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.