June 13, 2009

Is 'solution-focused' still the right label?

A long time ago I wrote this post: The name solution-focused: is it wrong? In that post I wrote:
Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues from the Brief Family Therapy Center have named their approach Solution-focused therapy. My work has been inspired primarily by their work. That is why I chose to name this site Solution-focused change: to give credit to them and to honor their work. But if it weren't for that I would probably use another name. Because I think the term Solution-focused is not extremely clear and maybe even a bit misleading. The word 'solution' refers to the concept of (problem) solving. And problem solving really seems to be a concept from a defect based paradigm. It refers to getting rid of what is negative whereas solution-focused practise does something more that that or something different than that. It helps to create positive outcomes, success, results. Success-focused change, or results-focused change might in fact be a better name for this approach. Or not? What do you think?
Now there are two new reasons for me to think about whether 'solution-focused' remains the right name to describe what I am doing. The first is that I sometimes feel the meaning of 'solution-focused' as used by many is shifting in a way that does not feel good to me (because it seems to lose the connection with the work of the SFBT center). The second reason is that I myself find myself thinking up (often in collaboration with my colleague Gwenda) so many new approaches and concepts which to me are very much connected to the work of the SFBT center but which sometimes seem to drift away from what seems to be mainstream SF. Here is an example and here is another example. I try to go beyond this worry, and move forward (while treasuring valuable things from the past of course) and let go of my worry about how it all has to be labeled (although that sometimes is difficult).

Thanks to Kirsten Dierolf who wrote something on facebook which triggered this.


  1. Hi Coert,
    I WANT this to be the right label and half of me says: "If you want to understand SF in ways different from how Insoo and Steve understood it, that's fine" and the other half says: "NO NO NO! We are loosing something important". Have a look at http://solutionsacademy.net, my last post "SF is not looking at the bright side ..." -- a fine line, but what can you do? The only thing I can say is that I prefer it if people disagree with me openly ... so I am trying to extend the same courtesy ...
    Kirsten Dierolf

  2. As far as I see it, "solution-focused" has never been the right label. If I may look ahead.....in some kind of future, therapy "schools" will be no more.

    I feel a lot of sympathy for Klaus Grawes idea of "psychological therapy"http://www.klaus-grawe-institut.ch/content/e159/index_eng.html

    Psychological therapy:
    "...is explicitly based on cutting-edge scientific knowledge in psychology, the neurosciences, and psychotherapy research;
    ...is not tied to any of the traditional therapy schools but utilizes therapeutic interventions and activities that have documented empirical support;
    ...includes the development of an individually tailored therapy plan for each patient/client."

    No my words, but I wish they were. Don't get me wrong, I think SF has developed a really strong line-up of ideas (still un-examided by science, though) But as long as there are therapy "approaches", therapy, or coaching, has not grown up.


  3. Hi Kirsten and Michael, thanks for your comments. Kirsten, I think it is important to do and develop what works and has worked and, as I said, I am less concerned about how to call it. For the time being i will keep calling 'this approach 'solution-focused' although this term had only become the stanndard term by the SFBT center in 1986 or 1987. And in one of Insoo latest publications (the 3d edition of interviewing for solutions, with Peter De Jong) she spoke of 'solution-building'.

    Michael, you know I am also in favor of a stronger emphasis on the context of justification in coaching and therapy. I am not certain though that this will lead to the disappearance of different approaches or schools. I think, there will always remain a process of evolution which will lead to branche-forming. In other words, the context of discovery -I think- will always lead to the emerges of new directions and differences. But also I agree that hopefully there will develop some kind of body of knowledge which can be shared.

    Thanks for both your thoughts. Kirsten, I'll read your blog and think about and let you know there what my thoughts are

  4. I totally agree with Michael.

    Isn't that why we are exploring how to connect with science, to use science, to integrate science, and to be evaluated by science?

    Besides "Solution-Focused" is getting so saturated with different meanings...
    that is why I like to talk of a "solution-focused protocol for interviews" ("interviewing for solutions") or for coaching (Szabo's), or of the PLUS model (Michael's) or of the SIMPLE model (mark's and Paul's) for consulting...

    sometimes I see people taking Sf as a sort of a more general thing, like an attitude on life; I might fall into this trap, too!
    I am alarmed when I see all that is "alternative" (i.e. no evidence whether it works or why it works) swept under the ever-widening umbrella provided by the words SF (funny, in a previous life SF meant "Special Forces" to me...)

    Thanks Coert, thanks Kirsten, thanks Michael.

  5. Hi Coert, Kirsten and Michael,

    Has it ever been the right label?

    As I became aware of the problem paradigm I was stuck in, the solutions one seems like an intermediary, but ultimately dissatisfying focus. It maintains the problem paradigm, but looks at the other end of it. Tremendously more useful end, so a big step forward. Like turning a set of binoculars the right way around.

    However, it does maintain that problem paradigm, I agree.

    Labels cast strong boundaries on behaviour in my mind, so I do share your worry.

    I would go even further and include the word "change" into that old paradigm. Because it suggests something larger than may be needed in terms of decisions or behavior. In my mind, refinement and eye for subtle changes, or rather shifts of attention, is what is called for.

    So, I'll go ahead bluntly and suggest some alternatives. What about:
    - the success shift
    - perceiving opportunities, or simply
    - the empowering shift

    Of course, Coert, I should reply with a question (instead of coming up with my personal, hence external, solutions, and my perception of the situation): what do you want to achieve (by renaming the approach you use in your work)?

    PS Michael, some of what you write about schools breathes the spirit of Bandler and Grinder's work - Neuro Linguistic Programming - to me, although, admittedly, most work done under that label would not qualify for empirical validation norms as adhered to in most scientific psychology journals.

  6. Hi Tess, thanks, nice suggestions. With respect to your question: it is not so much that it is my intention to change the name. So it is not that I am trying to achieve something by changing the name. I was merely wondering if the name still applies. After all, it seems useful to have a name that fits what it tries to describe. Although I will for now stick with Sf, I like your 'success shift'

  7. Hi Tess,
    nice suggestions!

    I like "the empowering shift": even though the word "empowering" has a definite set of associations, some of which are definitely not SF, still Insoo and De Jong, in their book "interviewing for solutions", place SF squarely in the tradition of the empowerment movement. They call SF a technique in a movement that up to that point "has been comprised mainly of philosophy, practice principle and general areas to explore".
    Like Coert, I would not change its name, though...

    about SF being sort of the other end of the problem paradigm I am not sure - I remember Mark McKergow pointed to a distinction, and a source of possible confusion, when using the words SF: we are not giving solutions or analyzing solutions, but simply clearing the path for clients to get unstuck (or something to that effect, I wish I remembered where I read it... one of his articles on his website...).

    Anyway, thanks everybody for the very interesting conversation - I will be posting soon about some distinction, today's conversations gave me some ideas...
    ciao and good night!!

  8. Tess,

    Tess, thanks for helping me to clarify myself. I'm not talking about NLP That does not, as you say, ussually reach up the levels of stringency needed. I wouldn't expect to see NLP in Science or Nature magazine. There, on the other hand, you might find research on mindfulness, which could be an example of something thas it part of "psychological therapy". I think a lot of CBT is part of that too. As is education into the sciences of human life and behavior. I'm confident that some ideas from SF will come in. Also here are ideas in SF that I think fit very well with some aspects of meditational practice that havent been studies much yet.

    What I mean by schools is more about the "schools" of therapy in existance today (of which NLP could be seen as one).

    I recently heard a lecture from a prominent american surgeon who said that in medicine, when we have different approaches to a diagnose, none of them is really much good.

    When the dust settles, much of what we know as SF or CBT etc, will be gone.

    I have good hopes though. Ekman and others has brought back Darwin and Evolution to Psychology, Damasio and some of the "neuro-buddists" have brought back William James and phenomenology, the social psychologist just keep working and collecting interesting data, people like Robert Sapolsky stubbornly insists on looking from several angles at once....
    Scientific therapy is a possibility, and Sf ideas should be part of the start-up.


  9. I find this discussion a bit unnerving. Here is the reason. I think that it is important to look within a historical context at the development of SF therapy. Hoping that this is not a revisionist perspective, my understanding is that SF grew from a foundation of Ericksonian therapy and MRI Problem Focused Therapy. SF was originally a brief therapy a derivative of the brief therapy movement of the 70s. The distinction was that it became possible to offer the pseudo-orientation in time intervention without hypnosis and a focus upon what was sought after instead of solving the identified problem. It became brief therapy that was focused upon solutions. The first title that de Shazer wrote was “Patterns of Brief Family Therapy: An Ecosystemic Approach” (1982) that was followed by “Keys to Solution in Brief Therapy” (1985). His 1988 book was titled “Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy”.

    I am unsure as to when it became Solution Focused therapy, but it would seem that it was a way of abbreviating and converting a verb (searching for solutions) to a noun (solution focused therapy). Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, when something becomes a noun it is reified. What was process becomes an entity. So, we are left with a “thing” called Solution Focused Therapy. However, when all is said and done, I believe and hope that we continue to focus upon the challenge of engaging the client in a process that honours their story yet assists them to refocus their attention upon what they want rather than what they do not want.

    I also believe that we are dealing with another variable that has unfortunately become relevant in psychotherapy given the multitude of schools and approaches that have proliferated over the years. That is brand. Solution Focused Therapy is not only a statement of a specific type of brief therapy that is a special conversation that directs attention to the possibilities of a different future, it is also a statement of the brand of work as distinct from other brands such as CBT, NLP, and others. We sell solution focused training, solution focused therapy, and solution focused coaching to many different constituencies and markets.

    The unnerving part of this from my perspective is the fear that this or any other process is reduced to a series of techniques so that we inadvertently become wonderful technicians and lose the process of engaging in collaborative conversation that is important in process. Ask the 5 questions associated with SF and you are solution focused is the danger.

    However, I find hope in other developments. The Centre for the Study of Therapeutic Change (Scott Miller & Barry Duncan) in Chicago advocate for the client-directed, outcome informed therapy. They also advocate for acknowledgement of practice based evidence in addition (as opposed?) to evidence based practice. I cannot do justice to their perspectives in this forum, but one cannot dismiss the lens through which evidence is collected biases the results that will be obtained from the research. So epistemology becomes a relevant context for this discussion.

    So is solution focused therapy the appropriate name. I imagine that the answer is dependenet upon context. As de Shazer was fond of saying, “there is no meaning without context.”


  10. Hi Kevin, thank you for your knowledgable and thoughtful comment. I like it in many ways

  11. Hi Coert,

    The discussion above is somewhat academic and over my head :) but I have been thinking abt the same thing for some time now, your Q whether SF (to me btw also the abbr for Science Fiction) is the right word for what we do.

    I think that as long as we help the coachee to find his own 'solution' in the past, that is the same place where his 'problem' started, even though he is going to use it today/tomorrow, the name Solution-Focused is what it is. What Kevin says:

    "However, when all is said and done, I believe and hope that we continue to focus upon the challenge of engaging the client in a process that honours their story yet assists them to refocus their attention upon what they want rather than what they do not want.

    is exactly my point: the emphasis that I would like to put on the word 'focus'. Whether you get it from the past and/or use it in the future is of no importance giving the fact that our lives move along a path of time that is accessible to us both ways. What we do is helping the coachee to find focus and to find it within himself instead of somewhere else.

    In the danger of putting myself on a scale of vagueness and spiritual quackery I sometimes change the S of Solution into the S of Soul. Soul Focused. I don't say it out loud :) but it helps me to see the whole picture, the whole person, his whole life and not only his particular 'problem' and his wanted solution for it.

    Anna M Vos


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