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What's in a word? Exceptions, instances, assets and unique outcomes

Talking about what we do - the importance of words

Though I subscribe to all the cautions and caveats of solution-focused (SF) therapists, that SF is not about being positive, I should warn you that this post is about the good stuff we invite our clients to talk about, and another post in the pipeline is about joy. Okay, maybe rather than ‘good stuff’, I should say ‘the stuff that clients want to have in their lives’, or, being even stricter, ‘the stuff our clients want to have in their lives as a result of their meeting with us’, but who is is that wants stuff in their life that isn’t good, or at least, good for them?

Actually, this post isn’t about the stuff we invite clients to talk about, good or otherwise, but about how we talk about this stuff, as you might have already noticed. It might seem that this won’t amount to much more than picking nits, but just as solution-focused practitioners pay careful attention to the words we use in our sessions with our clients, so we should take care with how we talk about what we do, which, after all, some of us spend at least as much of our time doing.

As the title of an article in the current issue of the British family therapy magazine, Context, says, ‘Words are not trivial’. I’d highly recommend reading this article, if you can get hold of a copy (find a member of the Association of Family Therapy, or you can subscribe without being a member). I had been going to describe this paper by Mark Hayward as ‘excellent’, but then thought twice given Mark’s critique of ‘going positive’ and his account of risks we encounter when engaging in applause. To praise is to “a) set yourself up as a judge, b) to position the praised/judged person underneath you and c) likely not disclose the standards against which you are measuring them.”

Let me put it this way - like all Mark’s papers I’ve read, I found it well worth reading. You can find a number of them on the Institute of Narrative Therapy website.


The other trigger for writing this post has been my preparation for a workshop on ‘community-based solution-focused work’ for a group of social work students. This workshop was one of a number of skills development days to prepare the students for their ‘Community Study’, in which they have to use an asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to explore a community and identify its ‘assets’. This is an exciting opportunity that fits with the intentions of a number of us to take the SF approach further into communities, and daunting at the same time, as ABCD is quite new to me. I have been heartened and helped in my preparations by Marc, my colleague from the Zebra Collective, who is currently involved in some ABCD work and said to me the other day that “SF can enhance ABCD”, as SF practitioners are good at asking the sorts of questions that can be useful for ABCD.

Reading about ‘assets’ made me consider how many words and expressions there are for the good stuff, the stuff that clients want to have their lives, or (as in this case) that make up the resources of communities. ‘Asset’ was a handy term for the founders of ABCD to use, as it gave rise to that neat abbreviation, though in this very accessible (there goes the applause again) guide to the ABCD process it is translated to ‘Resources’.


Leaving ABCD and entering SF territory, and its language for the good stuff, two words from the origins of the approach immediately come to mind - ‘exception’ and ‘solution’. It will be worth returning to the word ‘solution’ in a later post, not least as it’s right there in the name of the approach, problematically so according to some (including me). Let’s look here at the idea and term ‘exception’. I’m not sure when this first appeared in the literature, but a very early mention was in Steve de Shazer’s 1985 book, Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy. Steve writes (p34) that exceptions to the rule was an important concept developed jointly by himself, Wally Gingerich and Michele Weiner-Davis, and used in response to the complaints clients presented with in a first session. It’s worth looking at what Steve says about ‘exceptions’ here - partly as I’m shortly going to suggest a link to the narrative idea of ‘unique outcomes’:

“It seems overly simple-minded to say that nothing is ever exactly like anything else.

If the child’s bed was wet last night, the night before, and the night before, etc. -

which causes people to say “the child always wets the bed” - the bed might be

more wet on one night than on the next, or more dry. And the child might have wet

the bed at a different time on different days and probably the sheets are different.

Although the child is seen as always wetting the bed, there are probably some dry

nights now and then - exceptions to the rule…”

Unique outcomes

Narrative therapists also invite talk about good stuff, though rather than exceptions they use the term ‘unique outcomes’. I have heard solution-focused therapists being at pains to point up the differences between exceptions and unique outcomes, and maybe some narrative therapists have been too, but their similarities seem more striking to me. In Michael White’s words, unique outcomes refer to “aspects of lived experience that fall outside of the dominant story” (White and Epston, 1990, p15), where the dominant story is usually a ‘problem-saturated’ one. The term ‘unique outcomes’ has often mystified me, as I understand that the idea is to discover a number of unique outcomes (often framed as times the client resisted the influence of the problem, rather than being actual exceptions to the problem, hence the declared differences), and to use them to plot a new story. So if there are a number of them, in what sense are they unique (or ‘outcomes’)?

We need to go to Michael White’s source to answer this question. The sociologist, Erving Goffman (1961, p119), used the term ‘unique outcomes’ to refer to aspects of a person which are neglected when the person is considered as a member of a social category - that of mental patient for example - presumably meaning aspects that are unique to that individual. Goffman was writing about mental hospitals as ‘total institutions’, and although he doesn’t use a narrative metaphor, one can see why Michael White was drawn to the idea of unique outcomes as times when a patient (re)claimed their individual personhood by resisting an institution’s totalising effects.


The uniqueness of unique outcomes reminds me of de Shazer’s idea that “nothing is ever exactly like anything else”, and I think that as well as sharing a “positive” nature (there goes that word again), exceptions and unique outcomes each serve to focus on the particular - whether particular aspects of an individual person or particular moments in a person’s life, which stand out from social stereotypes or from problem-dominated stories.

How ‘exceptions’ became ‘instances’.

Notwithstanding the importance of the idea and term ‘exception’ in the creation and development of the solution-focused approach, it is an idea I have rarely had in my head while with clients since I first trained with BRIEF in 1995, and a term I use rarely. The developing use of the miracle question, from the late 1980s onwards, led to a shift from thinking about ‘exceptions to the problem’ to ‘times when the miracle is already happening’. In his fascinating account of the development of SFBT, Tapio Malinen reports Michele Weiner-Davis as saying that Eve Lipchik was the first in the original solution-focused team in Milwaukee to ask about such times, and this shift was also central to BRIEF’s developments from the 1990s on.

One advantage of the term ‘exception’ is that the idea is encapsulated into one word, while ‘Times when the miracle is already happening’ is a bit of a mouthful. Maybe that was why even those solution-focused practitioners who had left the problem and solving it behind, to focus on preferred futures and moving towards them, still used the word ‘exceptions’ to refer to aspects of this positive movement. The first time I heard an alternative put forward was at a workshop at the 2000 EBTA conference in Turku, Finland, run by Michael Hjerth. I had already been grabbed by Michael quoting the Ramones - Hey Ho, Let’s Go! - when he said just after mentioning exceptions, “… or should I say ‘instances’?”

It took a few years longer for the term to catch on more widely, the main catalyst for this being the Diploma course at BRIEF, which I developed and ran jointly with Harvey Ratner from 2005. Having the space that a longer course afforded for reflecting on the approach and how we talked about it proved invaluable, and a shift in language from exceptions to instances was one result of this. Wanting to acknowledge our source, I emailed Michael Hjerth about his use of ‘instance’, but Michael told me it was an idea he’d picked up from Scott Miller. I think I emailed Scott, in search of a reference to cite, but never heard back.

So I am glad that this blog post will give you the chance to reference Scott, if you find yourself writing about instances, even though it must be more than 20 years after the event. The second instance of taking rather a long time to write something up in two successive blog posts!

Another term used for the good stuff we ask people to talk about is ‘sparkling moments’ (whose origin is also a little unclear, though it definitely comes from narrative therapy), and the photo illustrating this blog is of a sparkling moment of mine last year, when the UKASFP Conference participants were talking about photos they’d found on their phones - of sparkling moments! More about sparkling moments on phones in a later post.

Guy Shennan

24th February 2020


de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.

Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hayward, M. (2020). Words are not trivial: Taking care with language. Context. 167, 2-5.

Malinen, T. (2002). ‘From thinktank to new therapy: The process of solution-focused theory and practice development’, originally published in Finnish in Ratkes, 2 & 3, 2001.

White, M. and Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.

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