The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

From Problem to Solution

Clients, especially those who have tried other therapies, often ask us why we do not ask a lot of questions about their problems or about their history. Other therapists sometimes say that if we are not curious about a person's problems and history we are not truly interested in the person.

So why not ask about the problem? The obvious reason why therapists ask about the problem and its history is because they want to try to understand it and help their clients understand it. From this position of mutual understanding they try to fix it. Different therapists have different explanatory theories so each will have different ways of exploring the problem and its history. Even though none of these theories represents an actual scientific truth they serve their purpose and most clients are helped in some way.

Solution focused therapy comes from a different starting point. If any therapy works it leads to the client 'doing something different'. Without that all the understanding in the world will make no difference. Solution focused brief therapy starts by trying to discover what the 'something different' might be. Instead of asking about the problem we ask "What are your best hopes from this therapy?" The focus is on what our clients want to achieve rather than what they want to leave behind. When we have established the overall aim for the therapy we then ask questions about how the person's life would look if their 'best hopes' were realised. Many clients will spend much of their first session describing what life would be like if the difficulties that brought them to therapy were resolved. Many people get stuck with their problem because they can't imagine what will replace it – "better the devil you know". Sometimes, beginning to picture a viable alternative is all that is necessary to start the natural process of change.

Probably the most important aspect of any counselling or therapy is the client's sense of being properly listened to. Instead of listening in order to understand what has gone wrong solution focused brief therapists listen for clues about what going right would look like. Instead of discovering the problem and helping someone fix it we discover a preferred future and help someone reach it. The 'helping someone reach it' is the second part of the task.

The people who first developed solution focused brief therapy in America were Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. Originally they were 'problem fixers' trying to understand how problems worked. What they noticed was that nobody's problem worked entirely to plan – there were always exceptions. A depressed person wouldn't feel so depressed on certain days, the naughty child would occasionally behave well, the agoraphobic person would go to the shop and so on. De Shazer and Berg began to study exceptions rather than problems and in these exceptions found potential solutions already existing within a person's repertoire. This was the beginning of solution focused brief therapy.

When a client begins to describe what a future without the problem might look like the therapist will be looking for evidence of some aspects of this future already being in place. And when a client talks about problems the therapist will be seeking out exceptions, those times the client did something different.

Our clients come to us because they are fearful about their future. They have a problem, usually with a clear history and they fear that the problem will continue to restrain them from living their lives as they would wish. We help them envisage a different, more preferred future and then discover the many hidden and unnoticed ways they are struggling towards it. If we ask at all about history it will be the history of the solution rather than the history of the problem. Instead of asking why have you had this problem so long we might ask how come you have never given up trying to do something about it.


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