:
‘SFBT can be described as a non-normative, outcome-focused conversation that invites client’s to describe in detail their lives as transformed by the presence of their ‘best hopes’, that invites them to develop rich descriptions of the progress that they have already made and the progress that they subsequently make.’
Since nothing else is typically required for change to happen the only good reason for doing anything else, when I am using SFBT, is because it is required by the client for the client to engage in the conversation, it is ‘relationally necessary’ rather than ‘technically necessary’.
Of course others may have taken different strands of the approach and arrived at different definitions and descriptions. However in order to have sensible conversations about those differing definitions we need to be clear:
How do people define the approach?
What are the key definitional criteria that their version of the approach is based on?
What is required for the work to be defined as SF in their version?
What might a worker do that would define the work as NOT SF?
Without answers to these questions discussions between practitioners risk being unresolvable, at times somewhat fractious, debates.
(1) Elliott Connie and Adam Froerer also refer to ‘straightening the line’ in their recent book in describing the way that their SF model has developed (p 3).
Berg, Insoo Kim and Miller, Scott (1992) Working with the Problem Drinker: a solution focused approach. New York: Norton.
BRIEF blog (14 January 2016) Straightening the line. www.brief.org.uk
Connie, Elliott. E. and Froerer, Adam. S., (2023) The Solution Focused Brief Therapy Diamond. Hay House: Carlsbad, California.
de Shazer et al. (1986) Brief Therapy: Focused Solution development. Family Process 25: 207 – 222
George, E. (25 July 2016) Respect and humility. BRIEF blog. www.brief.org.uk
George, E., Iveson, C. and Ratner, H. (1990; Revised and expanded Edition 1999) Problem to Solution: Brief Therapy with Individuals and Families. London: BT Press
09 July 2023