Solution Focused Therapy

Pitoncraft: an analogy for staying alongside the client

I have spent some of this week on a training course this week with BRIEF, the world’s leading centre for solution focused practice in therapy, and I couldn’t help but rejoice in a blog about an analogy Evan George used to describe his use of questions that appear to check in with the client. I find analogies incredibly helpful in wrapping my head around abstract concepts. I often use them in my writing, in training workshops I run, and in my consultations with clients. Fortunately it so happens that Evan George often seems to opt for analogous language in his explanations too 

“Why do you ask confirmation questions like ‘So if that happened you would be pleased?’” I asked, as we debriefed one of Evan’s live consultation recordings. (I paraphrase Evan’s answer – hopefully I do it justice).

“It’s like rock climbing,” he replied. 

“We climb: we ask questions, perhaps to best hopes, perhaps to explore a preferred future. And then, every now and again, we check in, we make sure that the client is alongside us, that we are alongside the client. We hammer in a piton, so that we can move forward together, climbing alongside each other, working in unison.”

This analogy was eye opening to me. Generally speaking, I have always steered away from confirmation questions, lest the client suspect I was second guessing their previous answer, or calling them out so to speak. And yet, it makes perfect sense for an approach that is unapologetically co-constructed. 

Checking that are our clients are alongside us not only paces our work, giving our clients time and opportunity to clarify their thoughts and hear their words. Checking that our clients are alongside us ensures that we are indeed climbing the same mountain. 

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

NO to aimless positivity, YES to explorative resource talk

In a recent training video, Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Elliott Connie, emphasised the importance of understanding Solution Focused Brief Therapy, not as an approach centred on unbridled, unseeing positivity, but as an exploration of resources.

“This approach is not about being Polly-Anna or seeing the world through Rose-coloured glasses”, says Elliott.

“It’s not even about the client’s strengths,” says Connie, calling out a common misconception about Solution Focused Therapy by other practitioners and by SF practitioners themselves.

“This approach, really, at its core, is about resources.”

According to Elliott, resource talk is something many of us, including himself, take for granted.

And yet, in Solution Focused Therapy, resource talk is absolutely fundamental. We strive for a conversation with the client about their resources that will allow the client to consequently better access, evoke, utilise, draw on and from, their resources to achieve positive change.

“If your client can walk out of the therapy room believing themselves to be more resourceful and being more aware of their resources than their problems then you have gone a long way towards changing their lives for ever,” says Elliott.

Elliott highlights the significance of believing in the resourcefulness of our clients. Every client we work with has accomplished something, achieved something. It is our job to use language, to ask the questions that help them to explore these accomplishments and how they came to be.

“Every accomplishment takes resources to make it happen,” says Elliott.

“Resource talk is simply asking what did you draw upon to help that become a reality?”

The power of these questions, these explorations, into how our clients accomplished whatever they accomplished, can turn the smallest of steps into the largest of leaps forward.

Through these questions, the breadth of each accomplishment and the consequent implications for our clients’ capacity to make positive change happen, are allowed space to to shine out. And in the shining light of their own resources, our clients are better able to experience the strength of their own hope.

To see Elliott Connie’s video on Resource Talk – Why it’s Important click here: https://elliottconnie.com/resource-talk-why-its-important/

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Avoiding presuppositions & opening space: the solution focused approach

Today, I was listening to a Simply Focus podcast recording with world leading SFBT trainer and coach Chris Iveson, and couldn’t help but rejoice in the beautiful simplicity of both the Solution Focused Approach and the way in which the BRIEF Cofounder describes it. 

From his discouragement of designing conversation around a task, to his dislike for presuppositions that lead the client towards an answer, Chris’ dedication to the light touch approach to Solution Focused Therapy is inspiring.

In solution focused therapy, key assumptions that we make of our clients include that they are capable of making positive change, motivated to change, and resourceful. We believe that our clients are these things and this belief inherently changes the way that we communicate with them, in ways that reach far beyond our technique or our use of language. Yet, often these assumptions are interpreted as a basis for presumptive questions that leave little wriggle room in terms of how our client can answer. In our unwavering belief that our clients are capable, motivated and resourceful, we can get carried away and start to use direct language – “What will you notice when you make that change? What will others notice about you?”

There is too much of ourselves in these direct questions, suggests Chris. They are too influential, holding within them what we consider to be most important. We choose on behalf of our clients what they should focus on. 

In contrast, when we step back and open up space in the conversation with questions like “What might you notice? “How could you know that this had been useful?” we open up the possibilities of where our clients can go next in their thinking. 

This lighter touch is no less influential; in fact it is more so as the client is leads the way towards positive change. 

“I want my work to be massively influential” says Chris “I want my clients to walk out of the first session into new lives” so of course what I’m doing is influential, I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t.”

However, the nature of this influence is subtle, indirect, and open. A landscape of possibility rather than a narrow pathway of direction. 

“I want to be asking questions that my client hasn’t heard before that lead them to see the world in a way they haven’t seen before, which means that they can see possibilities that they hadn’t known were there before,” says Chris.  

“Even though the possibilities have always been there,” he adds, situating the client, past, present and future, firmly in the driving seat of their own change.

You can listen here to Chris Iveson on the Simply Focus Podcast – Episode 77, hosted by Elfie Czerny and Dominik Godat.

https://www.sfontour.com/project/sfp-77-its-not-your-life-being-neutral-in-solution-focused-conversations-with-chris-iveson/

Solution Focused Therapy

Balloons of hope: a metaphor for solution focus

Listening to Elliott Connie at a Q&A for the recent Solution Impossible video series with Adam Froerer, I was struck by a metaphor Elliott used for hope.

I find metaphors can be really helpful when wrapping my head around a concept and this one was no exception.

Adam and Elliott spoke about the importance of presupposing the existence of hope in our clients, even when they tell us with their words that they have none. If, said Elliott, we listen to the person, rather than their words, we’ll find it a lot easier to see this hope. After all, the client is there, in our office or on our computer screen, and that alone represents hope.

So what if the client is forced to be there? What if they are required to be there by social services or by the terms of their probation? These situations do not negate hope. Perhaps our client hopes that they can reduce a custodial sentence as a result of attending the session. Perhaps our client hopes that they will gain or maintain access to their child as a result of attending the session. Hope is still very much present, and as Elliott points out, the client can hope for whatever they like. As solution focused therapists we don’t judge. It’s our job to use their hope to help structure the rest of the conversation in a way that can bring about positive change

“Think about hope as a series of helium balloons attached to a person,” said Elliott.

“If I put enough helium in one of the balloons it pulls the entire person up. So it doesn’t matter which balloon I put the helium in.”

I love this idea.

I love the idea of imagining each client with these balloons of hope.

I love the idea that it is my role to ask questions to help the client find a balloon that they can use to pull themselves up.

I love the idea that it is my role to then ask questions to help the client to fill up this balloon with helium so that it lifts them up, up, towards wherever it is they want to go.

Thank you Elliott Connie and Adam Froerer for yet another inspiring course.

To find out more about this video series and others, visit https://www.mastersolutionfocusedbrieftherapy.com/

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Starting with an outcome – the solution focused approach to therapy

Listening back to old recordings from a training course I attended with Brief International, I couldn’t help but share the words of Evan George, who beautifully summarises the client-led, non-judgmental foundations of Solution Focused Brief Therapy.

“We have no view on what people should want,” says George.

“We have no view on how people should live their lives.

“We have absolutely no view as a result of that, on the content of what people should be talking about.”

George quotes another global leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Harry Korman, who concludes that, “Until you know what the client wants, you have no questions to ask.”

As solution focused therapists we make no presumptions about what the client should want, how they should think and behave. We don’t view ourselves as expert of the client’s problem or the client’s life. We don’t aim to diagnose problems or prescribe expert solutions. This means we don’t need to know lots of information about the client’s problem. In fact we don’t need any information about the problem at all.

As solution focused therapists we consider ourselves experts of the solution focused conversation only. We know a bit more than most (hopefully) about how to structure a productive conversation that will support the client towards recognising and drawing on their own strengths and resources to get them towards their intended outcome. Therefore the only information we really need in order to proceed is the client’s intended outcome. What are their best hopes from our talking together?

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Making the unconscious conscious

Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Carl Jung

I stumbled across this quote from Carl Jung, which beautifully encapsulates so much of the the approach I use that I couldn’t help but write a blog about it.

Here, Jung highlights the significance of our subconscious mind for effecting any positive changes we would like to make. Totalling 90% of our brain functioning, our subconscious mind is nevertheless consistently underrated, underestimated, and under-utilised in getting us to where we want to go. When used alongside talking therapy, hypnosis is an incredibly useful and versatile tool, in bringing your whole brain onboard in achieving your goals, whether they are to feel more confident, or feel less pain.

Jung also points to the importance of understanding our own brains and putting words to tho unconscious processes that impact our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Using neuroeducation within psychotherapy can be an extremely useful way of lifting the lid on our own brain functioning. We start to gain conscious awareness of the neurophsyiological processes that accompany our every thought, action, and interaction. We learn ways in which we can influence these processes. In doing so, we take back a level of direction over our inner and outer lives.

Jung further alludes to the unconscious thought patterns that dictate our thoughts and behaviour. Lines of thought left unexplored and unchallenged because we never asked, or were asked, the right questions. Using solution focused questioning techniques in talking therapy can open doors in our thinking so that our answers can do the rest. This can be an incredibly effective way of bringing those unconscious thought patterns into the conscious where they can be explored, challenged and perceived from a different angle. In doing so, we gain back direction over our thought patterns, our stories, and our lives.

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

First-order dependency in SFBT: what is it and why is it so important?

In his recent lecture – A Review of the Salamanca Studies, Director of Research and Training at The Solution Focused Universe, Adam Froerer discussed research (Beyerbach & Escudero, 1997 in Beyerbach, 2014), which found that Solution Focused Brief Therapy is statistically characterised by first-order dependency.

This means that, in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, what the therapist says is more likely to be related to whatever the client just said, and vice versa.

For example, the therapist asks “What are your best hopes?” And the client responds “I want to sleep better. I’m so tired. It’s making my job impossible. I want to feel productive again.” Statistically, a Solution Focused Brief Therapist would be more likely to develop their next question in response to the client’s last utterance: “I want to feel productive again.”

But what does this mean? And how does it help us to better understand the solution focused approach?

As Adam Froerer points out, solution focused conversation is a co-construction, built one utterance at a time. Each and every word spoken has value in creating a conversation that can affect positive change. By responding to what the client has just said, in the moments before they chose to pause, we value not only their last spoken words, but also their decision to pause after them.

There is no judgement, so each and every utterance holds value. As Froerer says when we use the client’s last utterance for the basis of our next question, “the client feels heard, the client feels understood, the client feels valued, and that’s what creates a good therapeutic alliance.”

According to the research, the client is also more likely in Solution Focused Brief Therapy to respond to what the therapist has just said. Both parties on the same journey, both following one step with the next. Perhaps when one party takes this co-constructive approach to conversation the other follows suit, though the research is yet to confirm this.

Much as a wall is constructed, we are encouraged that each communication in Solution Focused Brief Therapy rest directly on the last, brick by brick. We may come back to strengthen the wall with additional lines of conversation, pulling together threads from resources the clients have mentioned to support the construction. But we tend towards building rather than digging, forwards rather than backwards. As Froerer says, “We listen to what the client just said we develop the question we ask based on this.”

Or, as As Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Elliot Connie says, “Just keep asking asking the next question.”

Beyerbach, M. (2014). Change Factors in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A Review of the Salamanca Studies. Journal of Systemic Therapies 33(1), pp. 62-67

Froerer, A. (February 3, 2021). Review of the Salamanca Studies – The Evidence of Greatness Episode 4. Retrieved from https://thesfu.com/a-review-of-the-salamanca-studies-the-evidence-of-greatness-episode-4/

Image by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash.

Solution Focused Therapy

The Habit Loop & Solution Focus

In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear proposes The Habit Loop, pictured below, which illustrates the never-ending neurological feedback loop that helps our brain to distinguish useful actions from useless ones.

As Clear explains, “ the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides. Reqard which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.”

For a very simple example: cue – we feel hungry; craving – we crave a chocolate cookie; response –  we get one out of the cupboard; reward – it tastes delicious; cue – we feel hungry again; craving –  only another chocolate cookie will satisfy this kind of hunger… and so on.  

This feedback loop can be split into two phases, continues Clear: the problem phase, comprising the cue and the craving; and the solution phase, comprising the response and the reward. 

In solution focused therapy, generally speaking, the vast majority of the session is focused on what Clear defined the solution phase; while the first 5 minutes is focused on the problem phase. 

We assume that the client has an existing cue, or motivation, to change, before the session even begins. That is why they are here. We then open our session by asking “What are your best hopes?” so that the client has an opportunity to hear themselves put words around what it is they would like to achieve, i.e what they crave

As soon as we have a ‘workable’ best hope(s) or craving, the next 50 minutes of the hour is dedicated to an exploration of how the client might respond to their best hopes being realised, or, how the client did respond in a moment where they felt closest to their desired future. “What did/might you notice? “How did/might you respond? “What did/might others notice? “How did/might they respond?” 

This exploration of responses is filled out with sub-explorations into the detail around how the client interpreted or might interpret these experiences: “What difference did/would it make?”  Given that the experiences we explore in solution focused therapy are instances or imagined instances of the client’s best hopes or desired future, their interpretations tend to centre around a sense of reward

For example, a client might say that their best hopes are to be sleeping better. To this, a solution focused therapist might ask, “What would you notice if you were sleeping better? “How would you respond – what would you be doing?” The client might answer that they would notice they had more energy, and this meant they would get up earlier and make a healthy breakfast.” The therapist might then encourage the client to step back and analyse the significance of this difference: “What difference might that make?” The client might respond with a sense of how this action might be rewarding. “I would feel healthier.” I would be ready to face the day.” We can delve into further detail with the client by exploring how others might respond and the reward associated with their responses. For example “What might others notice? “They might notice I was more talkative and had more time.” What difference might that make?” “I might feel closer to them.”

As we can see, Clear’s definition of the solution phase neatly aligns with both the solution focused process and the philosophy that underpins it. 

As Clear writes, “The problem phase [cue and craving] is when you realise that something needs to change” and “the solution phase [response and reward] is when you take action and achieve the change you desire.” Solution Focused Brief Therapy is brief by definition, underpinned by the assumption that our client is there to chieve the changes they desire, and loyal to the process, always asking the next question that might open a door in the client’s thinking, taking them one step closer to that desired change.

Clear, James (2019). Atomic habits: an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones ; tiny changes, remarkable results. Penguin Random House

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Beyond the solution

In his award winning book Atomic Habits, bestselling author James Clear describes three layers of behaviour change. 1) Outcomes, or goals, such as losing weight, winning a competition, securing a promotion. 2) Processes, or habits and systems, such as getting up earlier, eating fruit for breakfast, writing a journal. And 3) Identity, or beliefs and judgements about yourself, others and the wider world.

When we try to build up outcome-based habits, we focus on what we want to achieve. I want to be thinner. I want to quit smoking. In contrast, when we focus on identity-based habits, we focus on who we wish to become. I believe that I am a non-smoker, I believe that I can lose weight.

Focus on outcome-based habits only at your peril, warns Clear, because unless you shift how you look at yourself, your old sense of identity will sabotage the best of intentions.

There is a common misunderstanding about Solution Focused Therapy, largely borne out of the unfortunate name, Solution focused, that the focus of change is solely on the outcome, not on processes and not on identity. This is simply not true.

Whilst we may start the first session with a client by establishing a preferred outcome, asking “What are your best hopes?”, our work with clients does not end there. Understanding what our client hopes for is, rather, a starting point, because, as the Global Leaders in Solution Focused Therapy teach, if you don’t know where your client wants to get to, you can’t begin to be able to support them to get there.

In the early days of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, much more airtime was given to goals, defining them and working towards them. These days, many of the big names in SFBT shudder at the use of the term “goals”, and steer well clear of tying a client to any goal they might mention.

The goals themselves are less important. Best hopes established, the questions we then ask support our clients to focus on describing the life in which those best hopes exist. In a sense, we ask our clients to pick out the detail of the atomic habits, the systems and processes that form a part of their preferred future.

Other questions we ask support our clients to explore how progress they have already made towards their goals impacts their sense of identity. What have they learned? What did it take to get themselves to that point? How does the way in which they have coped change what they believe about themselves?

So, contrary to what the name suggests, Solution Focused Therapy reaches far beyond the solution to the bigger picture beyond. We ask questions so that our client can shade in the parts of that picture that already exist and we ask questions so that our clients can sketch out the details in which the solution resides.

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

You lead the way

In the Solution Focused approach, the client takes the lead. Each session is shaped by what the client brings to it, their hopes, their strengths, their focus, their ideas. The client chooses  what they would like to achieve and how they would like to achieve it. The more a client takes ownership of their progress, the better we have done our job. 

Expressing how then, as solution focused therapists, we can help guide the client along this process of positive change, is tricky. Guiding seems to suggest leading. So how do we guide while following? The answer ‘we ask questions’, is too vague a statement to really convey the essence of the solution focused therapist. 

In a recent lecture, Solution Focused Brief Therapist Adam Froerer provided a metaphor that captures perfectly the essence of solution focused therapy. 

We stand in a room shoulder to shoulder with the client

The room is pitch black.

The client holds the only source of light – a torch.

They shine the light where they choose.

We ask the client what they can see.

The client answers: “A wall”

“What does the wall look like?” we ask?

“Is it coming from the right or the left?”

“How tall is it?”

Our questions help the client to move the torch, to adjust their focus and get clarity on their thoughts. Clarity that can inform their next step forward. Clarity that had been otherwise sat undiscovered, hidden by the dark.