History of solution focused practice

The solution focused approach was first developed in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s by Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee. Solution focused brief therapy was a radical departure, even from the brief therapy tradition in which it emerged. The brief therapy of the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California was based on ‘the interactional view’ in which problems were seen as happening between rather than within people. And problems were seen to arise when people responded to life’s ordinary difficulties in ways which made them worse, turning everyday difficulties into entrenched problems. So the MRI brief therapist’s job was to identify what the ‘attempted solutions’ were which were causing rather than solving the problems, and then to help the client to do something else instead. In short, the therapist’s job was to find out what people were doing that was not working, then get them to do something different.

Then Steve, Insoo and their colleagues, who were strongly influenced by the MRI model of brief therapy as well as by the innovative psychiatrist Milton Erickson, started to become aware of something which was remarkable for its simplicity and for the enormous influence it was to have on the future, not only of psychotherapy and counselling, but of all human endeavours where one or more people were engaged in helping one or more other people by talking with them. This was that whatever problem a client had come to therapy with, there always seemed to be an exception to the problem, a time when it didn’t happen, or happened less or with less intensity. The problem drinker sometimes resisted the urge to have one more drink, the arguing couple sometimes got on, the recalcitrant teenager sometimes came in on time. So maybe the client already had the seeds of a solution and did not need the therapist to get them to do something different after all. Maybe they simply needed to do more of what they were doing during these exceptional times. So the therapist’s job began to shift – find out what people were doing that was working, then help them to do more of it.

The idea of ‘exceptions’ was the crucial waypost on the road from the problem-focused brief therapy of the MRI to the solution-focused brief therapy of Milwaukee. The journey was more or less complete with the addition of a future focus. Brief therapists had always been interested in determining goals for treatment, as therapy would be anything but brief if its endpoint were not established at the outset. The Milwaukee team, influenced by Erickson’s crystal ball technique, went beyond traditional goal-setting by inviting detailed descriptions of life without the problem, often by using what became one of their trademark interventions, the ‘miracle question’.

Steve de Shazer’s four books between 1985 and 1994, Keys, Clues, Putting Difference To Work and Words Were Originally Magic, are required reading for anyone who wants to become fully acquainted with the history and development of solution focused brief therapy. Yet for all the words de Shazer wrote on the subject, one of the great strengths of this simple, elegant and effective approach is that it can be distilled down to two main activities

  • Helping the client to describe their ‘preferred future’ – how they will know they have got what they want from the therapy
  • Helping the client to describe the progress they are already making towards this future.

There have been many major developments since the birth of solution-focused brief therapy in the 1980’s and two have been particularly significant in the UK context. In the late 1980’s a team of London-based social workers/family therapists were interested in the books and articles coming out of Milwaukee and, becoming aware of the value and potential of the solution focused approach, Chris Iveson, Evan George and Harvey Ratner set up the Brief Therapy Practice, later known simply as BRIEF.

This change in name was related to the other development to be referred to here, which was the mushrooming of the solution focused approach beyond the relatively small world of psychotherapy and counselling and into every arena where people are engaged in helping others through conversation. It soon became apparent that the activities of the solution-focused brief therapist did not have to be restricted to therapy and that asking people what they wanted, how they would know they had achieved this, and about the progress they were making towards it, were questions that could be usefully asked by anyone in health, social care and educational settings, as well as in coaching and organisational change.

BRIEF have been influential in upholding the tradition begun by Steve de Shazer in Milwaukee of developing an increasingly minimal and elegant version of solution focused practice. Their teaching since 1990 has also contributed significantly to the widespread applications of the approach in the UK, far beyond the therapy room and the counselling clinic.

Guy Shennan’s solution focused practice has developed within these traditions and, in turn, his teaching and writing since 1999 and his immersion in the activities of BRIEF from 2004 to 2010 have contributed to the continuing development of solution focused practice.