How often we come back to this! The Solution Focused approach is simple. It is a description of a way of talking with people that is associated with those people making changes in their lives. It is also a proposition. The Milwaukee team, Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and colleagues stated, in essence, ‘when we talk with people this way they change – you try talking with people this way – your ‘clients’ may also change – but of course it is impossible to know for sure’. And since the early days of Solution Focused Brief Therapy people have tried – with the widest range of clients, in the widest range of settings all over the world – and it has worked! So using the model has been associated with people changing their lives. So why, if it is so simple, is it less than easy?
1. Fundamental to the approach is the idea that the problem formation process and the solution development process are separate, that we do not need to either understand what has caused the problem or indeed even to know what the client thinks that the problem might be for us to work successfully towards change. The difficulty that many experienced practitioners have in letting go of wanting to understand, of wanting to know what is ‘really’ (they often use this word) going on, makes it harder for some people to listen to clients in the way that the Solution Focused approach requires of us. Working with the client’s answer, and building it in to our next question, rather than listening to the client in order to evaluate, is a substantial shift of position.
2. In their book Solution-Focused Treatment of Domestic Violence Offenders: accountability for change Lee, Sebold and Uken 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). ‘Staying on the surface’ as de Shazer put it or ‘working with the client’s narrative’ as I might prefer to say, is not easy. Who wants to be deemed ‘superficial’? Just imagine over-hearing a conversation between two acquaintances talking about us. Would you rather hear ‘he’s really superficial’ or ‘he’s such a deep person’? Depth is good. Surface is valueless. Of course people find Solution Focus difficult. Even in our own field we see people using the word ‘deep’, as in a ‘deep dive into the Solution Focused approach’ as a validation. Offering a course entitled ‘Staying on the Surface of the Solution Focused approach’ would only attract rather sophisticated and knowledgeable practitioners who already understand the model well. The surface is not attractive to practitioners whose self-valuation has often been based on precisely the depth understanding not accessible to the uninitiated.
3. The word ‘simple’ promotes scepticism. How, people ask themselves, can a simple approach be useful when working with someone who has long-standing problems, who has ‘complex needs’? The idea of something that is ‘simple’ and yet ‘powerful’ is challenging for us. Indeed I remember reading some research showing that a test group consistently preferred a complex but incorrect explanation for a phenomenon over a simple but correct explanation. In the English language it is all too easy for the word ‘simple’ to slip and slide over towards the word ‘simplistic’ and of course something that is ‘simplistic’ is something that is failing, failing to get to grips with the perceived complexity of the situation. The word ‘simple’ promotes scepticism – perhaps this is a model that can work for easy cases but not for . . . . No wonder practitioners find it difficult to take seriously.
4. The predominant linear approach to the explanation of causation also seems to get in the way of people taking the Solution Focused approach on. People tend to assume that current difficulties are caused by past experiences and that unless addressed those past experiences will continue to affect the future. And in order to address past experiences the assumption generally seems to be that those past experiences have to be talked about. The idea that we can address past issues without focusing directly on them, without talking about them is hard for people embued in problem focused thinking to grasp.
5. Underpinning so much traditional therapeutic work is the idea that clients don’t truly mean what they say when they say that they want to change. Clients are resistant, they are in denial, they are unmotivated, they are in their comfort zones, they are benefitting from secondary gain – clients in other words cannot be trusted when they say that they want to change. And since they are seen as not wanting to change, therapy or the change process, is seen as a battle, the therapist pro-change and the client against change. Here is Steve de Shazer in 1982 in his pre-SF book Patterns, making the same point: ‘From the earliest days, 20th-century psychotherapy has most often been described as a contest. In general, this contest was described as between the “forces” for change and the “forces” against change. The contest was this: The therapist (for change) had joined battle against the client's resistance (a force against change). . . . It seems unfortunate that much of psychotherapy and brief therapy (based on the concept of resistance) is frequently thought about and described in military and or contest terms’ (p 13). The therapist has to ‘break-down’ the client’s resistance. Guiliana Prata, one of the founders of the Milan Model, wrote a book entitled “a Systemic Harpoon into Family Games’ (1990) whilst Joel Bergman called his 1985 book ‘Fishing for Barracuda’ the second chapter of which is called ‘Capturing Families’. This sort of thinking has shaped the narrative context within which clients are discussed. No wonder then that clients, who cannot be trusted, have to be pinned down at the end of sessions, they have to be got to specify exactly what change they will make before the next session. Even Greene and Grant’s book, Solution-Focused Coaching’ (2003), a sadly largely non-solution-focused book in my view and certainly not recommended, writes: “each coaching session must finish with a written action plan. . . . If it's not written down it’s not coaching. It’s a want-to-be conversation about how things might get better someday when I get around to it!’ (p 103) Of course this makes sense if we believe that change is hard and that people are reluctant to change. Solution Focused practitioners however choose to trust their clients and so do not need to pin people down. Of course they will change. The only interesting question is where they will start and thus they can be invited, politely, to watch out for this - ‘now that you have said that you would like us to meet again could I just give you a warning – the very first question that I am going to ask next time is ‘what’s been better?’ – and so if you watch out for better between now and next time it might make your next session easier for you – but it’s up to you really’. Trusting our clients is tough if we have spent years choosing to see resistance and reluctance.
So simple Solution Focused practice certainly is but it is not easy, and what gets in the way of practitioners getting to grips with the approach is a whole heap of rooted assumptions about clients, about therapy and about what needs to be done for problems to be resolved. People instinctively revolt against the Solution Focused proposition - ‘it can’t really be that simple’ they think to themselves and thereby make the learning of the approach so much more difficult!
Bergman, Joel (1985) Fishing for Barracuda. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1982) Patterns of Brief Family Therapy. New York: Guilford.
Greene, Jane and Grant, Anthony (2003) Solution-Focused Coaching. Harlow: Pearson
Lee, Mo Yee, Sebold, John, Uken, Adriana (2003) Solution-Focused Treatment of Domestic Violence Offenders: accountability for change. New York: Oxford University Press.
Prata, Giuliana (1990). A systemic harpoon into family games: preventive interventions in therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel
19 March 2023.