Solution-focused therapy

Written by Becky Banham
Becky Banham
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Fran Jeffes
Last updated 23rd May 2022 | Next update due 22nd May 2025

Solution-focused therapy (SFBT) also known as solution-focused brief therapy or brief therapy, is an approach to psychotherapy based on solution-building rather than problem-solving. While it acknowledges present problems and past causes, SFBT predominantly explores an individual's current resources and future hopes. This can help them to look forward and use their own strengths to achieve their goals.

What is solution-focused therapy?

Psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, Brian Turner, explains more about SFBT including the issues it can help with and how to find a therapist. 

Solution-focused brief therapy was developed in the 1980s by husband and wife team Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, along with their team at the Brief Family Center. As the name suggests, SFBT is considered a time-limited approach, however, the technique is often incorporated into other long-term therapy types and its effects can be long-lasting.

The approach was founded on seven basic philosophies and assumptions:

  1. Change is both constant and certain.
  2. Clients must want to change.
  3. Clients are the experts and outline their own goals.
  4. Clients have resources and their own strengths to solve and overcome their problems.
  5. Therapy is short-term.
  6. Emphasis is on what is changeable and possible.
  7. Focus on the future - history is not essential.

The solution-focused approach is a humanistic therapy, which focuses on self-development, growth and responsibility. It is goal-directed and focuses on building solutions, rather than on solving the problems that clients bring to therapy.

How does SFBT work? 

Rather than dwelling on an individual's weaknesses and limitations, Shazer and Berg's solution-focused therapy concentrates solely on an individual's strengths and possibilities to help them move forward. It works by helping them overcome problems without tackling them directly - using the solution-building concept to foster change and help individuals to develop a set of clear, concise and realistic goals. It is the role of a solution-focused therapist to help elicit and implement these solutions via a series of discussions.

In these discussions, the therapist will help individuals to envisage a clear and detailed picture of how they see their future - and how things will be better once changes are made. They will also encourage them to explore past experiences and times when they were as happy as they see themselves in their future vision. These processes aim to evoke a sense of hope and expectation and make a future solution seem possible.

It is essentially the future vision that drives the therapy process forward, ensuring that it is directional and, as a result, brief. Therapists can use this future solution to shape the techniques and questions that will comprise discussions. These aim to help the individual realise their potential and find the courage to move forward.

Solution-focused therapy techniques

The solution-focused approach involves a variety of techniques to clarify solutions and help the person seeking help find ways of achieving them. These are generally a set of questions tailored to the individual and their specific circumstances.

The 'miracle question'

A key element within this questioning is the 'miracle question', encouraging people to stop thinking about why they cannot achieve something, and instead, picture how their lives could be if a miracle occurred. This helps them to view life differently and takes the focus off the cause of their problems.

Ultimately, the miracle question enables the individual to picture a solution. Their responses are expected to describe this solution in detailed behavioural terms, and this can have powerful implications about their need to do something different. This is thought to pave the way for small, realistic steps that will help them form an entirely different way of living.

Exception questions 

Exception questions allow people to identify with times when things may have been different for them - periods in their lives that are counter to the problem they are currently facing. By exploring how these exceptions happened and highlighting the strengths and resources used by the individual to achieve them, a therapist enables the client to empower themselves toward finding their solution.

Examples of exception questions a therapist may ask include:

  • Tell me about times when you felt happiest.
  • What was it about that day that made it a better day?
  • Can you think of times when the problem was not present in your life?

During this process, the therapist will likely offer plenty of praise to encourage individuals to project their exceptions into the future and feel more confident about using their strengths and resources to achieve their new vision.

Scaling questions 

Following miracle and exception questions, scaling questions will typically be asked to invite those taking part to perceive their problem in terms of difficulty. This tends to involve using a scale from one to 10 in which each number represents a rating of the problem (one being the worst a situation could be and 10 being the best).

By identifying where an individual's problem lies in their mindset, a therapist can go about exploring where things would need to be for them to feel that the aims of therapy have been met. From here they can establish specific goals and identify preferred outcomes. Scaling questions can also prove useful for tracking progress.

Who can benefit from solution-focused therapy?

Solution-focused therapy has been found successful in helping a vast array of people, including couples, families and children. It is thought to work very effectively for those who are keen to embrace change and have a goal-orientated mindset, as these individuals are often more responsive to therapy techniques.

The aims of solution-focused brief therapy are to make interventions brief, efficient, easily understood by clients and useful in a range of contexts. Research suggests that it is a practical and easily adaptable approach for a broad range of problems.

- Counsellor Gerry McCanny explores the effectiveness of solution-focused brief therapy.

Due to the brief nature of the approach, solution-focused therapy can be particularly beneficial to those who lead fast-paced, modern lifestyles. On average, about five sessions of solution-focused therapy are needed and these typically last for around 45 minutes each. The therapy rarely extends beyond eight sessions, however further sessions and other integrated techniques can be introduced if necessary - in some cases, only one session is required.

The versatility of the approach extends to the variety of issues it can help with. These include communication difficulties, stress and anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, behavioural problems, eating disorders and relationship difficulties to name a few.

As with all forms of therapy, in helping individuals to progress beyond these issues, solution-focused therapy may result in major life changes - for example, the beginning of a new relationship, or the ending of an old one.

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