The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

The Death of Resistance

In 1984 Steve de Shazer published the paper the Death of Resistance in the Journal Family Process. It was, in my view, a hugely significant moment and remains, in my opinion, one of the most important papers underpinning the development of our approach. Here I am sharing just a few very simple thoughts about the difference that this idea makes in my work. However before we start let's just be clear about the starting point for Steve's thinking. The way that he thinks about the concept of 'resistance' is not as something real, not as something concrete that can be picked up and looked at, turned around and examined. He thinks about the term merely as a way of describing patterns of interaction, a way of describing, normally, client responses. Thus in this paper all that de Shazer does is to challenge the utility of describing client interaction in 'resistance' terms and he proposes that it is more useful to us as therapists to conceptualise in terms of 'cooperating'. Now of course I say that 'all that de Shazer does . . . ' but in my view this 'all' is a rather significant 'all'. So what difference does this shift from resistance to cooperating make in my practice.

1. It changes the way that I listen. When we shift our perspective from resistance to cooperating we are choosing to assume, and it is of course a choice, that the client means what they way. When clients say that they want to change we choose to believe that that is indeed the case. We shift our position from an evaluative frame 'does the client really mean this' or 'what is the client really saying' to a radically accepting frame. The client means what they say and it is my job to work with what they are saying rather than to look through the client's utterances for any evidence that they might not 'mean it'. All that we need to think about when sitting with our clients is how to construct the next question, building it on, and taking account of, the client's last answer.

2. The centrality of the concept of resistance in the way that therapy has thought about client's has also affected the way that therapists sit with people. de Shazer in his very early book Patterns (1982) writes: 'From the earliest days, 20th-century psychotherapy has most often been described as a contest. . . . The contest was this: The therapist (for change) had joined battle against the client's resistance (a force against change). Once the therapist "won" this contest, the client was no longer seen as resistant, and there was a "cure"; the problem was solved' (p 13). In this contest it was assumed that clients were, inevitably deceptive, they say one thing but mean another, they say that they want to change but their 'resistance' gets in the way. Now one tool that therapists have developed for strengthening their hand in this contest is 'body language'. Therapists begin to watch out for secret clues in order to understand the client's 'true' position, the little signs that give the client away, the elements of their communication that clients can be thought to be less in control of. This position leads therapists to observe their client's carefully in order to figure out what is going on, the position can be thought of as 'observational'. In Solution Focus of course we are not observing our client's in this way, we are, as it were, sitting beside our client's listening to their words rather sitting opposite them observing.

3. 'The Death of Resistance' also changes our entire stance in relation to any one piece of work. In the place of 'resistance' we choose to assume that client's are giving of their best at all times and that it is our job to cooperate with the client's way of cooperating with us. This thought is both challenging and uncomfortable. If the client does not change we cannot 'blame' the client's 'resistance'. If the client does not change all that we can do is to take responsibility and to accept that however hard we tried we did not find a way of helping the client to change. This is not an easy position to take and yet is fundamental to Solution Focused practice.

So de Shazer's paper invites us to shift our position, moving from an evaluative position to an appreciative and accepting position, from an observational stance to an alongside stance and overall moving us into a position of taking responsibility. These shifts are, I think, truly significant and have made a huge difference in my practice.

At the end of the paper in Family Process there is a brief response by Susan Stewart and Carol M. Anderson who the previous year had published the book 'Mastering Resistance' (1983). Unsurprisingly they were less than impressed with de Shazer's thinking, framing it, negatively I suspect, as 'theoretically oriented' whilst describing themselves as 'two terminal pragmatists'. They write 'we must confess to some initial shock at de Shazer's proclamations that resistance is dead. We thought that we had seen it just last week, alive and looking amazingly healthy' (p 17). Their dismissal of the paper as theoretical fails, in my view, to appreciate the massive practical difference that the shift of conceptualisation that de Shazer proposes makes in our work. 'The Death of Resistance' changes everything!

de Shazer, Steve (1982) Patterns of Brief Therapy: An Ecosystemic Approach New York: The Guildford Press

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

Anderson, Carol M., Stewart, Susan (1983) Mastering Resistance: A Practical Guide to Family Therapy New York: The Guildford Press

As it happens I do have a very shabby scanned copy of the paper that I could send you if you email me at

Evan George


02 July 2023


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