Traditional therapy has historically been problem-focused. It has analyzed a person’s problems from where they started and how those problems have an effect on that person’s life.
Out of years of observation of family therapy sessions, the theory and applications of solution-focused therapy developed.
Let’s explore the therapy, along with techniques and applications of the approach.
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5 Solution-Focused Therapy Techniques
Solution-focused therapy is a type of treatment that highlights a client’s ability to solve problems, rather than why or how the problem was created. It was developed over some time after observations of therapists in a mental health facility in Wisconsin by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues.
Like positive psychology, Solution Focused Therapy (SFT) practitioners focus on goal-oriented questioning to assist a client in moving into a future-oriented direction.
Solution-focused therapy has been successfully applied to a wide variety of client concerns due to its broad application. It has been utilized in a wide variety of client groups as well. The approach presupposes that clients have some knowledge of what will improve their lives.
The following areas have utilized SFT with varying success:
- relationship difficulties
- drug and alcohol abuse
- eating disorders
- anger management
- communication difficulties
- crisis intervention
- incarceration recidivism reduction
Goal clarification is an important technique in SFT. A therapist will need to guide a client to envision a future without the problem with which they presented. With coaching and positive questioning, this vision becomes much more clarified.
With any presenting client concern, the main technique in SFT is illuminating the exception. The therapist will guide the client to an area of their life where there is an exception to the problem. The exception is where things worked well, despite the problem. Within the exception, an approach for a solution may be forged.
The ‘miracle question’ is another technique frequently used in SFT. It is a powerful tool that helps clients to move into a solution orientation. This question allows clients to begin small steps toward finding solutions to presenting problems. It is asked in a specific way and is outlined later in this article.
Experiment invitation is another way that therapists guide clients into solution orientation. By inviting clients to build on what is already working, clients automatically focus on the positive. In positive psychology, we know that this allows the client’s mind to broaden and build from that orientation.
Utilizing what has been working experimentally allows the client to find what does and doesn’t work in solving the issue at hand. During the second half of a consultation with a client, many SFT therapists take a break to reflect on what they’ve learned during the beginning of the session.
Consultation breaks and invitations for more information from clients allow for both the therapist and client to brainstorm on what might have been missed during the initial conversations. After this break, clients are complemented and given a therapeutic message about the presenting issue. The message is typically stated in the positive so that clients leave with a positive orientation toward their goals.
Handy SFT Worksheets (PDF)
Here are four handy worksheets for use with solution-focused therapy.
- Miracle worksheet
- Exceptions to the Problem Worksheet
- Scaling Questions Worksheet
- SMART+ Goals Worksheet
Solution-Focused Therapy Interventions
Compliments are frequently used in SFT, to help the client begin to focus on what is working, rather than what is not. Acknowledging that a client has an impact on the movement toward a goal allows hope to become present. Once hope and perspective shift occurs, a client can decide what daily actions they would like to take in attaining a goal.
Higher levels of hope and optimism can predict the following desirable outcomes (Peterson and Seligman, 2004):
- achievement in all sorts of areas
- freedom from anxiety and depression
- improved social relationships
- improved physical well being
Mind mapping is an effective intervention also used to increase hope and optimism. This intervention is often used in life coaching practices. A research study done on solution-focused life coaching (Green, Oades, and Grant, 2006) showed that this type of intervention increases goal striving and hope, in addition to overall well-being.
Though life coaching is not the same as therapy, this study shows the effectiveness of improving positive behavior through solution-focused questioning.
Mind mapping is a visual thinking tool that helps structure information. It helps clients to better analyze, comprehend, and generate new ideas in areas they might not have been automatically self-generated. Having it on paper gives them a reference point for future goal setting as well.
Empathy is vital in the administration of SFBT. A client needs to feel heard and held by the practitioner for any forward movement to occur. Intentionally leaning in to ensure that a client knows that the practitioner is engaged in listening is recommended.
Speaking to strengths and aligning those strengths with goal setting are important interventions in SFT. Recognizing and acknowledging what is already working for the client validates strengths. Self-recognition of these strengths increases self-esteem and in turn, improves forward movement.
5 SFT Questions to Ask Clients
The questions asked in Solution-Focused Therapy are positively directed and in a goal-oriented stance. The intention is to allow a perspective shift by guiding clients in the direction of hope and optimism to lead them to a path of positive change. Results and progress come from focusing on the changes that need to be made for goal attainment and increased well being.
1. Miracle Question
Here is a clear example of how to administer the miracle question. It should be delivered deliberately. When done so, it allows the client to imagine the miracle occurring.
“Now, I want to ask you a strange question. Suppose that while you are sleeping tonight and the entire house is quiet, a miracle happens. The miracle is that the problem which brought you here is solved. However, because you are sleeping, you don’t know that the miracle has happened. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what will be different that will tell you that a miracle has happened and the problem which brought you here is solved?” (de Shazer, 1988)
2. Presupposing change questions
A practitioner of solution-focused therapy asks questions in an approach derived way.
Here are a few examples of presupposing change questions:
“What stopped complete disaster from occurring?”
“How did you avoid falling apart.”
“What kept you from unraveling?”
3. Exception Questions
Examples of exception questions include:
1. Tell me about times when you don’t get angry.
2. Tell me about times you felt the happiest.
3. When was the last time that you feel you had a better day?
4. Was there ever a time when you felt happy in your relationship?
5. What was it about that day that made it a better day?
6. Can you think of a time when the problem was not present in your life?
4. Scaling Questions
These are questions that allow a client to rate their experience. They also allow for a client to evaluate their motivation to change their experience. Scaling questions allow for a practitioner to add a follow-up question that is in the positive as well.
An example of a scaling question:
“On a scale of 1-10, with 10 representing the best it can be and one the worst, where would you say you are today?”
A follow-up question:
“ Why a four and not a five?”
Questions like these allow the client to explore the positive, as well as their commitment to the changes that need to occur.
5. Coping Questions
These types of questions open clients up to their resiliency. Clients are experts in their life experience. Helping them see what works, allows them to grow from a place of strength.
“How have you managed so far?”
“What have you done to stay afloat?”
“What is working?”
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT Techniques)
The main idea behind SFBT is that the techniques are positively and solution-focused to allow a brief amount of time for the client to be in therapy. Overall, improving the quality of life for each client, with them at the center and in the driver’s seat of their growth. SFBT typically has an average of 5-8 sessions.
During the sessions, goals are set. Specific experimental actions are explored and deployed into the client’s daily life. By keeping track of what works and where adjustments need to be made, a client is better able to track his or her progress.
A method has developed from the Miracle Question entitled, The Miracle Method. The steps follow below (Miller & Berg, 1996). It was designed for combatting problematic drinking but is useful in all areas of change.
- State your desire for something in your life to be different.
- Envision a miracle happening, and your life IS different.
- Make sure the miracle is important to you.
- Keep the miracle small.
- Define the change with language that is positive, specific, and behavioral.
- State how you will start your journey, rather than how you will end it.
- Be clear about who, where, and when, but not the why.
4 Activities & Exercises
1. Solution-focused art therapy/ letter writing
A powerful in-session task is to request a client to draw or write about one of the following, as part of art therapy:
- a picture of their miracle
- something the client does well
- a day when everything went well. What was different about that day?
- a special person in their life
2. Strengths Finders
Have a client focus on a time when they felt their strongest. Ask them to highlight what strengths were present when things were going well. This can be an illuminating activity that helps clients focus on the strengths they already have inside of them.
A variation of this task is to have a client ask people who are important in their lives to tell them how they view the client’s strengths. Collecting strengths from another’s perspective can be very illuminating and helpful in bringing a client into a strength perspective.
3. Solution Mind Mapping
A creative way to guide a client into a brainstorm of solutions is by mind mapping. Have the miracle at the center of the mind map. From the center, have a client create branches of solutions to make that miracle happen. By exploring solution options, a client will self-generate and be more connected to the outcome.
4. Experiment Journals
Encourage clients to do experiments in real-life settings concerning the presenting problem. Have the client keep track of what works from an approach perspective. Reassure the client that a variety of experiments is a helpful approach.
Best SFT Books
The Miracle Method by Scott D. Miller and Insoo Kim Berg is a book that has helped many clients overcome problematic drinking since the 1990s.
By utilizing the miracle question in the book, those with problematic drinking behaviors are given the ability to envision a future without the problem.
Concrete, obtainable steps in reaching the envisioned future are laid out in this supportive read.
Available on Amazon.
Solution Focused Brief Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques is a well-received book on solution-focused therapy. Authors Ratner, George, and Iveson provide a concisely written and easily understandable guide to the approach.
Its accessibility allows for quick and effective change in people’s lives.
The book covers the approach’s history, philosophical underpinnings, techniques, and applications. It can be utilized in organizations, coaching, leadership, school-based work, and even in families.
The work is useful for any practitioner seeking to learn the approach and bring it into practice.
Available on Amazon.
Miller, Hubble, and Duncan’s Handbook of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is a resource for any practitioner needing a toolbox in the therapy’s approach.
It includes work from 28 of the lead practitioners in the field and how they have integrated the solution-focused approach with the problem-focused approach.
It utilizes research across treatment modalities to better equip new practitioners with as many tools as possible.
Available on Amazon.
In More Than Miracles by Steven De Shazer and others, is the most up-to-date review of the SFBT approach.
It allows the reader to peek into hundreds of hours of observation of psychotherapy.
It highlights what questions work and provides a thoughtful overview of applications to complex problems.
Available on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
Solution-Focused Therapy is an approach that empowers clients to own their abilities in solving life’s problems. Rather than traditional psychotherapy that focuses on how a problem was derived, SFT allows for a goal-oriented focus to problem-solving. This approach allows for future-oriented, rather than past-oriented discussions to move a client forward toward the resolutions of their present problem.
This approach is used in many different areas, including education, family therapy, and even in office settings. Creating cooperative and collaborative opportunities to problem solve allows mind-broadening capabilities. Illuminating a path of choice is a compelling way to enable people to explore how exactly they want to show up in this world.
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- Green, L. S., Oades, L. G., & Grant, A. M. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused life coaching: Enhancing goal striving, well-being, and hope. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 142–149. doi:10.1080/17439760600619849
- de Shazer, S. (1988). Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Miller& Berg. (1995). , The Miracle Method. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, Inc.
- Peterson & Seligman., (2004). Character Strengths & Virtues: A Handbook And Classification. New York: American Psychological Association & Oxford University Press.