A quiet revolution has been going on under our very noses, so quietly, so apparently taken-for-granted (perhaps), that it has been barely visible. Certainly I have not seen the shift much commented upon but then maybe I have just not noticed. Who knows?
So what is this change? Well - when Chris, Harvey and I started our journey together, working as a team in a NHS Mental Health Clinic in North London and finding ourselves intrigued by the work of Steve de Shazer and his colleagues in Milwaukee, we set up a Brief Therapy Project in 1987 in order to learn, test and to evaluate de Shazer’s ideas about how brief therapy might be conducted. When chance led us to set up an organisation independent of the National Health Service in 1989 and to start organising conferences and delivering training, we called that organisation the Brief Therapy Practice. When the world invited us to apply our thinking to coaching and leadership and conflict resolution we knew that the word Therapy was no longer right, that it did not fit, and so we called that organisation BRIEF. Of course in finding a name for our new organisation Chris Harvey and I were not being particularly original since many years earlier Steve and Insoo had named their organisation the Brief Family Therapy Centre and all we, in essence, did was to leave out the word ‘family’. And then when there was a growth of interest in the Milwaukee model across Europe a group of people got together and founded the European Brief Therapy Association (EBTA). I can imagine that by now my point is more than clear.
Thinking about this led me to look back at Steve’s books just to check that my remembering had not got confused with time passing, but no I was right. Steve’s second book published in 1985 was titled ‘Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy’ and flicking through the pages of the book I find many references to ‘brief therapy’ and none (so far) to ‘solution focus’ or ‘solution focused’. The title of the seminal Family Process paper that the Milwaukee team published in the following year (de Shazer et al., 1986) was ‘Brief Therapy: Focused Solution Development’ but the word ‘focused’ does not re-appear in the text although there are references to ‘the Solution Process’ and to ‘solution development’ although the final line of the paper reverts to ‘brief therapy’, references to which can be found throughout the article ‘In short, our view holds that clients already know what to do to solve the complaints they bring to therapy; they just do not know that they know. Our job, as brief therapists, is to help them construct for themselves a new use for knowledge they already have.’. In Steve’s third book, commonly referred to as Clues (de Shazer, 1988) we still find no references to ‘Solution Focused Brief Therapy’, although we do find for example that the first chapter is entitled ‘Solution Focus’ (p1), that on page 4 Steve refers to ‘Focusing on Solutions’, although very soon he is back to writing about ‘what, exactly, do brief therapists do?’ (p13) and we do find a small number of references to ‘a solution focused model’ (p51) and ‘solution focused therapists’ (p82) and to ‘solution focused interviews’ (p82) although the first time that Steve references this he puts the phrase in quotation marks ‘“solution focused” interviews’. In Steve’s fourth book (de Shazer, 1991) we find two references to ‘solution focused language games’ another two to ‘focused solution development’ outweighed by a mass of references to ‘brief therapy’. The first of de Shazer’s books where the name ‘Solution-Focused Brief Therapy’ appears prominently is in the posthumously published ‘More than Miracles: the State of the Art of Brief Therapy’ (de Shazer, Dolan et al., 2007).
So what can we gather from all this and is it in any way significant or note-worthy? We can clearly understand and remember that Steve’s work was rooted in a ‘brief therapy’ tradition and that he saw his work as a development of that tradition. He was offering the world a ‘solution focused’ version of ‘brief therapy’. ‘Brief Therapy’ was for Steve a thing, a concept, with a set of assumptions and ideas. The term ‘Brief Therapy’ in Steve’s writings is used as a compound noun rather than a noun, ‘therapy’, and an adjective, ‘brief’, as in ‘full moon’ or ‘swimming pool’ or ‘public speaking’. So in Solution Focused Brief Therapy we have a compound noun preceded by a compound adjective ‘Solution Focused’ – Steve was not writing about ‘therapy’ he was writing about ‘brief therapy’. It thus seems that over the years we have seen a change. The early emphasis on ‘brief therapy’, substantially shifted to ‘Solution Focused Brief Therapy’ and has shifted again with the ‘brief’ often disappearing such that our approach is often referred to now as ‘Solution Focused Therapy’. This final shift, the loss of, indeed the elimination of the word ‘brief’ does seem to me to be significant: the ’Solution Focused approach’ has grown and developed in such a way that it can stand alone, a model in itself and no longer needs to think of itself as part of the ‘brief therapy’ tradition. The child has outgrown the parent, the protégé has come to outshine the mentor, the cuckoo has taken over the nest. This moment, a moment that BRIEF has undoubtedly worked towards and contributed to, nonetheless has a bitter-sweet taste to me. The tradition stills lives on in our generation of solution focused/brief* therapists and even if one day the word ‘brief’ begins to disappear from our website for me there will always be a shadowy presence between the words ‘solution focused’ and the word ‘therapy’.
*Delete to preference
de Shazer, Steve (1985) Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Berg, Lipchik, Nunnally, Molnar, Gingerich and Weiner-Davis (1986). Brief therapy: focused solution development. Family Process, 25: 207-222.
de Shazer, Steve (1988) Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve (1991) Putting Difference to Work. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, Steve, Dolan, Yvonne, Korman, Harry, Trepper, Terry, MacCollum, Eric and Berg, Insoo Kim (2007) More Then Miracles: the state of the art of solution focused therapy. New York: Haworth.
28th November 2021.