June 12, 2009

Is the solution-focused approach without a theory?

I received an interesting question on the solution focused change linkedin group:
Help! I'm confused! At an international workshop on Coaching in Complex Organisations we worked with CAS ... Exciting! However during the process somebody observed that SF describes itself a "theory without a theory". I've not come across this notion before. Can you please elaborate on this?
Here is how I replied to that question:
Hi, Thanks for your question. This notion of an approach without theory is linked to two things: 1) the fact that Steve De Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues developed the solution-focused approach mostly inductively. Between 1978 and 1985 they developed the SF approach by carefully monitoring what works without being primarily inspired by a certain theory. In this article I describe how they did this in more detail, 2) the attitude of not knowing which is used in SF, which Insoo Kim Berg and I have written this article about. In addition to this, Steve De Shazer was very skeptical of theories. He once said: "Theories are at best useless." I would not worry if I were you. Personally, while I do agree with the inductive approach the SFBT people followed and while I do use the posture of not-knowing, I don't agree with Steve's quote. There is nothing inherently wrong with theory. On the contrary, they are inevitable and can be useful. I think the combination of SF with the CAS approach is especially attractive. I like the CAS approach a lot and I and Louis Cauffman have once written an article in Dutch about this combination: 'Complexe problemen oplossingsgericht te lijf'. If you happen to read Dutch (or one of your colleagues you might want to take a look.
As always, your reactions are welcome.


  1. Coert--Its enough I think (and certainly radical in our profession) to say "causal theories" are not useful and in fact often impede effectively generating change and noticing signs of change. SFT has a theory of change--but that's a long story.

    We all have theories of change-therapists, clients and in-between. I think its more useful build each therapy with each client by co-constructing a shared theory. When therapists are guided by their causal and change theories therapy goes well if the client accepts those theories. We call them resistant when they don't. So I found it best to hold ... Meer lezenmy theories lightly and spend time helping clients articulate their change theories--which often evolve during our work together-- but which continue to guide our work so long as the client says they are working.

    Phillip Ziegler

  2. Coert, you offered a wonderful response to Elta's question. If I can add my perspective in the hope that it adds value; my understanding is that SF is without a prescriptive theory. On the other hand through the process of working with a client, whether in psychotherapy or or application, a theory emerges through the conversation. Thus, a theory is generated that is uniquely co-created for each client. In this way, the client and/or work is not "required" to fit the theory.



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