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.