The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Sharpening Ockham's Razor


Ockham’s razor refers to the principle, propounded by William of Ockham (? – 1347), which states that ‘plurality is never to be posited without need’. Steve de Shazer (1985) in Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy defines the principle in the following terms ‘what can be done with fewer means is done in vain with many’.

Proponents of solution focused brief therapy have long accepted the description ‘minimal’, when applied to their approach, with pleasure and pride. Indeed in 1986 Steve de Shazer published an article in The Family Therapy Networker that was entitled ‘Minimal Elegance’. The idea of minimalism, or striving for simplicity, in conjunction with a determination to stay true to the model, have been of central significance in shaping the development of the Brief Therapy Practice’s particular reading of solution focused brief therapy. Some shifts both in practice and conceptualisation have already been noted whilst others remain on the agenda or in the balance.

Changes already noticed

Visitor, complainant, customer. Whilst initially a typology for conceptualising and taking account of the nature of the relationship between the client and the worker, it later seemed that this classification obscured a more useful, and simpler thought, namely that every client can be thought to be a ‘customer for something’. Following this latter thought has served to help us to focus on figuring out what this particular client might want from the therapeutic process at this particular time.

Exceptions. Letting go of the idea of exceptions was hard for the team given our investment in and attachment to the idea. It seemed to us that our early solution focused work was centred on exceptions and yet later it also seemed clear that exceptions in their classic form, times when the problem did not happen, were a deviation from the most direct route towards the client’s preferred future. Solution focused brief therapy is at its simplest when it moves towards the preferred future rather than away from the problem. Exceptions are moving away from the problem and therefore it seemed to us that it would be simpler and more direct to focus on eliciting elements of the preferred future that are already in place.

Tasks. In our initial thinking the Practice experimented with a variety of tasks, both noticing and doing and it was our understanding of the nature of the client-worker relationship that determined what sort of task the worker would give to the client. Increasingly the Practice began to simplify, offering clients only noticing type tasks that were easier for the team to develop, less intrusive in the clients’ lives, easier to teach, and did not require the worker to make the same more complex distinctions about the client, reducing the need for the worker to ‘assess’.

Does the client have to answer? There is listening and listening although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between them! Clearly the nature of the listening relates to the worker’s intention: what is it that the worker is listening for? In the model of solution focused brief therapy that has evolved at the Brief Therapy Practice, the worker listens in order to be able to take account of the client’s answer to the last question in the process of shaping the next. The worker is not becoming ‘expert’ on the client, merely paying attention to the clues that the client’s answer offers in terms of how to follow the client’s thread in a solution focused direction. This style of listening can be thought of as collaborative listening.

The miracle question. The miracle question remains in our practice and yet its centrality in our work has sharply altered. For many years in initial sessions we would ask clients 2 separate questions which served to elicit the client’s preferred future, albeit in different ways. We would initially ask the client ‘what will it take for this session to be useful to you?’ We would follow this with the miracle question, asking the client to imagine that a miracle had happened and that the problems that had brought the client to therapy were resolved. The exact relationship between the client’s answers to these two, slightly different questions, remained unclear to us, as perhaps it may have been to the client. The first shift that we made involved asking a different initial question, namely, “what are your best hopes for coming here?” Having established this question in our practice it remained the case that on occasions it was difficult to elicit from the client a detailed picture of the preferred future. Thus if the client was finding it difficult to answer the ‘best hopes’ question in any detail, the worker could then ask a miracle question, embedding the client’s ‘best hopes’ into the question asked. It thus becomes the case that the sole ‘preferred future’ elicited in the therapy is explicitly and solely related to the therapeutic project. It is also the case, of course, that if the client answers regarding the ‘best hopes’ in sufficient detail, that the miracle question becomes redundant. After all why ask 2 questions when one will do?

Current dilemmas

Problem-free talk. For many years we have started first sessions with a few minutes of problem-free talk. The talk serves a social purpose, establishes the possibility of talking (often useful with children) and means that the worker connects with the client in a context of competence rather than in relation to the problem that has brought the client to therapy. However is it necessary? Indeed is it legitimate? Questions in solution focused brief therapy seem to us to be legitimated by their purposeful relationship with the ‘best hopes’ that the client has expressed. How is it possible to know what questions it is legitimate therefore to ask before even knowing what the client wants from the therapy?

One-point up on the scale. Asking clients how they will know that things have moved up one point on their scale risks duplicating their description of their preferred future if that is described in small detail. Further the question is often reformulated by workers and is asked as “what do you need to do to get to three?” When formulated in these terms, unless it follows the client’s statement that s/he needs to do something to get to three, the question risks implying that the client should do something, inviting the worker into an instrumental, problem-solving position that is tempting for most therapists and yet antithetical to the nature of solution focused talking.

End of session feedback. Trainees observing solution focused brief therapy sessions frequently comment on the changed nature of the interaction between client and therapist after the break. Prior to the break it is clear that the client is regarded as the expert on his or her life, it is the client’s preferred future and it is the client who is establishing their path towards this future. As the worker considers what compliments to give they sift the material that has emerged during the meeting and make a decision about what feedback will be, in his/her view, most useful in moving the client towards the preferred future. This shift demands that the worker take a position, that the worker re-appear.

Suggestions. It seems impossible to give the client a task, or offer a suggestion without indicating that the worker wants the client to do something and that the worker knows what it is that the client should do. How does this fit with the rest of a solution focused session? If there is a difference is the difference a necessary or useful one?

Brief Therapy Practice. We are more than happy for you to copy this hand-out, should you so wish, provided that you do so only in its original form.


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