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.

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.