A hitchhikers guide to solution-focused therapy*

By Alison Lewis-Nicholson and Pam Martin


Getting there and away: WARNING!!!

Solution Focused Land (SFL) is an unusual, unique travel destination. For many years it remained relatively unknown, with only a few intrepid travellers venturing to its shores. In more recent years, it has become a very popular destination, with people flocking there for vacations, and employers and funding agencies now sponsor workers to experience the countryside.

But travelling to this area is not without risks. Even those eclectic workers who are seasoned in visiting all sorts of other therapeutic territories would benefit from some preliminary reading before venturing forth.

Reports are not uncommon that this territory has effected substantial and long-lasting changes in its visitors. There is no known cure for solution focused infections and no successful immunisation programme exists. Follow-up of previous travellers has shown that even those therapists who have been immunised to resist the solution focused contagion often become infected.

Once you've visited SFL, re-entry into former territories is difficult. The mind-altering atmosphere of SFL changes the vision and speech of not a few of its visitors. The languages of other planets are often abandoned after a visit to SFL. Problem-focused talk tends to grate upon the ear and words like "resistance" elicit uncomfortable responses. Solution-focused vision is also different: the glass is definitely half-full.

Not uncommonly, travellers only become aware of these changes once they leave SFL, and it is only as they re-enter other therapy planets that the differences become apparent. Residents of other planets become confused by the relaxed solution-focused style, and often consider solution-focused workers too naïve to be taken seriously.

The countryside

The landscape of SFL is beautiful in its simplicity and economy. Workers here are curiously relaxed. They talk conversationally with their clients, smiling, even laughing, as they chat together. This is in stark contrast to many other therapy planets. Visa requirements to SFL require that visitors discard any copies of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) prior to entry.

It is understood in SFL that the problem is the problem, not the person. So problems don't indicate pathology here; they are accepted as occurring within the context of human interactions, often just happening. The question "Why?" is also left at the border; questions that solidify problem-perspectives are not allowed in. Complex landscapes of towering skyscrapers and shopping malls don't exist. Inhabitants enjoy living in low-rise, low-tech houses where no more is done than is necessary, and "easy" is preferable to "hard".

People in SFL don't search the luggage of others for damaged cargo. Beauty is enjoyed, and workers like to understand what this means for other people. So this is a very personalised place, where the solution stories of each client are the basis for planning itineraries about where that person wants to go (goals). Those with a solutions focus never cease to be amazed at the wealth of resources that clients have. Their stories are respected and valued as the sources of great wisdom about how solutions have occurred in the past (exceptions), and how the client wants things to be different in the future (hypotheticals).

SFL residents ask questions that are very different from those asked on other planets. The famous future-oriented "miracle question" is often heard in SFL, but new arrivals usually don't recognise its brilliance at first. It's only when they see clients' faces light up as they develop their responses, that new arrivals start to be convinced. Clients too become fascinated with their answers. They create options they have never thought of before, and rediscover solutions that have become buried by problem talk. Another intriguing sight is the way that some clients report stories about how they have already started to find solutions before they even talk to solution-focused therapists (pre-session change).

Scaling questions assist clients to see just how far they have already come. They are able to identify the next small steps to be taken to move further towards their goals, and what it will be like when they have arrived. Clients enjoy acknowledgements; such statements make them feel heard and understood. Planning for an inter-session activity sets the scene for further progress.

A history of the planet

Archivists and archaeologists agree that there was a time when this land was unpopulated. Gradually a few people arrived, exiles from certainty principles and the dominant paradigms. They were questioning people, who learned from the pioneering travellers like John Weakland and Gregory Bateson. Visitors became intrigued by the observation that solutions usually were not related to problems. This made them more determined to move away from what was seen to be wrong towards what the client wanted.

So an intrepid band of travellers began to colonise different parts of Solution Land. In one group of dwellings, the original émigrés, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, continued to tease out these curious questions with their Solution Focused Brief Therapy. With a curious synchronicity, in a settlement further east, in Finland, two men by the names of Ben Furman and Tapani Ahola similarly stretched the ideas to new ways of practice. 

Within a few years, small colonies were popping up all over the SF landscape. These new settlements were often started by travellers who had visited the settlement of de Shazer and Kim Berg in Milwaukee, and been delighted by the new paradigm. They went out to virgin areas and developed "similar but different" ways of working with the basic approach. These settlements continue to develop their own identities, based on the fundamentals while experimenting with differences.

On the fringes of SFL is the land of the asylum seekers. These visitors usually stay for a while and then return to other regions, usually not of their own volition. These visitors have employers who know little about the benefits of solution focused therapy. The travellers would like to work in solution focused ways, but job descriptions or legislation stipulate problem focused approaches. Unfortunately these travellers often look tired and heavy laden when they have to return to other planets. They know they will be weighted with responsibility and exhausted by listening to endless stories of things going wrong. Sometimes they decide they cannot go back any longer, and break ties with their former planets so that they can stay in SFL.

There are now quite a few well-established settlements. A quick perusal indicates that they are obviously all related, but that there are differences too. Some people like to reside in business and organisational settlements. They are often seen doing coaching and consultancy work, conversing with teams and talking about preferred ways of working. People in other settlements choose to work with specific client groups, such as adolescents, or people who over-use substances, or those who have been in traumatic situations, and so on. Some settlements are group oriented, others work with families, and then there are those who work with individuals.

Mapless navigation

To date there is no one map for the whole of SFL. A few settlements have mapped their own area and linked with their neighbours. However, most people would prefer not to be mapped in too much detail. They find mapping restrictive, possibly suffocating further creative thinking and change about future developments. Workers in SFL are more interested in communication than territory definition. The air is often buzzing with conversation and ideas. People like to share information, and news travels fast throughout SFL.

There is talk about whether the land as a whole should set up regulation for itself, as other planets in the therapy galaxy have and do. Much vigorous debate continues about this topic. However, so far people have found this to be too directive even though some local settlements do certify and accredit new settlers.


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