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. 

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

The most important assumption a solution focused therapist makes…

One of the fundamental differences that holds Solution Focused Brief Therapy apart from many other psychotherapeutic approaches, is a basic assumption that we, as therapists, make.

We assume that our client is there, not because they have a problem, but because they want to find a solution.

We make this assumption of all of our clients, regardless of what brings them to us. For the purposes of our work together, it doesn’t matter if the person sitting across from us is mourning the loss of a loved one, coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis, or hasn’t slept a full night in years. Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Elliott Connie, often refers to entire sessions he has with clients without ever knowing a whisper of the problem that ails them.

This may sound like we don’t have patience for our client’s problems. We absolutely do. We sit and listen to our clients tell us about their problems (if they wish to – not everyone does!) because we trust that they know their talking about their problems is a necessary part of their journey towards the solution.

So we are interested in the problem (to the extent our client is anyway). It’s simply that we are particularly interested in a specific dimension of the problem: how our client has managed to cope with it? What strategies has our client come up with to get through it? What resources have they noticed that have helped them along the way?

The very fact that they are sitting across from us is in itself a strength that warrants exploration. How did they recognise that they wanted to find a solution and that this might help? How did they manage to turn up for the appointment at all?

Session time is precious and short, and so we choose to spend it exploring our client’s strengths and resources. Not only does this support our clients to open up doors in their thinking in session; the priority that we give to exploring strengths and resources over problems also opens up for the client a whole new approach to thinking, in which their strengths are in the spotlight. Rediscovered, reinforced, acknowledged, celebrated.

Solution Focused Therapy

Solution focused conversation – exploring the impossible

As solution focused therapists, when we meet a client for the first time, one of the first questions we are likely to ask is…

“What are your best hopes from our talking together?”

But what happens if our client answers with something that we know to be impossible? 

What do we do then? 

Given the importance of fostering our clients’ confidence and belief in the process, giving up on the question is not an option. We can’t just say “nevermind” and move on.

But more than that, we need an answer to this question if our conversation is to be in any way meaningful.

If we have no idea where the client hopes to get to by talking to us, then we have no idea what to ask to help them find their way towards that place. 

Backing out is a no-no.

So what do we do if a client describes their best hopes as doing something we know them to be physically incapable of doing?

For example, what if a client who is paralysed from the waist down tells us they would like to stand up and go for a walk? 

We know this is impossible, but, as Cofounder of BRIEF Evan George likes to say “The client’s answer is always the right answer.” So we must accept it, and work with it. 

And we can – simply by asking the next question, we can help the client to realise the value in their answer. 

“So, suppose you stood up right now, and went for a walk; what difference would that make?” 

The client is likely to answer with something a little less impossible. We start to move towards feelings. “I would feel free.” “I would feel in control.”

We can keep going. The question remains just as valuable, and just as valid.

“And what difference would that make?”

It’s such a simple question, and yet counter-intuitive, and missing from most of our everyday conversations, where we tend to smother such fantastical hypotheticals with reassurances and dismissals. 

Encouraging our clients to lead us around the detail of their best hopes is not setting them up for disappointment. It is not promising the impossible. It is not wasting their time. It is allowing them space to explore, to clarify, to recognise, to realise what they hope to get from the next hour. 

Solution Focused Therapy

What did I learn from that?

In solution focused therapy, one of the questions we ask is “What did you learn from that?” 

We ask this question when our clients mention something they have achieved, managed, coped with or overcome.

When we ask “what did you learn from that?” we invite our clients to explore, to dig deeper into their minds to shine a light on all of the strengths and resources that helped them to cope, to achieve, to manage, to overcome.

Every experience we have; every interaction we have, presents us with an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and the people around us. But these lessons can go unlearnt unless we shine a light on them. 

And this question, such a simple question, is the light that we can shine. “What did you learn from that?”

We can adjust where we shine the light with more questions: “What difference did that make? What did you notice? What else?”

Our capacity to learn from what we did right is something we often overlook. We spend vast swathes of time post-match-analysing the times we were wrong or were wronged, and comparatively little time debriefing the times that things went well.

And yet, the more we focus on what we have done well, the more we can recreate it, repeat it, allow it to influence our future in a positive way. 

So, treat yourself to this question, the next time things go well – you have a good meeting, a good conversation, a good day.   “What did I learn from that?”

Solution Focused Therapy

Myth Busting…Solution Focused

When I tell people I practice solution focused therapy, they often ask me something along the lines of…

“So do you tell people how to solve their problems?”

I’m writing this blog in an attempt to bust this frustrating myth that misconstrues the fundamental core of Solution Focused Hypnotherapy.

Solution Focused Therapists offer no solutions. Not one.

We do not interrogate you until you squeeze out a goal or two.

We do not spring clean your brain with questions until we have deciphered exactly what you want to do, and how you want to do it.

We do not get you to sign on a dotted line, ‘this is my goal’ and then pester you for progress reports.

We do not have enormous brains stuffed to the brim with solutions to everyone’s problems.

When we train as solution focused therapists, we learn to communicate using solution focused language. It is this language we use in sessions to help guide you towards your own solutions.

We believe you have the capacity to reach your own solutions to the challenges you face. This belief guides us in everything we say.

We are not interested in committing you to any one goal or another, we simply aim to help you open doors in your thinking that lead towards hope. The rest of the journey is all yours.

We take responsibility if you are struggling to reach your goals – this is because we haven’t found the right questions to help guide you there.

We assume change, because life is change. We don’t expect you to report on it, we simply ask questions to help you to explore it, your role in it, and what it means to you.

Solution Focused Therapy is like turning the lights on to your lived experience, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Exploring your hopes in as much detail as the present moment and with as much flexibility as a dream. Creating reality through language.

Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Clients: competent, capable, motivated

In Solution Focused Brief Therapy, we need to do everything we can to see our clients as competent, capable, and motivated.

To see them as anything else would make our jobs as therapists infinitely harder. Then we would start to distrust and lecture. We would lose faith in our clients, blinded by our belief in our own expertise.

Our clients are experts. They know more about their lives than we will ever know. Somewhere, in between the lines of everything they have experienced, said, felt, heard, noticed, touched; somewhere between the lines of every struggle and every success, is the beginning of a way forward that works for them.

Our job is to be experts of our questions, the process by which we can support our clients to reach deep within their own thinking to find their way.

Allowing our clients to own their journey recognises their individuality and allows them to own their success. We don’t prescribe what our clients must do, should do, ought to do. We simply create a space where they can describe what they are doing, in the future that contains their best hopes.