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The Language of Solution Focused Brief Therapy


One of the comments often made by participants on workshops and courses is that learning solution focused brief therapy is like learning a new language. It is not just that the therapist is focusing her, and the client's, attention on different content but also that the approach shapes and poses questions in a very particular and rather careful way.

Signs or steps

One example of the peculiarity of solution focus can be found in the way that the approach works with scale questions. We can imagine asking a client "on a scale of 0 to 10 with 0 representing how things were when you made the appointment to come and see me and 10 representing the way that life will be on the day after your miracle, where do you see things now?" If we imagine that the client responds by saying "4" then we are likely to pursue the question "what is it that tells you that things are at 4 on your scale and not at 0?" If the client responds with a picture of life at 4 the therapist will move on and invite the client to think about moving one point up on his or her scale. Now it is quite clear from experience of many workshops that the obvious question for people to ask at this point is "so what will you have to do to move up from 4 to 5?" However obvious it may seem, this is a question that the solution focused brief therapist rarely asks. Instead the therapist will ask the client "so how will you know that you have moved up from 4 to 5?" The two questions sound very similar and yet are in fact different in quite fundamental ways. The first question, the obvious and natural one that spontaneously occurs to most people invites the client to answer in terms of strategies. "To move up one point I will have to get myself to . . . I will have to stop myself from . . .I will have to start …" The second question, the more typical solution focused question, invites an answer from the client in terms of criteria, in terms of signs. "I will know that I have moved up one point on the scale because I will notice myself beginning to feel more confident, I will be going out more and talking with friends again."

So what is the difference and does it matter? The difference does matter principally because the question "so what are you going to have to do to get to 5?" tends to be read by the client as a challenge to the client to take action. There is, implicit in the question, the idea that the client should do something. However if the client is challenged there is always the danger that the client will lapse in the face of the challenge, again experiencing helplessness and hopelessness in the face of the problem. In the question "how will you know that you have moved one point up?" there is no implication that the client should do anything at all about anything. The client is less likely therefore to feel challenged to take action and is therefore more likely to be able to answer the question. In the process of answering of course the client may well describe, in effect, exactly what she will have to do.

As with most things there do appear to be times when it is useful to do precisely the opposite. On those occasions when the client has been higher on the scale and has slipped back it does seem to be useful to the client to ask "so what will you have to do to get back to 5?" (de Shazer, S.)

'And' and 'but'

Another of the oddnesses of the way that solution focused brief therapists talk lies in their reluctance to make use of the simple, short and straightforward word "but". How come "but" is so little used in the approach? Indeed some therapists become slightly phobic regarding the word and finding themselves avoiding the word in their common speech, noticing it and becoming unduly sensitive.

"But" is always a danger word whether the therapist hears the client using the word or whether the therapist hears the therapist using the word. Let's look at a possible opening for a follow-up session. The therapist asks the client " so what has been better since we last met?" The client responds by saying "well, actually the last two weeks have been terrible". The therapist answers by saying "but your key-worker told me that yesterday you had a really good day". The word "but" here is clearly a problem. "But" is an argument. "But" is exclusive. Either the therapist is right or the client is right. With the word "but" both cannot be right at the same time. We could now imagine exactly the same dialogue, just that instead of "but" the client substitutes "and".

  • W. So what has been better since we last met?
  • C. Well, actually the last two weeks have been terrible.
  • W. And your key-worker told me that yesterday you had a really good day.
  • C. Yes, yesterday really was a good day.
  • W. So how do you explain that yesterday was a good day given how tough the rest of the last couple of weeks have been?

The work "and" allows both the client and the therapist to be right. The last two weeks have been terrible and the client had a good day yesterday. "And" is inclusive of both realities and therefore allows the client to agree with the therapist that yesterday was indeed a good day. If the worker had used the word "but" then the client would know that to agree that yesterday was good would involve accepting that the last two weeks had in someway not been terrible.

"But" is not just a problem when we hear it coming out of our mouths. "But" often signals problems when we hear the client using it. Imagine the therapist complimenting the client "I've been really impressed with the way that you've been coping recently given that things have been so tough". If the client responds by saying "yes, but you should have seen me yesterday at home", the therapist knows that she has been trying to move too fast and that the client does not see the world the way the therapist is presenting it. "But" signals backing off, slowing down and doing more work. "So what will it take to convince you that you are coping with all the difficulties that you are facing?" would be an elegant response, a response that notices and accepts the difference of position and works with it without retracting the compliment.


Even the tenses that solution focused brief therapy uses are somewhat odd. "How will you know that the miracle has happened and that the problems that have brought you here are resolved?" The juxtapositioning of the future and the past tense is both unusual and characteristic. "So let's imagine that you have made all the changes that you have described - what do you think will have been the very first step that you will have taken to move things in that direction?" Either of these questions could be replaced with the simpler "so how will you know when the miracle happens" or "so what steps are you going to take?"

There is, I think, a reason for the more complex construction. The use of tenses invites the client into the solution, invites the client to imagine that it has indeed happened and from that position, the position of successful attainment, invites the client to experience it more fully or to imagine what it will have taken to achieve the change.

Solution focused talk then is both odd and yet on another level mundane. At the time of the introduction of a national lottery to Britain the entire nation was obsessed with the question "If you won the lottery what would you do with the money?" This preoccupation is clearly different, but not a million miles, from a miracle question in the underlying structure of thinking. 'If something extraordinary happens in your life what differences will it make to your experience?' Similarly the scale structure, self-rating on a scale of 1 to 10, is familiar to almost anyone who has attended school, and indeed to anyone who follows football in the newspapers, with players' performances routinely rated on a 1 to 10 scale. These are parts of our day-to-day, everyday culture. Unfamiliar as they might be in the world of therapy, these are not questions that will pose impossible difficulties for the client.

© Brief Therapy Practice 2002. Please feel free to copy this and to refer to it, always, naturally, acknowledging your source.

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