Imagine yourself at an important business meeting. You are here to discuss some problems your company is having with producing widgets.
You explain the problem to representatives from other parts of the company. The problem is that the widget-producing machine your company uses is getting old and slowing down. The machine is made up of hundreds of small parts that work in concert, and it would be much more expensive to replace each of these old, worn-down parts than to buy a new widget-producing machine that was designed to improve each individual part.
You are hoping to impress upon the other meeting attendees the impact of this problem, and the importance of buying this newer, more modernized widget-producing machine.
You give a comprehensive but high-level overview of the problem and how it is impacting production. One meeting attendee asks, “So which part of the machine, exactly, is getting worn down?” Another says, “Please explain in detail how our widget-producing machine works.” Yet another asks, “How does the new machine improve on each of the components of the machine?” A fourth attendee asks, “Why is it getting worn down? We should discuss how the machine was made in order to fully understand why it is wearing down now.”
You are probably starting to feel frustrated just reading these questions! You might be thinking, “What does it matter how the machine got worn down when buying a new one would fix the problem?”
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While there are some situations where it is vital to understand how a problem arose, there are also many situations where deciding on a timely solution to a problem takes precedence over dissecting the development of the problem.
In this case, it is much more important to buy a new widget-producing machine than it is to understand and explain why pieces of machinery wear down over time. Of course, it may be important to compare widget-producing machines to ensure your company buys a reliable machine but knowing exactly how the machine works is generally not going to be a big concern.
This is the idea behind Solution-Focused Therapy: it is often more important to find solutions than it is to analyze the problem in great detail.
What is Solution-Focused Therapy?
Solution-Focused Therapy, also called Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), is a type of therapy that places far more importance on discussing solutions than problems (Berg, n.d.). Of course, you must discuss the problem to find a solution, but beyond understanding what the problem is and deciding how to address it, Solution-Focused Therapy will not dwell on every little detail of the problem you are experiencing.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy will not dive deep into your childhood or explore all the myriad ways in which your past has influenced your present. Instead, it will root your sessions firmly in the present while working towards a future in which your current problem or problems have less of an impact on your life (Psychology Today, n.d.).
This solution-centric form of therapy grew out of the field of family therapy in the 1980s. Creators Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg noticed that most of the time and energy in therapy sessions were spent discussing symptoms, issues, and problems (Good Therapy, 2016). De Shazer and Berg saw an opportunity for quicker relief from negative symptoms in a new form of therapy that emphasized quick, specific problem-solving rather than an ongoing discussion of the problem itself.
The “Brief” in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is a key component of SFBT. The goal of SFBT is to find and implement a solution to the problem or problems as soon as possible to minimize time spent in therapy and, more importantly, time spent struggling or suffering (Antin, 2016).
SFBT is committed to finding realistic, workable solutions for clients as quickly as possible, and the efficacy of this treatment has influenced its spread around the world and in multiple contexts.
This form of therapy has been successfully applied in individual, couples, and family therapy. The problems it can address are wide-ranging, from regular stressors of life to high-impact life events. The only realm in which SFBT is generally not recommended is that of the more extreme mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or major depressive disorder (Antin, 2016).
Theory Behind the Solution-Focused Approach
The Solution-Focused approach of SFBT is founded in de Shazer and Berg’s idea that the solutions to one’s problems are typically found in the “exceptions” to the problem, meaning the times when the problem is not actively affecting the individual (Psychology Today, n.d.).
This approach is a logical one – to find a lasting solution to a problem, it is rational to look first at those times in which the problem lacks its usual potency. For example, if a client is struggling with excruciating shyness, but typically has no trouble speaking to his or her coworkers, a solution-focused therapist would target work as an exception to the client’s usual shyness.
Once the client and therapist have discovered an exception, they will work as a team to find out how the exception is different from the client’s usual experiences with the problem. The therapist will help the client formulate a solution based on what sets the exception scenario apart, and aid the client in setting goals and implementing the solution.
You may have noticed that this type of therapy relies heavily on the therapist and client working together. Indeed, SFBT works on the assumption that every individual has at least some level of motivation to address their problem or problems and find solutions that improve their quality of life (Psychology Today, n.d.).
This motivation on the part of the client is an essential piece of the model that drives SFBT.
While there is no formalized, “A leads to B which leads to C” sort of model for SFBT, there is a general model that acts as the foundation for this type of therapy.
Solution-focused theorists and therapists believe that generally, people form default solution patterns based on their experiences, as well as default problem patterns. These patterns dictate the individual’s usual way of experiencing a problem and their usual way of coping with their problems (Focus on Solutions, 2013).
The solution-focused model holds that focusing only on your problems is not an effective way of solving them. Instead, SFBT targets the client’s default solution patterns, evaluates them for efficacy, and modifies or replaces them with problem-solving approaches that work (Focus on Solutions, 2013).
In addition to this foundational belief, the SFBT model is based on the following assumptions:
- Change is constant AND certain
- Emphasis should be on what is changeable and possible
- Clients must want to change
- Clients are the experts in therapy and must develop their own goals
- Clients already have the resources and strengths to solve their problems
- Therapy is short-term
- The focus must be on the future – a client’s history is not a key part of this type of therapy (Counselling Directory, 2017)
Based on these assumptions, the model instructs therapists to do the following in their sessions with clients:
- Ask questions rather than “selling” answers
- Notice and reinforce evidence of the client’s positive qualities, strengths, resources, and general competence to solve their own problems
- Work with what people can do rather than focusing on what they can’t do
- Pinpoint the behaviors a client is already engaging in that are helpful and effective and find new ways to facilitate problem-solving through these behaviors
- Focus on the details of the solution instead of the problem
- Develop action plans that work for the client (Focus on Solutions, 2013)
Looking at this list, it is clear that SFBT therapists aim to bring out the skills, strengths, and abilities that clients already have rather than attempting to build new competencies from scratch. This assumption in the client’s competence is one of the reasons this therapy can be administered in a short time frame – it is much quicker to harness the resources clients already have than to create and nurture new resources.
Beyond these basic activities, there are many techniques and exercises used in SFBT to promote problem-solving and enhance the client’s ability to work through their own problems.
Popular Techniques and Interventions
While some of these techniques are used specifically in SFBT, others have applicability to a wide range of therapies, or even to individuals working on solving their problems without the guidance of a therapist. Working with a therapist is generally recommended when you are facing overwhelming or particularly difficult problems, but not all problems require a licensed professional to solve.
For each technique listed below, it will be noted if it can be used as a standalone technique.
Asking good questions is vital in any form of therapy, but SFBT formalized this practice into a technique that specifies a certain set of questions intended to provoke thinking and discussion about goal setting and problem-solving.
One such question is the “coping question.” This question is intended to help clients recognize their own resiliency and identify some of the ways in which they already effectively cope with their problems.
There are many ways to phrase this sort of question, but generally, a coping question is worded something like this: “How do you manage, in the face of such difficulty, to fulfill your daily obligations?” (Antin, 2016).
Another type of question common in SFBT is the “miracle question.” The miracle question encourages the client to imagine a future in which his or her problem is no longer affecting his or her life. Imagining this desired future will help the client see a path forward, in both allowing him or her to believe in the possibility of this future and helping him or her to identify concrete steps they can take to make it happen.
This question is generally asked in the following manner: “Imagine that a miracle has occurred. This problem you are struggling with is suddenly absent from your life. What does your life look like without this problem?” (Antin, 2016).
If the miracle question is unlikely to work for whatever reason, or the client is having trouble imagining this miracle future, the SFBT therapist can use “Best Hopes” questions instead. The client’s answers to these questions will help establish what the client is hoping to achieve and help him or her set realistic and achievable goals.
The “Best Hopes” questions can include questions like the following:
- What are your best hopes for today’s session?
- What needs to happen in this session to enable you to leave thinking it was worthwhile?
- How will you know things are ‘good enough’ for our sessions to end?
- What needs to happen in these sessions so that your relatives/friends/coworkers can say, “I’m really glad you went to see [the therapist]?” (Vinnicombe, n.d.)
To identify the exceptions to the problem plaguing the client, the therapist will ask “exception questions.” These are questions that probe the client’s experiences with and without his or her problem to separate out the circumstances in which the problem is most active from the circumstances in which the problem holds no power or diminished power over the client’s mood or thinking.
Exception questions can include questions such as:
- Tell me about the times when you felt the happiest.
- What was it about that day that made it a better day?
- Can you think of times when the problem was not present in your life? (Counselling Directory, 2017)
Another type of question frequently used by SFBT therapists is the “scaling question.” Anyone familiar with online surveys will recognize this type of question. It asks the client to rate their experience (such as how their problem is currently affecting them, how confident he or she is in the treatment, and how he or she feels the treatment is progressing) on a scale from 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest). This helps the therapist to gauge progress and learn more about the client’s motivation and confidence in finding a solution.
For example, an SFBT therapist may ask, “On a scale from 0 to 10, how would you rate your progress in finding and implementing a solution to your problem?” (Antin, 2016).
Do One Thing Different
This exercise is one that can be completed individually, although the handout may need to be modified for adult or adolescent users.
This exercise is intended to help the client or individual to learn how to break his or her problem patterns and build strategies to simply make things go better for him- or herself.
The handout breaks the exercise into the following steps (Coffen, n.d.):
- Think about the things you do in a problem situation. Change any part you can. Choose to change one thing, such as the timing, your body patterns (what you do with your body), what you say, the location (where it happens), or the order in which you do things.
- Think of a time that things did not go well for you. When does that happen? What part of that problem situation will you do differently now?
- Think of something that somebody else does that makes the problem better. Try doing what they do the next time the problem comes up. OR Think of something that you have done in the past that made things go better. Try doing that the next time the problem comes up.
- Think of something that somebody else does that works to make things go better. What is the person’s name and what do they do that you will try?
- Think of something that you have done in the past that helped make things go better. What did you do that you will do next time?
- Feelings tell you that you need to do something. Your brain tells you what to do. Understand what your feelings are but do not let them determine your actions; let your brain determine the actions.
- Feelings are great advisors but poor masters (advisors give information and help you know what you could do; masters don’t give you choices).
- Think of a feeling that used to get you into trouble. What feeling do you want to stop getting you into trouble?
- Think of what information that feeling is telling you. What does the feeling suggest you should do that would help things go better?
- Change what you focus on. What you pay attention to will become bigger in your life and you will notice it more and more. To solve a problem, try changing your focus or your perspective.
- Think of something that you are focusing on too much. What gets you into trouble when you focus on it?
- Think of something that you will focus on instead. What will you focus on that will not get you into trouble?
- Imagine a future time when you are not having the problem you are having right now. Work backward to figure out what you could do now to make that future come true.
- Think of what will be different for you in the future when things are going better. How will things be different?
- Think of one thing that you would be doing differently before things could go better in the future. What one thing will you do differently?
- Sometimes people with problems talk about what other people are doing that makes them have the problem and they talk about why it is not possible to do better. Change your story. Talk about times when the problem was not happening and what you were doing when the problem was not happening. Control what you can control; you can’t control the other person, but you can change what you are doing and that might change what the other people are doing.
- Think of a time when you were not having the problem that is bothering you. Tell me about that time.
- If you believe in God or a Higher Power, focus on God to get things to go better. When you truly are focused on God or you are truly asking God to help you do what you need to do, things will often go better for you.
- Do you believe in God or a Higher Power? Tell how you will get help from your God to make things go better.
- Use action talk to get things to go better. Action talk sticks to the facts. Action talk only talks about things you can see. Action talk does not talk about what you believe the other person was thinking or feeling because we do not know that. When you make a complaint, talk about the action that you do not like. When you make a request, talk about what action you want the person to do. When you praise someone, talk about what action you liked.
- Make a complaint about someone cheating at a game using action talk.
- Make a request for someone to play fairly using action talk.
- Thank someone for doing what you asked using action talk.
Following these eight steps and answering the questions thoughtfully will help the client or user to recognize their strengths and resources, identify ways in which they can overcome the problem, plan and set goals to address the problem, and practice some useful skills.
While this handout can be extremely effective for SFBT, it can also be used in a number of other therapies or circumstances.
To see this handout and download it for you or your clients, click here.
This technique is a handy one for SFBT therapists and does not really apply to individuals who are not working with a therapist.
The “Presupposing Change” technique has great potential in SFBT, in part because when people are experiencing problems they have a tendency to focus on the problems and avoid the positive changes in their life. It can be difficult to recognize the good things happening in your life when you are struggling with a painful or particularly troublesome problem.
This technique is intended to help clients be attentive to the positive in their life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Any positive change or tiny step of progress should be noted, both so the client can celebrate their wins and draw from past wins to facilitate future wins.
Presupposing change is a strikingly simple technique to use: simply ask questions that assume positive changes. This can include questions like, “What’s different or better since I saw you last time?”
If the client is really struggling to come up with evidence of positive change or is convinced that there has been no positive change, the therapist can ask questions that encourage the client to think about their ability to effectively cope with the problem, like:
How come things aren’t worse for you? What stopped total disaster from occurring? How did you avoid falling apart? (Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, 2009)
SBT Treatment Plan: An Example
A typical treatment plan in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy will include several factors relevant to the treatment, including:
- The reason for referral, or the problem the client is experiencing that brought him or her to treatment
- A diagnosis (if any)
- List of medications taken (if any)
- Current symptoms
- Support for the client (family, friends, other mental health professionals, etc.)
- Modality or treatment type
- Frequency of treatment
- Goals and objectives
- Measurement criteria for progress on goals
- Client strengths
- Barriers to progress
All of these are common and important components of a successful treatment plan. Some of these components may be a formality or even blank in SFBT due to its usual focus on less severe mental health issues (e.g., diagnosis and medications). Others are vital to treatment progress and potential success in SFBT, including goals, objectives, measurement criteria, and client strengths.
Limitations of SFBT Counseling
As with any form of therapy, there are some limitations and potential disadvantages to SFBT.
Some of the potential disadvantages for therapists include (George, 2010):
- The potential for clients to focus on problems that the therapist believes are secondary problems. For example, the client may focus on a current relationship problem rather than the underlying self-esteem problem that is causing the relationship woes. SFBT dictates that the client is the expert, and the therapist must take what the client says at face value.
- The client may decide treatment is successful or complete before the therapist is ready to make the same decision. This focus on taking what the client says at face value may mean the therapist must end treatment before they are convinced that the client is truly ready to end treatment.
- The hard work of the therapist may be ignored. When conducted successfully, it may seem that clients solved their problems by themselves, and didn’t need the help of a therapist at all. An SFBT therapist may rarely get credit for the work they do but must take all the blame when sessions end unsuccessfully.
Some of the potential limitations for the clients include (Antin, 2016):
- The focus on quick solutions may miss some important underlying issues.
- The quick, goal-oriented nature of SFBT may not allow for an emotional, empathetic connection between therapist and client.
- If the client wants to discuss factors outside of their immediate ability to affect change, SFBT may be frustrating in its assumption that clients are always able to fix or address their problems.
Generally, SFBT can be an excellent treatment for many of the common stressors people experience in their lives, but it may not be appropriate if clients wish to concentrate more on their symptoms and how they got to where they are today. As noted earlier, it is also generally not appropriate for clients with major mental health disorders.
What Does SFBT Have to Do with Positive Psychology?
First, both SFBT and positive psychology share a focus on the positive – on what people already have going for them and on what they can do. While problems are discussed and considered, most of the time and energy is spent on discussing, thinking about, and researching what is already good, effective, and successful.
Second, both SFBT and positive psychology consider the individual to be his or her own best advocate, the source of information on their problems and potential solutions, and the architect of their own treatment and life success. The individual is considered competent, able, and “enough” in both SFBT and positive psychology.
This assumption of the inherent competence of the individual has run both sub-fields into murky waters and provoked criticism, particularly when systemic and societal factors are considered. While no respectable psychologist would disagree that an individual is generally in control of his or her own actions and, therefore, future, there is considerable debate about what level of influence other factors have on an individual’s life.
While many of these criticisms are valid and bring up important points for discussion, it’s not necessary to dive too deep into them in this piece. Let it suffice it to say that both SFBT and positive psychology have important places in the field of psychology and, like any sub-field, may not apply to everyone and to all circumstances.
However, when they do apply, they are both capable of producing positive, lasting, and life-changing results.
A Take Home Message
In this piece, we covered Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (or SFBT), a form of therapy that puts problem-solving at the forefront of the conversation.
I hope you have enjoyed this read and learned something new today.
Have you ever tried Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, as a therapist or as a client? What did you think of the focus on solutions? Do you think SFBT misses anything important by taking the spotlight off the client’s problem(s)? Let us know in the comments section!
Thanks for reading!
- Antin, L. (2015). Solution-focused brief therapy. Good Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/solution-focused-therapy
- Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. (2009, March 30). Solution-focused techniques. Counselling Connection. Retrieved from http://www.counsellingconnection.com/index.php/2009/03/30/solution-focused-techniques/
- Berg, I. K. (n.d.). About solution-focused brief therapy. SFBTA. Retrieved from http://www.sfbta.org/about_sfbt.html
- Coffen, R. (n.d.). Do one thing different [Handout]. Retrieved from https://www.andrews.edu/~coffen/Do%20one%20thing%20different.pdf
- Focus on Solutions. (2013, October 28). The brief solution-focused model. Focus on Solutions: Leaders in solution-focused training. Retrieved from http://www.focusonsolutions.co.uk/solutionfocused/
- George, E. (2010). Disadvantages of solution focus? BRIEF. Retrieved from https://www.brief.org.uk/resources/faq/disadvantages-of-solution-focus
- Psychology Today. (n.d.). Solution-focused brief therapy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/therapy-types/solution-focused-brief-therapy
- Vinnicombe, G. (n.d.). Greg’s SFBT handout. Useful Conversations. Retrieved from http://www.usefulconversations.com/downloads