What is Solution-Focused Therapy?
Solution-Focused Therapy – also called Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) – concentrates on our present and future situation and finding solutions to help us move forward, as quickly as possible. As a future-oriented, goal-directed therapy it places emphasis on finding solutions to problems rather than focusing on the problems themselves.
It differs from many traditional types of therapy, which are problem-focused and involve analysing our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, where they originated, and how they are impacting on our lives.
The need for an alternative approach to these traditional therapies was recognised by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, in the late 1970s. They observed that a lot of time, money, energy and other resources were spent discussing and analysing problems in therapy sessions, rather than on finding solutions to these problems.
In developing SFBT, they decided that the underlying reasons for maladaptive thoughts, feelings and behaviours did not need to be explored in any depth – that it isn’t essential to know and deeply understand our problems in order to resolve them. Instead, the assumption in SFBT is that knowing what action to take next is more helpful than looking back at why or how a problem was created in the first place.
As such, SFBT is a short-term, goal-oriented approach that can be used as a standalone therapeutic intervention or used alongside other therapy types. While it is a time-limited therapy, its effects are often long-lasting.
Key concepts of Solution-Focused Therapy
The approach focuses on developing a vision of the future we want, setting goals and then providing support as we determine the skills and resources we need to successfully achieve our vision.
Through SFBT we learn to open up our minds to creative thinking, goal setting and developing a clear plan. It is grounded in the belief that we already know what we need to do to resolve our problems and have (at least) the basic skills needed to create change – we just need guidance to identify and develop them.
The key building blocks for a solution-focused approach include:
- understanding that change is constant and inevitable
- being ready and willing to change
- seeking to be empowered to define our own goals
- recognising that we already have the tools needed to resolve our problems
- emphasising what is possible and what we can change
- focusing on the future
- accepting the therapy is short term.
In solution-focused therapy, therapists use the same skills as in traditional therapies, but with a very clear difference: they will focus on potential and desired future behaviours, rather than actual and unwanted past behaviours.
Treatment includes a variety of techniques that can be personlised to meet the needs of each individual. These include 1-10 scaling, mind mapping, goal setting and solution-focused questions:
- the miracle question
- exception questions
- scaling questions
- coping questions.
With a focus on self-development, growth and taking responsibility, SFBT aims to empower us with the knowledge that we are capable of managing our symptoms, coping with challenges, clarifying goals and implementing life-changing solutions.
What is Solution-Focused Therapy used to treat?
SFBT can standalone as a therapeutic intervention, or be used alongside other therapy types.
Those who are open and willing to make immediate changes in their lives will benefit most from this form of therapy. It’s also ideally suited to those who lead fast-paced, modern lifestyles, due to its brief nature.
As a future-oriented, goal-directed therapy, SFBT has been successfully used to help treat a wide variety of mental health disorders, and associated issues, including:
- behavioural problems
- child behavioural problems
- domestic and/or child abuse
- eating disorders
- family dysfunction
- marriage or relationship challenges
A solution-focused therapy approach is not recommended for treating some acute or severe mental health disorders, but it can significantly help to improve quality of life for those suffering from these conditions, whilst they are undergoing other treatments.
What does Solution-Focused Therapy involve? / What can I expect?
As a basic assumption in SFBT is that we each know what we need to do to improve our own lives, therapy sessions focus on guiding us through a process of self-discovery. This will include recognising what is already working for us, questioning basic assumptions, identifying and setting goals and developing skills required to implement change.
Three basic questions will frame the therapy sessions:
- What are our best hopes from this therapy?
- What would our day-to-day-life look like if these hopes were realised?
- What are we already doing, and have done in the past, that might contribute to these hopes being realised?
The therapist will also guide us through a specific set of questions, which are positively directed and goal-oriented:
- The miracle question
- Exception questions
- Scaling questions
- Coping questions
- Between now and the next session, pay attention when something is working well – notice what you are doing and keep doing that.
- Try something different and notice what happens.
- Journal for 15 minutes a day about what is bothering you. Read through your notes and then burn them.
This question helps us to imagine a future in which our current problems are absent – to see ourselves as we want to be. It allows us to imagine a miracle has occurred – imagining life without our problems, and paving the way for setting goals for a different way of living. The question moves the focus away from things we have no control over, to more internal things that we do have the power to change.
These allow us to identify with times when our problem wasn’t present – and to explore what was different about those times. They also help to highlight the skills and resources we already possess, that can empower us to find solutions. Examples of exception questions include: Tell me about times when you don’t get angry. Can you think of a time (in the last month) when you didn’t have this problem? Tell me about times you’ve felt happy.
These are questions that help us to rate our experiences, using a scale from 0-10. They can be useful in assessing our present mindset and in tracking progress. Scaling questions allow us to explore the positive, as well as our commitment to the changes that need to be made. Examples of scaling questions include: On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best and 1 being the worst, where would you say you are today? Where do you need to be? What will help you move up one point?
These support us in becoming aware of the skills we already possess for coping with the challenges in our lives – and prove our resilience. By seeing what is working, we can grow from a place of strength and self-confidence. Examples of coping questions include: What do you do that stops the problem getting worse? What keeps you going? How do you cope with these challenges?
Between sessions, we work towards the changes we want, in manageable steps, following goals the therapist has helped us set. For example:
Following sessions usually begin with the question: ‘What’s better?’ This helps us reflect on any improvements, what we did to achieve them and how these improvements are impacting on other areas of our life. We can also see that things are improving, gaining confidence to build on our success.
The average number of sessions needed for SFBT is between five and eight, depending on types of problems, with 80% of people reporting a lasting improvement to their quality of life and well being.
How effective is Solution-Focused Therapy?
One of the key benefits of SFBT is the speed at which it can be effective in helping us find solutions to problems and enabling us with skills to make and maintain necessary changes. It provides long-term solutions to recovery and well being, in a short space of time.
Studies have shown strong evidence that solution-focused therapy is an effective treatment for a variety of behavioural and psychological conditions, including child behaviour problems, family dysfunction, anxiety and stress-related issues.
SFBT can be used effectively with individuals, small groups or families – and with people of all ages, including children, adolescents and adults.
As a result of its success, SFBT is being applied to a wide variety of environments including education, business, family therapy and other settings – where people are keen to reach personal goals and improve interpersonal relationships as quickly as possible.
It is not a recommended treatment for those with some acute or severe mental health disorders, but it can be used alongside other therapies to help improve their quality of life.
It is also unlikely to be beneficial for anyone looking to scrutinise their childhood or gain deep insights into their life’s path.
If, however, we want laser-focused help to face our problems head-on and change our lives, without getting lost in the details, SFBT is likely to prove an effective treatment.
If you believe a solution-focused therapy may be of benefit to you or a loved one, please contact us for further support and guidance.