What is Solution Focused Therapy?

Written by Alun Parrysolution focused therapy

Solution Focused Therapy (SF) is a powerful, evidence based approach. It was developed in Milawukee in the 1980s by a team of radical therapists that included Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg.

It differs from traditional therapy approaches in many ways.

For instance, the solution focused approach is mainly future facing. Whereas many therapies will seek to delve into childhood, SF doesn’t need to do that in order to be effective.

It focuses on how you would like life to be.

A good analogy is to imagine that you had fallen into a hole. There are two questions one could investigate in this situation.

The first is: why did I fall into the hole?

If we wanted to, we could spend a lot of time and energy studying this question. We could analyse patterns, diagnose flaws, wonder if we secretly believe that we deserve to be in a hole. We could delve into childhood and look at what happened back then, to see if that might be why you fell into the hole.

Or we could get you out of the hole.

So in SF, we would ask a different question: where would you like to be instead?

The work of therapy is then to help you reach the outcome you want.

Focusing On The Future You Want

Whereas many therapies look backwards to the past, SF therapists will instead help you define the future you want.

In therapy, you and your therapist will work together to describe this in real detail. This is so you can recognise aspects of it when they show up in your life.

When you notice an aspect of your desired future happening for real, you will know that you are making progress.

It also clarifies what you really want. People can say things like “I want to be happy”. But happiness will look different for each individual person.

So it’s important to get specific and discover what it means for you. Supposing you were happy, how would you know? What would be different in your life? Who else would be noticing? What would they see that told them you were now happy?

Think of it as the difference between shopping with a list, and shopping with no idea of what you want.

Creating this desired future is powerful in itself. It is a very exciting process. I have seen so many clients get hopeful and motivated by this alone.

It makes the change you want feel more possible. Not only do you now know what it is, but you’ll notice aspects of it are already showing up from time to time.

No Diagnosis, No Labelling

Solution focused therapists won’t “diagnose” you. That means neither formally nor in any other way.

So you don’t have to worry about your therapist analysing you or categorising you. You won’t need to worry about leaving with a label that you might not want.

Solution Focused Therapists don’t use theories of personality to classify clients at all.

You can just relax and be yourself, liberated from that fear.

There is an old joke that goes like this: “My therapist is very generous. I went with one problem, and my therapist gave me five more!”

This doesn’t have any use in solution focused therapy.

After all, our focus is on helping you reach your desired future. So categories, labels and diagnosis don’t help with that.

We could gather a hundred people with the same “diagnosis” into a room. Yet they’d each have a different desired future.

So the diagnosis or label is not useful for getting to where we want to go. Everyone is on a different journey to a different destination.

It would be like putting everyone on the same bus, even though they are each heading for different destinations.

Solution focused therapists often use a taxi driver analogy. When you get into a taxi, the first thing the driver says is “Hi! Where would you like to go?”

Change Is Always Happening

One of the core assumptions of Solution Focused Therapy is that change is always happening.

When you think of enacting change, you may assume that it is about doing something new.

Sometimes that is the case. Yet often, it is not about doing something new. It is about doing more of something that you are already doing.

Buddhists have a concept called ‘the illusion of stability.’ In solution focused therapy, we work with this idea a lot.

Things might seem stable. But when we look closely, we notice that some days are better than others, and some days worse.

Rather than stability, we instead have an undulation. A little better here, a little less good there.

In solution focused therapy, we get very interested in those times when things have been a little better.

That’s an example of the change already happening. So we want to dig into how that happened. How did you do that? What was different that created that bit of improvement?

Let’s say that you want to be sleeping better. You’re only getting two hours a night. Yet last weekend, you slept for three and a half hours.

That’s an example of the change already happening.

In solution focused therapy, we hunt for those moments of positive change and bring them to the fore.

If It Works Do More Of It

I’ve noticed that when I’m thirsty and I drink water, my thirst quenches.

So I don’t suffer with thirst.

I’ve figured out what works, so I keep doing it.

Once my mouth feels dry, I drink a glass of water.

It’s an example of another core principle of solution focused therapy: If it works do more of it. If it doesn’t work try something else.

This is why SF therapists are so interested in the positive changes that are already happening.

We work to help you find out what works, so that you can do more of it.

We focus on bringing the positive changes into awareness. We dig into them to discover how they happened. Then you can keep doing it and move closer to the life you want.

What’s Right With You

SF steps away from the “what’s wrong with you” paradigm.

We start from the correct assumption that you are an incredible person with a ton of resources and skills.

You have gotten this far after all.

You might not see it yet, but you’re already making some of the change you want happen. It might be only a little, but it’s there.

SF therapists think it is more useful to focus on what is right with you. This way, we learn the things that work best for you. That gives you the chance to do more of that and change your life for the better.

Change is easier too as you will often be doing things that you already do. Or things you already love.

It also ensures that therapy is tailor made to you. Therapy is an individual thing rather than one size fits all.

One SF client I know of began to get better by making models of Daleks with his young son.

What therapist could have come up with that alone? Solution Focused Therapy is designed to produce these effective, tailor made interventions.

What we choose to amplify will be different to many therapy approaches too.

One of my clients reported that she had felt depressed and had taken to her bed for three days. She felt bad about this.

I could have asked why that had happened. But that would only have deepened her sense of failure.

SF therapy looks for what is right with each person.

So my focus was to ask how she had managed to get back into the world again despite feeling awful. Her answer uncovered a whole load of resources that she was able to use to get better.

Your Forgotten Stories Of You

This highlights another benefit of focusing on what is right with you. It unveils stories about you that you no longer see.

A big part of therapy is helping you access new stories about yourself.

By focusing on what is right with you, SF therapy helps you to discover these new ways of seeing.

We tend to come to therapy with a story about ourself. In telling that story, we miss the constellation of alternative stories that are also true.

For every problem we bring, there are also many exceptions.

So if someone self harms every day, that is one story. That is the story of the person who self harms.

Yet that same person also spends most of their time not self harming.

They only bring the story and identity of “self harmer”, and don’t see themself as someone who also doesn’t. Both stories are true. Both identities are true.

When I was unhappy with my weight, I would admonish myself. “Why am I always eating chocolate!!??” I would ask.

But of course, I wasn’t always eating chocolate. I was eating it more than I wanted to. But for almost all of my day, I was a person not eating chocolate.

By exposing these multiple stories and identities, it allows us a flexibility and confidence to create the change we want.

It also begs the question, “how did I do that?” This in turn uncovers even more tailor made strategies to use more of.

Small Steps Matter

Change is always happening. So SF therapists are always looking for even tiny instances of change.

By the same token, taking small steps is valuable too.

I often make the point that a journey of a thousand steps never takes a thousand steps.

Like dominoes falling, some changes we make, although small, produce big results. That one small step results in giant leaps.

Change can feel overwhelming. So SF therapy makes big changes through manageable steps forward.

We often ask: “If things were just a little better, how would you know?”

Notice the emphasis on just a little better. Your next step does not need to fix everything. A little better is good.

Again, we want to help you describe that slightly better future in some detail. We want you to be able to spot it when it has arrived.

This creates landmarks for change.

When change happens, even small change, the results are more profound than we expect.

Change begins to create virtuous cycles.

Take the person who said that a little better would mean talking to their partner more.

When they did, their partner liked that. So they softened in turn.

The client enjoyed that their partner had softened towards them. So they felt safer to share what was going on for them. The sharing created more intimacy.

And so it went on. A virtuous cycle of positive interaction. A giant leap from a tiny step.

“No Childhood Shit, Okay!?”

The vulnerability researcher Brene Brown tells a funny story of when she first went to therapy. She instructed her therapist: “No childhood shit, okay?”

It’s often assumed that the only way to get the better life you want is to go back into traumatic moments of your life.

Yet solution focused therapists get results without doing that. Even with trauma.

We are curious about what life would look like if the past was no longer impacting your future.

Then we work together to create every aspect of that desired life.

Not everybody wants to go back and relive old trauma. After all, it was traumatic enough first time around.

So it’s good to know that there is an approach that allows you to heal without having to do that.

The past, sadly, can’t be changed. But the future is waiting to be created. All change, even changing the impact of the past, happens in the present.

SF therapists work effectively with clients who have had all manner of distressing pasts.

Many clients report that it is a less troubling way to work. They are focused on the pleasant future they are moving towards rather than upsetting memories.

This has an impact on the nervous system too.

Whenever we think back to traumatic memories we reactivate our nervous systems. We become anxious and triggered. Our nervous systems stay spooked.

It’s hard to feel safe when re-triggering our nervous systems this way. It’s hard to make change when we do not feel safety.

When we think about the desired future we want, we no longer spook our nervous systems into anxiety.

This helps us stay in a safe, resourceful place to make the changes we desire.

Conclusion – Scoring The Penalty

Solution Focused Therapy helps you describe the future you want, and then works with you to get there.

It helps you describe that preferred future in detail. It looks at where that future is already present.

It digs into your strategies and strengths to create a tailor made therapy just for you.

It focuses relentlessly on what is right with you. It connects you to your resiliency and resources. It lets you see that there are other stories of you that are more useful.

It helps you move forward step by step, knowing that tiny changes can produce huge results.

Solution Focused Therapy believes that change is most likely when people know what they want, and feel that change is possible.

People are more connected to that possibility when they feel resourceful and resilient. People are less connected to it when they feel scared and flawed.

Imagine you had to take the penalty in the World Cup Final that would decide who won or lost.

What would be more useful to hear in that moment? The story of the time you scored? Or the story of when you blasted it wide?

Which story is most likely to result in you scoring the goal? Which story has you most likely to get the jitters and miss?

That, in a nutshell, is what the approach of solution focused therapy is based on.

Read the book

A great introduction to solution focused therapy is Solution-Focused Practice: Effective Communication to Facilitate Change by Guy Shennan.

Listen to Alun interview Guy Shennan on his podcast “What Is Solution Focused Practice” 

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