What is the Solution Focused Approach?
Insoo Kim Berg © 2004
The Solution Focused approach has derived from the psychotherapy setting. On this page you will find information about the roots of the model: the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy.
What is Solution Focused Brief Therapy ?
Solution-Focused Brief therapy (SFBT) is a future-oriented, goal-directed approach to solving human problems of living. Initially developed as a rebellion against the traditional psychotherapy approach which is driven by the therapist/expert deciding what might be the best possible solution for those who seek help, SFBT aims to work collaboratively with the client who understands his own circumstances the best in order to arrive at a solution that is pragmatic and realistic to fit his needs. The result is a respectful, brief therapy with workable solutions that the client can actually carry out by making needed changes.
Developed in the late 1970’s and 1980’s by a team of clinicians from a variety of professional training, the work was led by de Shazer & Berg who have articulated their view of this approach in many publications (de Shazer, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, Berg & Miller, 1992, Berg, 1994, Berg & Reuss, 1997, Berg & Kelly, 2000, Berg & Dolan, 2002, Berg & Steiner, and DeJong & Berg 2002;) and their writings have been translated into 13 languages. During the 1990’s the application of the model has been expanded out to schools, prisons, hospitals, residential treatment homes, nursing homes, businesses and wherever people work with each other.
Major Tenet of the Approach
SFBT is not theory based, but was pragmatically developed. Even so, one can easily see the roots of the SFBT in the early work of the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto, Wittgensteinian philosophy and Buddhist thought. There are a number of tenets that serve as the foundation of SFBT and which both inform and lead to the intervention model.
If it is not broken, don’t fix it. This is the over-arching tenet of SFBT. Theories, models and philosophies of intervention are not important or useful if the client has already solved the problem. Nothing would seem more absurd than to intervene when the problem is already solved, even though at times clients may not be aware of it.
Looking for exceptions. All problems have exceptions, that is, when the problem could have happened but somehow did not. Looking for those times when the problem did not arise when it would normally have, provides clues to what clients can repeat until they are satisfied that things are better enough. Even when clients may not have previous solutions that they can repeat, most clients have recent examples of exceptions to problems.
Asking questions rather than telling clients what to do. Questions are an important communication element of all models of therapy, but SFBT makes questions the primary tool of communication and rarely makes direct challenges or confrontations to a client. However, questions are used as both the primary communication method and as intervention.
Future is negotiated and created. The questions used in SFBT are almost always focused on the present and future. Therefore, rather than emphasizing the past mistakes, misfortune or trauma, it is the basic belief of SFBT that focusing on solutions is much more productive and empowering than focusing on past events or guessing about what might have been the origin of the problem.
Compliments. Compliments are another essential part of SFBT. Validating what the client already is doing well and acknowledging how difficult his problems is, encourages the client to change while given the message that the therapist understands and cares. Compliments in conversations can punctuate what the client is doing right. Soliciting the client’s perception of how other people in his or her life would compliment is also another way that SFBT connects the client with those important persons in his or her real life outside of the therapy room.
Gentle nudging to do more of what is working. Once SFBT therapist has created a positive frame via compliments and reframing and then discovered some previous solutions and exceptions to the problem, they gently nudge the client or family to do more of what has previously worked or suggests to try changes they have thought they would like to try. It is rare for a SFBT therapist to make a suggestion or assignment that is NOT based on the client’s previous solutions or exceptions to their problems.
Change is constant and inevitable. As the Buddhist teaching says SFBT believes that stability in life is an illusion; life is constantly changing and we are always changing. Some changes are more noticeable and apparent than others. It means the more we look for small changes, the more we will notice the changes. Therefore, noticing and paying attention to small changes can set in motion for more and more changes and since we are all changing, the focus is on how to direct our attention to more positive changes that are already occurring.
The solution is not always directly related to the problem. This tenet is the most shocking and it seems to go against all intuition and knowledge we have about problems and solutions. According to the “problem-solving” approach, there should be a logical and coherent relationship between problems and solutions. However, we encounter numerous examples when such logic does not stand up to real life and at times we need to take a bold step to “do something differently.”
Major Intervention Tools
Like all models of therapy, SFBT also has numerous tools that serve as interventions as well as communication tools. As with all such tools, it is in how one uses these tools that makes important difference. Among those are: how to follow up the response, the timing of when to use which tools, when to talk and when to be silent and myriad of other techniques that one masters. The following are few of the most well known tools of SFBT.
Language of solutions. The language of problems tends to be different than that of solutions. Usually problem language is negative, past-history focused in order to describe the origins of the problem and often suggests permanency of a problem. The language of solutions, however, is usually more positive, hopeful, future oriented and suggests a transience of problems. Because language is the primary tool of therapeutic interventions, all questions are viewed as potentially intervening, so we use language very carefully. For example, asking a mother: “What would your daughter say what she hates about your being drunk?” elicits very different responses from asking the same mother: “What would your daughter say what she likes the most about you being sober?” We pay very close attention to how words are used since we believe that “words were originally magic” and they still can perform a lot of magic.
Solution-focused, collaboratively negotiated goals. All therapeutic activities are goal-driven, that is, it is a purposeful activity and “negotiated” between the client and therapist. Therefore, clear, concrete and specific, measurable goals are important to SFBT because any treatment model can begin with problems but unless one is clear about the presence of solutions, it is difficult to know when the hard work should end. Or from the client’s point of view, when is it “better enough” that he or she can have enough confidence to go on with his/her daily living on his/her own. Without such specific termination criteria, any therapeutic relationship can go on for a long time without realizing that successful changes may have been made already.
Miracle questions. When some clients or organizations have difficulties articulating clearly defined criteria for successful outcome, the miracle question serves a very important role in defining the beginning step toward solutions. Not so surprisingly, the miracle question conveys the therapist’s respect for the immensity of the problem and at the same time leads to the client’s coming up with small, realistic, concrete steps, the beginning of a solution behavior. The answer to the miracle question constructs a vision of what the solution would look like. It is important to learn how to follow up and expand on this wonderful beginning of solution and help to build on this so that the client can transform it into a manageable, doable beginning steps.
Exception-finding questions. As described previously, all problems have exceptions and paying attention to those times when exceptions occur is an important intervening tool since doing so indicates to the client that the therapist is confident of his ability to find solutions and that problems become more manageable when one has a clear sense of exceptions. Exceptions also point out what needs to be done to create badly needed solutions.
Scaling questions. The most versatile tool of the SFBT model that also can be adapted to elicit useful information that will help negotiate and assess numerous things that matter to the client. Because of it’s simplicity and also it is a subjective information that tells both the therapist and the client, the state of any useful information is. Numbers are so simple to use that even four or five year olds can respond competently by showing visual aids or toys that indicate what their own assessment of the situation is on a number of issues.