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Some solution-focused history

I am currently engaged on a solution-focused writing project and here is a little sample of what I am writing. This is about how the people who developed solution-focused brief therapy, Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues at the BFTC in Milwaukee, switched the focus of an earlier brief therapy from problems to exceptions to problems, turning problem-focused brief therapy into solution-focused brief therapy. I’d be interested in any comments, not least in whether it makes sense!

A little history of the focus on what is working

I have described (elsewhere) how the founders of the solution-focused approach at the Brief Family Therapy Center (BFTC) were strongly influenced by the brief therapy of the Mental Research Institute (MRI), when I focused on the goal-setting aspect of that approach. To trace the development of the focus on what is working in solution-focused practice is to see how the BFTC turned another of the MRI’s ideas on its head. I said previously (also elsewhere) that MRI brief therapists do not see problems as being deep-rooted within the individual. They see them rather as arising from people’s attempted solutions to ordinary life difficulties, solutions which do not work. In a nutshell, the therapist’s job is to find out what is not working and then to intervene, to help their clients to do something different, that does work, to resolve the problem. The MRI therapist’s job, in other words, is to initiate change.

To see how the alternative practice of asking about exceptions to problems emerged, we need to begin with the BFTC’s development of the so-called First Session Formula Task:

Between now and next time we meet, we want you to observe, so that you can tell us next time, what happens in your (life, marriage, family, or relationship) that you want to continue to have happen (de Shazer and Molnar, 1984).

This task was designed by Steve de Shazer and Elam Nunnally of the BFTC for one particular family, who “appeared rather hopeless and described their situation in very vague terms” (de Shazer, 1985, p138), and it had a startling effect on the family and hence on the team. The family returned for their second session having “turned itself around”, and able to describe positive changes in concrete, behavioural terms. The team then began to give this task to other clients, and found that not only did it frequently have a similar effect, but that the positive occurrences reported had often been happening before the therapy started (Kiser, 1995, p132, emphasis added).

This last finding in particular set in train a process whereby the BFTC team started to see their role more as helping change to continue rather than as initiating it (de Shazer, 1988, p5), and this shift was supported by their experience in another case. A client who, in a first session, had been describing a problem as deep-rooted and seemingly intractable, mentioned almost as an afterthought improvements in the three days leading up to the session. The team decided to focus on these improvements rather than on the intractability and the work was successfully completed in three sessions. They began to call improvements that had happened before the work had started pre-session change (Weiner-Davis, de Shazer & Gingerich, 1987).

In the above examples, the clients engaged in “change-talk” either after an end-of-session task from the previous session, or having spontaneously mentioned change themselves. The team became committed to the idea that having clients talk about change led to change in their actual lives outside, but their research indicated that most clients did not spontaneously talk about change in this way. They would do so, however, when asked about changes by the therapist (Gingerich, de Shazer & Weiner-Davis, 1988). Given the observations of positive change happening before the work had started, such questions were brought forward from second to first sessions. The team then found that “almost all problem patterns have exceptions” and that asking about pre-session change and exceptions “frequently resulted in eliciting client-change talk” (Gingerich et al, 1988, p29). The search for exceptions began to take place earlier and earlier in the first meeting and so, in another nutshell, the therapist’s job had been reversed, and was now to find out what is working and then to help the person to do more of this. The solution-focused therapist’s job, in other words, was to facilitate the continuation of change. It looks such a simple switch on paper, yet it has been revolutionary in its impact on ways of helping people to make changes in their lives.

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