August 19, 2011

The Aim of Minimalism in the Solution-Focused Approach

Guest post by Guy Shennan 

I started learning how to do solution focused brief therapy in earnest in 1995, by attending training courses with the Brief Therapy Practice, known later as BRIEF, the London-based solution focused team. On one of the first courses that I attended, Chris Iveson, one of their founders, told of how they had learned the approach by watching each other work, sitting behind the mirror with Keys and Clues open on their laps. I pictured them hurriedly scouring the pages, looking for a task to give the waiting client. When I then read Steve de Shazer’s seminal books, charting the early development of solution focused brief therapy, I felt a strong blast of cognitive dissonance. They did not seem to be describing the approach I was being taught.

As I found out more about BRIEF’s commitment to continue the shaving that Steve had begun with Ockham’s razor I came to realise that I had been lucky enough - in my view - to be trained by them when, though there was a little more trimming to come, their minimal version of solution focused brief therapy was already more or less in place. I fell for an approach that was summarised as consisting of only two activities, finding out where the client wants to go, and finding out what they are already doing to get there.

What was the attraction? It was probably a mixture of simplicity and ease of use - my mind did not have to be cluttered with lots of theory - and also a fit with my scepticism about the whole edifice of therapy. The solution focused worker was not doing lots of the things that I didn’t like about therapy. I took to sometimes calling solution focused brief therapy the therapy for people who were anti-therapy. I was not doing the things that the people I meet at parties worry that I am doing when they hear that I am a therapist - not trying to work people out, not judging, not having any view about what they are doing or should be doing, and not even doing the solution focused versions of these things - categorising by visitor, complainant or customer and working out what tasks to give.

And I came to realise that I am not even trying to find out where people want to go or what they are doing already to get there. I don’t need to know even this. I am simply asking questions to help them to describe these things for themselves. From a website about Minimal Art that I found yesterday - ‘The aim of Minimalism is to allow the viewer to experience the work more intensely without the distractions of composition, theme and so on’. For me, now, the aim of a minimal solution focused brief therapy is to allow the client to experience their thoughts, ideas and answers (some would say solutions) more intensely, without the distractions of the therapist’s thoughts, ideas, clumsy, clever or convoluted questions, compliments, tasks and so on.

I have realised that, as well as the minimalising of the process and of my questions - taking up less space in the session to leave more for the client - what I am aspiring also to minimalise is the stuff going on in my head about the client. And all this is, really, is an integration of Steve’s use of Ockham’s razor with Insoo’s injunction to leave no footprints, and taking the two as seriously as possible.

~ Guy Shennan

For minimal discussions about this post, contact Guy at

Reference: Shennan, G. & Iveson, C. (2011) From Solution to Description: Practice and research in tandem, in Cynthia Franklin et al (eds) Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press.


  1. The easiest way to 'leave no footprints' is not to get involved at all! But presumably the author's objective here is to have some impact on the client's life? If it isn't, he is demanding money for nothing. How can he hold both these ideas at once?

  2. Hello sfworkblog!

    Well, frequently in the (often social work) contexts in which I have worked not getting involved at all was actually the best thing to do. However it was often anything but easy not to get involved, given the pressures for involvement coming from all manner of places. But when I was able to not become involved, or at least to minimise my involvement, I am confident that this often had a better impact on the 'client's life than otherwise.

    But minimal therapy requires a therapist just as Minimal Art requires an artist, so I am unclear about the other point you are making. Of course I wish to have a helpful impact by what I do, and I believe that this will occur - as often as any other way of working has a helpful impact - by being 'minimal' in the ways outlined in this blogpost. Aspiring to leave no footprints - which being an aspiration will never actually be achieved - leads me in my view to a simultaneously useful, maximally ethical, and aesthetically fitting position as a therapist - for me.

    And I have never 'demanded' money for my work! Currently all of my therapeutic work is done pro bono as it happens - yet I still do the best job I can to help my clients get whatever they want from working with me.


  3. "the aim of a minimal solution focused brief therapy is to allow the client to experience their thoughts, ideas and answers (some would say solutions) more intensely, without the distractions of the therapist’s thoughts, ideas, clumsy, clever or convoluted questions, compliments, tasks and so on."

    I know what you are saying Guy, but all am picturing is you sitting in a room with someone stroking your beard and going, 'hmmm'!

    Isn't what you have written hypothesising about what works best (on the part of the therapist) just as much as saying that one should ask x,y,z, questions in a particular order and set a task?

    How do you decide what the minimum intervention is and what it should be?

  4. Hi Rayya

    Hmmm... I can't imagine anything more distracting to my client than someone else stroking my (non-existent) beard while I go, 'hmmm'!

    You've missed out the 'For me, now" in your quoting from my guest post. I don't think that I am saying that anyone should do anything, at least I certainly don't intend to be, and in the same way I am certainly not hypothesising about what works best - I've re-read my post twice and I can't see how or where I am saying this so I don't know how to respond to the point more specifically.

    I don't really see myself as making a series of discrete decisions about what minimum interventions are during a session, it is more about taking an overall approach or position. And I have decided to take this position and follow this approach because it fits for me better than any other, at the moment anyway, and seems to be as useful for clients as any other.

  5. Hello again Guy,

    In your post you refer to 'leave no footprints' as an injuction. In my dictionary, an injunction is '1.An authoritative warning or order'. As an order, it seems to me that it's as much use as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking contest. Impossible, undesirable (assuming change from the intervention is sought) and a distraction from getting on with doing something useful.

    However, as 'an aspiration will never actually be achieved' (as you clarify in your reply) it makes a deal more sense. Minimal footprints, certainly. Some footprints, inevitably.

    I am getting involved in a book project (by someone else) about 'who's in your room?'. It's a self help book, and the idea is that however comes into your life is 'in your room' for good. This is metaphorical of course - the 'room' is very large, and some people may be hiding a long way away. However, once they are in, they are in. For good. The book is asking people to consider whether, if they thought in this way, they would be more careful about who they invited into their room in the first place.

    This outlook seems to me to offer an interesting counterpoint to the alleged desirability of 'no footprints'. Footprints are inevitable (as you yourself admit). The question is 'what kind of footprints?'.

    Thanks again for a stimulating piece.

    Cheers, Mark

  6. Hi Mark

    Thanks for the reply. I'm not sure now whether you are objecting only to "leave no footprints" being said to be an injunction, or to the idea of "leaving no footprints" itself. It sounds like both. I am happy to jettison the word injunction, which perhaps slightly misrepresented Insoo, and replace this with how she was quoted in the 2nd edition of BRIEF's Problem to Solution (George, Iveson & Ratner, 1999, BT Press). I recommend reading the whole section in which this quote appears, which is entitled "The Invisible Therapist" (it's on p36) and ends like this:

    "During a third and last session, while reviewing the amazing progress a woman had made overcoming the effects of abuse and drug use, she said:
    'I hope you won't be offended by this but I do feel I've got to say it. I know coming here has probably saved my life but I want you to know that you still haven't played any part in that. Though you are important in one way you are not part of my life.'
    It was, in fact, as good a compliment as a brief therapist could hope to receive. Insoo Kim Berg (in an Internet discussion) put it most succinctly: 'Good brief therapists leave no footprints in their clients' lives!'"

    I had a similar 'compliment' from a client in a case I am currently writing up, which came to a crisis point when the parents of Sophie, aged 14, felt they couldn't cope and were on the verge of asking for her to come into care. Our work ended with the family staying together, and the father saying to me as they were politely declining further sessions: 'Despite your best efforts, there's no change with Sophie, it's just that we're coping with her better'.

    Implicit of course in the idea of leaving no footprints is that the therapist has actually walked with their client! As Lao Tsu said (it's the same point as Insoo's, just not quite as succinct, but there again, he wasn't a brief therapist!):

    "“To lead people, walk beside them ...
    As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
    The next best, the people honor and praise.
    The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ...
    When the best leader's work is done the people say,
    We did it ourselves!”


  7. Hi Guy,

    To walk besides - absolutely.
    For people to say they did it themselves - absolutely.
    'You are not part of my life' - utterly misguided. You ARE part of their life whether they like it or not, want it or not. In fact, even if you decide NOT to see someone, you've still had an influence on their life - because if you'd seen them then something would be different.

    You will leave footprints. Get over it. :-)

  8. Hi Mark

    Stop being so literal! I can't believe you're not getting what Insoo, BRIEF and I mean :-)

    It's very odd - the reason I contacted you to bring my reply of 19 August to your attention is because I heard your recent lecture which in part was promoting the BRIEF version of solution-focused practice. Having heard that, I was even more puzzled by your response to my blog post of 19 August than I had been at the time. You say in your lecture that the client doesn't even need to see the same therapist from session-to-session. This idea is based on the notion of the invisible therapist articulated on p36 of Problem to Solution, part of which I quoted above, and which ended, quite appropriately, with the Insoo quote.

    So you're seemingly supporting the idea and opposing it at the same time...


  9. We seem to be agreeing that leaving no footprints is impossible. Then stop going on about it! :-) I think I have got what you all mean perfectly well. However, we also seem to be agreeing that it's impossible. There will be footprints. The only question is what kind of footprints.

  10. Hi Mark

    I'm not convinced that you have quite got what is meant, but I am more convinced that I am not able to explain or illustrate it any more clearly than I have tried to above. Nice talking to you. Good luck in your further adventures with the no-footprint-leavers of BRIEF!



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