Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson


Solutions Focus has its roots in the therapeutic approach devised by husband-and-wife team, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA).

Working with therapy patients from the late 1970s to early in the 21st century, they were seeking the most efficient ways of making progress. The traditional approach of ‘the talking cure’, deriving from Freud and psychoanalysis, involved months or even years of conversations, exploring the ‘roots’ of issues in childhood, uncovering traumas and – as the name implies – reaching an ‘analysis’ – that is, a detailed understanding of the problem.

As the profession developed, family therapy offered help to family groups. The parents would attend sessions, say, with the ‘difficult’ child, based on the idea that the problems might be in the interactions between the family members. This more systemic approach built on the insights of social anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

De Shazer and Berg (and their numerous colleagues) experimented with the types of questions they asked and the order in which they asked them, developing SFBT – solution-focused brief therapy. One striking finding was that patients made better progress when they were asked about what they wanted (solutions) before – or more radically instead of – when they were asked about their problems.

Dealing, for example, with people who drank too much, they discovered that these people typically wanted something different in their lives, such as spending more time with their children or improving the quality of their marriage. By discussing with their patients what was wanted – which often seemed unrelated to the presenting problem – the therapists got results more quickly, and just as sustainably, as other therapeutic methods.

All the facts belong only to the problem, not to its solution.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Following the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, they proposed that there may be no logical connection between ‘the problem’ – what was troubling people – and ‘the solution’ – what people wanted. This was, and remains, a strikingly bold assertion. Yet, whether or not this was a satisfactory explanation for their success, Berg and de Shazer’s model spread through parts of the therapy world, with excellent results documented by several research studies.

Their insights are now backed by a far wider and larger range of research from the fast-developing field of positive psychology. Positive psychology, popularised by American psychologist Martin Seligman, is the scientific study of happiness, strengths and why and how people flourish. This new field dovetails nicely with the inherently positive approach of solutions focus work.

De Shazer and Berg’s solution-focused approach also began to find its way into organisations and businesses that saw benefits in a direct and pragmatic way of getting what people wanted. Many consultants, facilitators and managers now apply the approach and techniques to managing change, strategic planning, conflict resolution, leadership and coaching.

The author of this topic, Paul Z Jackson, played a significant part in this development, co-founding the network of solution-focus practitioners (SOLworld) and devising with Mark McKergow a set of tools and principles for working with a solution-focused approach in organisations.