The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

How does Solution Focus deal with problems?

Many (many) years ago when Steve de Shazer was presenting in London I remember a member of the audience asking Steve ‘but don’t people have to get the problem out?’. He was responding to the idea that in SF practice we are inviting people into change talk, as quickly as is possible, rather than inviting the client to stay in problem talk, rather than detaining them, as I would see it, in their problem narrative. Steve’s response was challenging. Where did the questioner imagine that the problem needed to be got out from? Where was the problem? In the client’s big toe? Where was it?

Steve, in his response, was challenging a dominant view of the problem, a reification; problems seemed to be viewed as real things. Depression can exist within people, or anger or anxiety, or psychosis. Of course if this is the idea that we have then it makes eminent sense to think about how we get them out. But what if problems are not things that exist inside people? The Milan Team many years ago attempted to address this difficulty by challenging the word ‘is’. Rather than having the idea that the client ‘is’ depressed they talked about the client ‘showing’ depression. So problems were redescribed, reframed as existing within patterns of communication within systems. So how do we think about problems in the Solution Focused approach?

In Solution Focus problems are merely, and I am using the word merely not to imply that problems are to be trivialised, but they are merely things that people want to change, things that are discomfiting people that they would prefer to be without. We typically start a first session by asking ‘So what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ and whilst most people answer the question ‘I guess that I’d be more confident and would like myself more’, some people do not, they respond rather than answer. And when they respond they might say something like ‘well I’ve been really depressed recently’. In this case we might ask ’OK, I’m sorry that you’ve been depressed, so what are you best hopes from our talking together?’. And the client might respond by saying ‘well I suppose that I wouldn’t be depressed, I’d be getting on with my life, like I used to do’. And we might respond by asking ‘OK so how would you know that you were getting on with your life like you used to do?’ and the client would describe a range of differences that would be indicators of change. The client will then, session by session, be invited to describe changes that fit with the life that the client wants and there will come a time when the client says, (to themselves of course rather than out loud to us) ‘enough enough I don’t need to see you anymore’.

In this process we might reasonably ask ourselves so what has happened to the problem, where has the problem gone. And in our way of thinking once the client is no longer thinking, ‘this is something that I need to change’ and is no longer feeling discomfited, then the problem literally has ceased to exist. A problem is something that is causing discomfort and if it is not, then it is not a problem any longer. Problems, for the Solution Focused practitioner, have no reality independent of the client’s description. As de Shazer states in ‘Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy’ ‘From a minimalist's perspective, it is best to assume that a wet-bed is simply a wet-bed, teeth-grinding is teeth-grinding, voices are voices and nothing more’ (p 150). In Solution Focus we do not construct problems independent of the client’s complaint. Lee,Sebold and Uken (2003) cite de Shazer saying ‘Too often people who want to learn SFBT fall into the trap of not being able to see that the difficulty is to stay on the surface when the temptation to look behind and beneath is at its strongest’ (p 18). Problems, and solutions of course, from this point of view exist solely within our clients’ descriptions.

de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.

Lee, Mo Yee, Sebold, John, Uken, Adriana (2003) Solution-Focused Treatment of Domestic Violence Offenders: accountability for change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Evan George


28 May 2023


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