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.

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Defining ourselves in a pandemic

Living in a pandemic can become all-consuming. So much so that we can start to lose our sense of self. Our days become punctuated by news briefings, our conversations are dominated by a swirling mass of assertions, predictions, disputes and commentary, spinning around the abuse of an uncertain future. R numbers, death tolls, new cases. We study these numbers for clues as to what happens next. It’s all very…defining.

We are defined by our level of risk, our postcode, our age, our medical history, our experience of tragedy, our role in lessening the pandemic, or managing its many consequences. We are defined by what we have lost or given up. The helpers and the helped.

And yet, even as we find ourselves gathered into categories as we attempt to organise ourselves out of a growing hole, there is still choice. We can choose how to respond. We can choose to search for what we can feel grateful for, and what we can find meaning in.

Perhaps it’s a greater sense of community we feel with our colleagues and neighbours. Perhaps it’s an appreciation for what we still have. Perhaps it’s a realisation of an inner strength we never realised we had.

Within our choice lies a solution focused opportunity to define ourselves by our gratitude and purpose. Our resources and our strengths on which challenge and adversity has shine a light.

So how have you managed? How have you coped?

Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

The power of choice

As the majority of the UK picks its way through yet another lockdown, shuffling past a Christmas that many would rather forget, the wise words of psychologist, best-selling author and Holocaust survivor Dr Edith Eger may offer some solace against the stubborn backdrop of uncertainty.

“The most damaging prison is in our mind, and the key is in our pocket.”

In her #1 New York Times bestselling book “The Choice”, and “The Gift” Eger recounts her journey from imprisonment at Auschwitz to liberation and then on towards her own mental freedom. In spite of the horror she and millions of others suffered, Edith nonetheless describes our minds as our biggest prisons, to which we already hold the key. It is liberation from our own negative, self-destructive incapacitating thoughts that brings us true freedom:

“When we escape our mental prisons, we not only become free from what has held us back, but free to exercise our own free will.”

We have the power of choice, and we can choose freedom, writes Eger. We can choose how we look upon what has happened to us. We can choose how we will respond. 

We can focus on the usefulness of our experiences. How have they been helpful to us? How have they nourished us? In the solution focused approach, we encourage our clients to focus on the nuggets of usefulness from their everyday experiences, with questions such as ‘What’s been better?’

And, writes Eger, if there is no such usefulness to be found when we look out, we can look within. In the solution focused approach, we encourage our clients to do so with questions such as ‘Given what you have been through, how have you manage to cope?’ ‘What strengths have you drawn on to keep going?’

As Eger points out, “It’s not what happens to us that matters most, it’s what we do with our experiences.”

When we are deep, deep down; our neurochemistry flatlined, the top – where all the mental freedom and inner peace hangs out – can seem a long way up. 

Likewise, when we are flying so high, so fast, too fast to think; too busy to check-in with ourselves – cortisol and adrenalin fuelling our way forward and blocking out everything (and everyone) else – inner peace and mental freedom might as well reside on another planet.

And yet, there is always choice. We can choose to look up, to stop, to breathe, to make a cup of tea, to practice gratitude, and to remember how strong we really are.

Eger, E. (2018). The Choice. Penguin Books

Eger, E. (2020). The Gift. Penguin Books

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. 

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.

Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Ending and beginning

This month has been one of endings and beginnings for me. I achieved my qualification in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy with Clifton Hypnotherapy Practice Training, having gathered the most awesome group of friends I could have hoped for. Set against the backdrop of coronavirus and uncertainty, CPHT gifted me a year of learning and growing together – supporting each other to help others. From that nest of support, Choice Therapies was born, and it continues to grow into a nurturing community for practitioners from all walks as therapy, as they learn and grow and strive to do their best by their clients.

This month I also had a big push on my Masters thesis, exploring the use of Solution Focused Hypnotherapy for the management of chronic pain conditions. For a few weeks I was wholly submerged in data analysis and write-ups, and thanks to the incredible support of my supervisor, not to mention my family, I’m returning to the surface, as a finalised report takes shape.

And yesterday, I waved goodbye (over Zoom) to a lovely bunch of solution focused practitioners from across the globe who I had learned so much with and from over the last four months, on the Intensive Solution Focused Brief Therapy course with BRIEF International. Discussing the intricacies of this transformative approach with the solution focused greats, Adam Forever, Chris Iveson, Elliott Connie, and Evan George, was an absolute joy, and has shaped how I work with clients for the better.

So here I am, winding down, taking a moment, taking a breath. Looking back down the mountain to admire the view. These moments are important. We take stock, we process, we gain perspective on where we are right now, in this moment, and nudge the tiller if needs be to help us along the path ahead.

There’s so much to look forwards to; collaborations, projects, research, learning. Choice Therapies continues to grow into a wonderful community. My own practice continues to allow me the opportunity and privilege of watching my clients grow in strength and confidence, finding ways to manage their challenges that work for them. Many of the ventures I am fortunate to be a part of, are in their infancy. The future is full and exciting.

But for now, in this moment, I am pressing pause. Reconnecting, celebrating, and feeling grateful.

Solution Focused Therapy

Borrowing perspective

As humans we care about how others perceive us. Our primitive programming prioritises human connection. To a degree, caring what others think keeps us kind. But often we can care too much. And caring becomes worrying. Worrying becomes anxiety. Anxiety can make us feel trapped. 

We worry about how our colleagues perceive our communication style; our office ‘banter’, our outfit, our handshake, our weekend plans, our email signature, our Zoom backdrop. 

We worry about how families perceive our lifestyle, our house, our job, our partner, our carbon footprint, our choices.

We worry about how our friends perceive our personal style, our level of engagement, that thing we said or didn’t say, that thing we did or didn’t do.

The parents among us worry about what our mum and dad friends think of our parenting style, our children’s diets, manners, birthday parties, screen time.

This worry shuts us down, and pushes us further and further away from our own authenticity. We try to be what we think others want and what we think others need. We try and try and try, until we find ourselves a world away from our own sense of meaning. Disconnected from our inner strength. Lacking confidence and losing self-esteem.

Ironically the friends and family members who we love and trust the most will tend to describe us with far more kindness than we describe ourselves. 

When we step, with both feet, into the perspective of a loved one, someone who knows us better than anyone else, and look back at ourselves, we can shine a light on strengths, capacities, and resources we never recognised were there. 

In solution focused therapy we encourage our clients to step into this alternative perspective and we ask;

“What would this person notice about you that lets them know of your strengths? 

“What stories would this person tell that had inspired their confidence and belief in you?”

Sometimes, when our own lens is misted over with worry and self-doubt, borrowing the lens of a loved one can help us achieve clarity on exactly how, underneath all the trying, we are already the person we hope to be.

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Gut instinct

Connecting our minds with our bodies is a key element to finding our inner calm. In solution focused therapy, as we support our clients to explore how a positive emotion feels for them, we might ask where they feel it? Where in their body do they experience that sense of confidence? What part of their body do they look to for that sense of strength? Do they experience calm in their head? Do they notice freedom in their shoulders? Do they feel joy in their chest?

The deep connections we hold between our body and our mind are splashed across our language in infinite metaphor. The idea that emotions, thoughts, and states have an anatomical home has been immortalised in songs time and time again. Love is felt in our fingers and in our toes; we can’t get it out of our head; we see it in your eyes; we hold it in our hands, our arms; we fight tooth and nail for it.

So how did instinct find its home in our gut?

When our subconscious mind perceives danger and triggers our fight or flight response, the physical impact is tangible, and many of the physical sensations we experience are in our gut. Our stomach churns, flips, sinks, rolls, and we are often hit by a wave of nausea.

This subconscious response that connects our thoughts to our gut is an evolutionary hand-me-down from our prehistoric ancestors. As a caveman running away from a wild animal, a full stomach would have impacted our speed and agility, with stark consequences to our survival. Our primitive mind would have stepped in to help, by ejecting anything from our body that may have hindered our chances of escape.

Modern society presents us with a very different experiences that we might subconsciously perceive as threats to our sense of safety and comfort. Although we may not need to run from wild animals quite so frequently, our subconscious mind still responds to a perceived threat in the same way it did 100,000 years ago, stepping in to protect us, and bringing our body on board to help. Our protective primitive instincts remain, including our gut instinct.

Recognising this connection between our body and mind as a potential strength is the first step towards supporting our mind through our body, and supporting our body through our mind. 

Gut instinct is a gift and it’s there for us, should we choose to listen.