Solution focused therapy

Looking to the Future with a Solution Focus

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James Sussex, MSc, BSc (Hons)

“When I focus on what’s good today, I have a good day, and when I focus on what’s bad, I have a bad day. If I focus on a problem, the problem increases; if I focus on the answer, the answer increases.”

(Alcoholics Anonymous, 1976, p. 451)

In these unprecedented times, imagining a future beyond the context of today might feel elusive. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt the world over— regardless of one’s opinion on the subject matter. The ripple effect has been overwhelming; simply put, there has been no way to ignore the changes that have been forced upon us as a side effect of the sweeping global pandemic we find ourselves in. For many, limitations of choice have occurred in everyday freedoms, such as how we live, interact, socialize, and work.

Feeling stuck between the weight of the past and the worry about the future is not limited to how we exist under COVID-19. In our “stuckness,” it’s possible to feel disempowered, disarmed, and unequipped to deal with our problems, from relationship issues and work stress to depression and anxiety.

Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) focuses on the here and now, in the name of empowerment, choice, and utilizing tools that we might already have but may not know are there. SFBT enables change as a constant and as an inevitability; the job of the therapist and client builds upon a strong working alliance to identify and amplify change. Sometimes, this means identifying current resources and things we might be doing already that are helpful. Other times, this means focusing on the possibilities of what could be. SFBT acknowledges that clients are often looking to alleviate a problem and move away from current circumstances by making key changes.

A key component of utilizing a future focus to attain empowerment is goal setting. For both individuals and couples, problems can often feel enmeshed. As a result, smaller (often more manageable) problems can escalate and snowball into a bigger problem. Think about a snowball rolling down a mountain: as it gathers pace, it gets bigger, collecting more snow until, finally, it becomes so big it almost blocks out the sun. Are we going to feel more comfortable standing in front of the snowball at the peak of its power or when it is smaller and we know we have a stronger chance of handling it? Oftentimes, we hear situations like this in an EAP. For example, low mood and anxiety are not driven by one singular event. Clients often report back concerning a multi-layered escalation, such as a bereavement, a redundancy, a breakup, or a tough time at work. These sorts of issues snowball when joined together and, suddenly, our mountainside snowball is too large to handle.

Setting goals offers a chance to focus in on what is really important. It is also considered a cornerstone of SFBT; for individuals and couples this should champion action planning and thinking about next steps. During the assessment, the first phase is information gathering. When clients tell their story, information is collected and used for planning and goal setting. In SFBT, it may not be possible to handle the client’s entire snowball. So where would it be useful to aim our focus? What is it that the client needs the most or feels is a priority focus?

SFBT goals for couples and individuals must be SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Therapists and clients work together to establish an unambiguous and clearly defined goal, thinking about ways in which its attainment can be measured throughout the therapeutic endeavor and whether this goal is achievable and realistic within the given time frame and current context of the clients’ lives. A truly pluralistic, authentic, and client-focused, goal-setting session involves dialogue, planning, and negotiation. A key facet of this involves a therapist facilitating visualization through asking key questions during the planning and goal-setting phase of SFBT. The following questions can facilitate moving forward with goals and action planning:

Exception questions—identifying exceptional times: Can you tell me about a time when the problem was less prominent, or you felt differently?

Coping questions—identifying where coping happened: How did you manage to contact us? How did you manage to keep going to work?

Scaling questions­—estimating a subjective understanding of how the client feels: How do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best? On a scale of 1 to 10, where do you want to be with this issue at the end of therapy?

Relationship questions—facilitating imagination by bringing in other resources: What would you say to a family member in this situation? What do you think a friend would say to you about this?

Miracle question—facilitating visualization of moving forward: What would you like to see differently? What does life look like when you do reach 9 out of 10 with coping?

Finally, it is important to remember that SFBT does not mean clients will come (or need to come) to the initial assessment with a sound understanding of how they want things to change. It is important to take time to develop this phase of the work in a pluralistic, client-focused approach. In EAP work, it is common to experience people who feel uncertain about their goals or who believe that nothing works for them. At this stage, both in couples and individual work, exploration of the type of questions above can bring new information to light. Sometimes, this information can even be new for a client and can turn an initial call into a firm, collaborative, action-planning, and goal-setting session within the first hour.

During this difficult time facing us all, we have had to remain adaptable, flexible, and diverse to rapid change. The same philosophy applies to setting goals in SFBT work; we must remain open to the notion of possibility, adaptable to the idea that goals can change and develop over time, and flexible to work with this change as therapists. Could it be, then, that change is constantly evolving? Perhaps change is synonymous with growth, movement, and energy moving forward. In this way, goal setting is not just a way to develop a plan for therapy, but maybe the first step back into the driver’s seat.

Source: Alcoholics Anonymous. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism (3rd ed., p. 451). NYC: Alcoholics Anonymous Worldwide Service.

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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