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The underlying philosophical roots/value base of solution-focused work

I was recently asked to say what the philosophical roots/value base of solution-focused work are. A fascinating question and although it is one that has answers spread throughout the solution-focused literature I thought that rather than simply cite references it would be an instructive and hopefully useful exercise to put down some thoughts of my own – both for me and for anyone else who happens to read this.

I shall focus more on the values side of the question. Determining the philosophical roots of the approach is made complicated, in my view, by the attention given to various philosophers by Steve de Shazer in his writing about solution-focused brief therapy. In his later writings, he drew liberally on Wittgenstein in particular, and also on Derrida, among others, but there is a sense in which he was looking for philosophies which fitted with solution-focused therapy following its development, rather than that these philosophers had influenced its roots during its development (though the radical constructivist, von Glaserfeld, and his concept of ‘fit’ as opposed to ‘match’ most certainly did influence early solution-focused brief therapy and the idea of skeleton keys in particular).

De Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their Milwaukee colleagues were a pragmatic bunch and their focus was first and foremost on what works. Pragmatism was practically a value in itself and the values of brief therapy could perhaps be most clearly seen in the three brief therapy principles (which de Shazer and Berg actually called the Central Philosophy): 1) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; 2) Once you know what works, do more of it; 3) If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again: do something different. (This was the solution-focused brief therapy order – for the original MRI problem-focused brief therapy the second and third principles had been the other way around).

Following this pragmatic tradition, when I teach solution-focused practice I don’t usually explicitly list values which underpin the approach. I say that they are implicit within the practice and within the questions a solution-focused practitioner asks in particular. And I assume that participants, in learning to use the approach, will come to their own conclusions about these values. So let’s see what happens when I try to become more explicit.

As I see it, the central value of the approach lies in the overarching organising function of the question “what are your best hopes from our work together?” or one of its variations. Insofar as the worker asks this question, without any notion of what the answer might be, so that only the client can answer it, the client is put fully in control of the direction of the work. For once the client has been able to articulate their hopes from the work, then these hopes should guide every subsequent utterance and action of the worker. If we were to label the values inherent in doing this – in truly doing this – then I would use words such as self-determination, democracy and transparency.

The transparency of the work should operate in more than one manner. In the preceding paragraph, the focus was on a transparent destination and direction for the work. Another value lies in the transparency of every worker action. Everything should be in plain view on the surface (a Wittgensteinian value!), to the extent that the worker should be able to explain and justify everything said or asked and every action taken. There is no desire or intention on the part of the worker to covertly or strategically influence the client. Added to transparency here I would use words like openness and partnership.

When we start using words such as these, we can see a problem which I think is inherent in a practitioner of a particular approach listing the values of that approach as she or he sees them. It becomes a bit like ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – not many are going to disagree with values such as self-determination, democracy, transparency, openness and partnership, and most would want to claim that such values reside in their own therapeutic modality.

So perhaps I will go back to my practice of stating that the values are implicit within the practice. What is distinctive about solution-focused practice, as with all other modalities, is what its practitioners do. Let us be as clear – as open and transparent – as possible about what we actually do, and the values should speak for themselves. They will be in the eye of the beholder, the client, the observer, and actually, now that I have written this, I realise that I feel rather uncomfortable in telling these people what these values are.

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