What is Solution-Focused Psychotherapy?

Marjorie McAtee

Solution-focused psychotherapy is a form of brief therapy that aims to help clients focus on the solutions to their problems, rather than the causes of the problems. More traditional psychotherapeutic methods usually encourage the patient to focus on problems, and their causes, instead. While traditional therapy often asks clients to stop performing certain behaviors in order to seek improvement, solution-focused psychotherapy generally asks clients to start, or continue, performing those behaviors that ameliorate the problem. Solution-focused psychotherapy normally operates on the theory that clients already know what is wrong in their lives or relationships, and that therapy should help clients focus on finding and implementing solutions, rather than dwelling on problems or rehashing the past. This method of therapy is said to be very effective, and can help clients improve their relationships and resolve other life problems within a relatively short space of time.

Patients in solution-focused psychotherapy are encouraged to work out solutions to their problems.
Patients in solution-focused psychotherapy are encouraged to work out solutions to their problems.

Unlike traditional means of talk therapy, solution-focused psychotherapy asks clients to think about the solutions to their problems rather than the problems themselves. The method is generally oriented toward the client's goals and future, rather than toward his past. Psychotherapists Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer developed this technique in the 1970s in Wisconsin, while working with impoverished urban clients. Berg and de Shazer believed that therapy patients generally already possess a strong understanding of what's wrong in their lives, as well as what beneficial changes could be made. They believed many clients merely need some guidance in making practical changes that can help them reach their goals.

Therapists typically implement this type of therapy by encouraging the patient to consider and discuss those times when his problem was less severe, or those times when he implemented a solution that worked, even if only temporarily. Therapists working on the solution-focused model will often encourage their patients to continue repeating any practical behaviors that improved their lives in the past. The therapist will often ask the patient to choose some behaviors that can help improve the problem, and to implement those behaviors in daily life, beginning right away. Therapists may also offer encouragement and validation in the form of praise and compliments to the patient. Behavioral experimentation may be tried, with the aim of finding new behaviors that can help improve the patient's situation.

Many believe one of the most efficient goal-setting tools used in solution-focused psychotherapy is what's known as the "miracle question." The therapist generally poses this question by asking the patient to imagine that, one night, while he is sound asleep, a "miracle" of some sort occurs and, when the patient wakes, his problem has disappeared from his life. The patient is asked to imagine what his life would be like, and how he would behave if he awoke one morning to find that the problem had been solved. The patient's answer to this question can often go far towards helping him establish positive behaviors that can eventually bring about major life changes.

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