The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Talking about resistance . . . . or not.

Chapter 8 of Steve de Shazer’s 1991 book Putting Difference to Work is entitled ‘The Concept of problem exception’, the word ‘problem’ being struck through, and at the bottom of the page there is a footnote ‘The strikethrough is used here . . . to indicate that the term is being used without really being meant’ (p 81). So during the course of this piece you might like to imagine that the word ‘resistance’ is struck though each time it is used. Today we are focusing on an idea that has no place within our Solution Focused conceptualisation, using a word that has no place in our lexicon. However the term ‘resistance’ is commonplace and turns up frequently in clinical conversations in a wide range of settings and so it is not unusual for people on Solution Focused trainings to ask ‘so how does Solution Focus think about and talk about resistance’. This happened on a Level 3 programme last week and after an evening’s thought I decided to base my response around 5 quotations.

1. ‘It must be kept clear that resistance is only a metaphor for describing certain regularities of phenomena, . . . . . . . . Resistance is not something concrete, only a concept used as an explanatory metaphor. Resistance is only one among many ways (including cooperating) to describe what it is that the observer is observing.’ (de Shazer, 1982, p 12)

I think that this is a useful place to start. If we decide to take the view that the idea of ‘resistance’ is not something ‘concrete’ but just one way, amongst many possible ways, of describing something that we are observing, then we are moving beyond right or wrong, true or untrue, fact or fiction. Indeed the way that we might choose to judge a ‘metaphor’ is not in true/untrue terms but according to its effect, its utility. Is it useful to me, as a therapist or coach or counsellor, to use this particular metaphor and what impact does the use of the metaphor have on me in relation to my client? Of course in Solution Focused Practice we take the view that the ‘resistance’ metaphor is actively unhelpful and thus we are challenged to find another way of describing the patterns of interaction.

2. ‘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).’ (de Shazer, 1982, p 13)

The metaphor ‘resistance’ best fits with this framing of therapy, therapy as a contest, as a battle, with the therapists devising ‘strategies’, ‘tactics’ in their attempts to ‘get’ their clients to change, clients who are assumed not to want to change. The clearest manifestations of this way of thinking can be located in the work of the Strategic Family Therapists, Haley, Madanes, Bergman. Even the titles of some of their books make clear their thinking, for example Joel Bergman’s ‘Fishing for Barracuda: Pragmatics of Brief Systemic Therapy’ (1985) and Giuliana Prata’s ‘A Systemic Harpoon into Family Games: Preventive Interventions in Therapy’ (1990). However Solution Focused Practice is based on co-operating. We choose to assume that everything that the client does represents their ‘unique way of attempting to cooperate’ and it is our job to ‘cooperate with the (client’s) way and, thus, to promote change’ (de Shazer, 1982, pp 9 – 10). ‘Resistance’ is not therefore a useful metaphor, since it is likely to make it difficult for us to get alongside the client, to ‘cooperate’ with their way.

3. ‘It seems to be difficult for most persons in our culture to give credence to the idea that the individual does the best he (sic) can at any given moment. Why should it be otherwise, when we all would rather be comfortable than in distress? The terms “lazy,” “stubborn,” “no will power” are not merely descriptive, but imply moral censure and unspoken “he could do better if he wanted to.”’ (Jackson, D., 1952)

Jackson was an early member of the Brief Therapy Group at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto and would surely have become more influential if it were not for his early death and of course Jackson’s colleagues, in particular John Weakland, much influenced Steve de Shazer. Here we see the idea that ‘the individual does the best he (sic) can at any given moment’. In Solution Focus we choose not to think about our clients as ‘perverse’, as ‘self-sabotaging’ or, following Jackson, as ‘“lazy,” “stubborn,”’ or with ‘“no will power”’. Jackson reminds us here that the term ‘resistant’ has come to ‘imply moral censure’. When the term was first used there was no evaluation of the client implied, the term ‘resistance’ was merely a technical description of a self-protective process. However if we eavesdrop, if we were to listen in to a group of professionals discussing a piece of work where there has been no progress, it is hard not to form the view that the use of the epithet ‘resistant’ to describe the client is no longer merely technical. The term has taken on a critical moral significance. Good clients are not resistant, and neither are they, as it happens, unmotivated, or un-insightful, or manipulative. The idea that the client may be ‘resistant’ fits with a critical evaluation of the client and of course in Solution Focus it is not our job to evaluate our clients, to judge them either negatively or positively, merely to talk with then in such a way that they report changes.

4. ‘People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.’ Peter Senge

Solution Focused practitioners have long chosen to assume, from the very early days of the approach that ‘change is constant’, that ‘change is inevitable’ as Berg and Miller remind us (1992). Indeed stability is viewed as an illusion and we nod in agreement with Tancredi’s dictum, spoken in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel ‘Il Gattopardo’, (The Leopard), “Everything must change for everything to remain the same”. From this perspective, the idea that ‘people resist change’ is somewhat fatuous. When we ask our clients ‘so what are your best hopes from our talking together?’ everyone wants something. Whether that something that they want happens to coincide with the reason for referral is an open question, but everyone wants something and if we focus the conversation on that something that the client wants then why would the client ‘resist’, indeed the client is likely to co-operate as long as we get the conversation right for the client. However ‘being changed’ is quite a different business. Being told that we should change is inevitably critical of us, we are being told that we are getting our living wrong, and most of us resent criticism. As Milton Erickson liked to say ‘Too many hypnotherapists take you out to dinner and then tell you what to order. I take a patient out to dinner and I say, "You give your order." The patient makes his own selection of the food he wants’!

5. ‘If (the client) cannot answer (the question), the therapist has either asked the wrong question or asked it in the wrong way.’ (Steve de Shazer et al. 2007)

So finally this is where we get to when we are thinking about ‘resistance’ (imagine the strikethrough). If something goes wrong in a Solution Focused process Solution Focused practitioners turn the spotlight on themselves and ask, ‘what did I do wrong?’ If the client cannot work with a question that we offer then in some way the question was by definition wrong, framed wrongly, timed wrongly, failed to make sense, was incomprehensible for the client in some way and it is our job to find a better, more fitting question. Clients cannot fail in this process. If the client does not report change we hold our hands up and admit ‘somehow I have not found a way of talking with this client in such a way that they have ended up reporting change – so far’.

So the concept of ‘resistance’ has no meaning within the Solution Focused approach, it just does not fit with the way that we choose to think about the change process. In 1984 de Shazer wrote the paper ‘The Death of Resistance’. Perhaps the word ‘death’ is a little strong – more a disappearance, fading away into irrelevance.

Berg, Insoo Kim and Miller, Scott (1992) Working with the Problem Drinker: a solution focused approach. .

Bergman Joel (1985) Fishing for Barracuda: Pragmatics of Brief Systemic Therapy. New York: Norton

de Shazer, Steve (1982) Patterns of Brief Therapy: an ecosystemic approach. New York: Guildford.

de Shazer, Steve (1984) The death of resistance. Family Process: 23: 11 – 17. 1984

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.

Jackson, Donald. (1952) The Relationship of the Referring Physician to the Psychiatrist. California Medicine; San Francisco Vol. 76, Iss. 6, (Jun 1952): 391.

Prata Giuliana (1990) A Systemic Harpoon into Family Games: Preventive Interventions in Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

By the way for those people who like the concept and find it useful, it might be better to drop the word ‘resistance’ which can often come to be seen as located within the client and substitute the concept of resisting which identifies that the client is resisting the worker – it puts the worker in the frame rather than allowing the worker to disappear.

Steve de Shazer’s paper ‘The death of Resistance’ can be found online as a pdf

Thank-you to Rose McCabe of City University for asking the question which led to this initial process of reflecting.

Evan George


Day 39 of Vladimir Putin’s war on the people of Ukraine


Featured Video

What is SF - a 2020 version of the approach


July 9, 2020