Tim Robinson - Counsellor
What is Solution Focused Brief Therapy and How will it help me?
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
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I get asked two questions fairly frequently when a client first gets in touch: At some point they will ask: What is Solution Focused Brief Therapy? And How does it work? These are both reasonable questions to ask given you are investing your hard earned money and want to ensure the type of therapy you undertake is effective and a good fit. I get asked these questions often enough that I decided to write a blog post about it.
Solution Focused Brief Therapy has been around since the 1980’s and has a large body of research supporting its effectiveness. It works well with a wide range of issues and often achieves positive outcomes in fewer sessions than other therapeutic models (see more on the research here: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy · Solution-Focused Therapy Institute (solutionfocused.net)
The research supporting SFBT is vast and has been around for a relatively long time, however approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tend to be more widely known, especially in New Zealand.
What is Solution Focused Brief Therapy?
To address this question I will attempt to answer it as clearly as I can without too much “counsellor jargon”. Hopefully this will make what I’m about to write more accessible to the reader as not everyone reading this is trained in counselling.
Firstly, I studied Solution Focused Brief Therapy (or SFBT) for two years at The University of Canterbury. This involved many case studies being reviewed by my supervisors and my competence assessed, along with the more academic background of the approach being taught. SFBT has been taught at the University of Canterbury since the 1980s with constant research being done on the approach each year.
My training gave me a wonderful grounding, but I soon learned that the approach is subtle, yet nuanced and that I will continue to learn the finer details of SFBT throughout my career. That is why I continue to do further trainings through Elliott Connie, a leader in the field who has helped develop my understanding even further, and influenced some of my thoughts in this article (See more about Elliott here: Home - Elliott Connie).
I’ll start with a more “textbook” definition of SFBT taken from a book called: Solution Focused Brief Therapy (100 Key points and Techniques) (Ratner, George & Iveson, 2012).
“Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is an approach to enabling people to build change in their lives in the shortest possible time. It believes that change comes from two principle sources: from encouraging people to describe their preferred future- what their lives will be like should the therapy be successful- and from detailing the skills and resources they have already demonstrated- those instances of success in the present and the past. From these descriptions, clients are able to make adjustments to what they do in their lives ”.
I understand that for the average person not trained in counselling this definition may not feel like an adequate explanation, so I will try and explain it from my experience in using it, my years of training and my learning along the way since taking on this approach.
My Understanding of SFBT (through training and applying it on a daily basis)
My understanding of SFBT is a reflection of using the approach daily with clients, training at university in both Counselling and Psychology, and through insights I have gained from further training courses presented by author and trainer Elliott Connie (Home - Elliott Connie).
Solution Focused Brief Therapy is unique from many other approaches as it focuses on what you would like to achieve from coming to therapy, rather than focusing on the problem that brought you into therapy. A common first question is some form of “What do you want to achieve from therapy? In this way, the outcome you seek from therapy is made explicit from the start.
This differs from the majority of other approaches which tend to ask some version of “What problem would you like help with?” Or more commonly “What brings you here today?” (which typically is something the client is bothered about, rather than thrilled with).
An example of what a client wants to achieve from therapy might be “I’d like to be more confident”. In SFBT this gives the therapist and client an outcome to work towards. Through a series of well worded questions, the therapist and client then work together to “construct” or describe a life where this more confident version of the client is present.
Strengths and resources within the client are highlighted, and past successes are drawn upon as examples of what worked in the past, and therefore will likely work again. The client is encouraged to see themselves in a different way, a way they may have never stopped to consider before. It is through this reflection and hearing themselves speak that the client begins to change their outlook on life, their outlook on themselves, and their estimation of their capabilities.
SFBT shines a “spotlight” on the best version of the client so the “problem” can be approached from a position of strength. In SFBT the “problem” doesn’t matter as much as the way you view yourself in relation to the problem. For example, if I view myself as capable, confident and able to cope regardless of what comes my way, I have a much better chance of being able to overcome, solve, or find a way through a problem. However, if I view myself as incompetent, worthless or any other number of words that reflect negative self talk, I put myself in a far less resourceful state which can make a problem seem much harder to overcome.
SFBT focuses on the difference you want to see in your life and amplifies that, with the idea being that you get more of what you focus on. I’ve also heard it described as a “dress rehearsal for change”. In going through a description of a life where you are bringing the best version of yourself to the fore, often “problems” start to unravel as possibilities in thinking are expanded. This gives the client (who has often been very focused on the problem prior to therapy) a chance to rethink things from a more expanded, empowering point of view, with a focus on what is possible rather than what is standing in their way.
SFBT supports a client in solving a problem for themselves. In contrast to many other approaches, the therapist does not see themselves as an “expert”. This makes sense as it is much more empowering for a client to discover what they need to do for themselves, than it is for the therapist to tell them what to do. The therapist is merely a facilitator of change; the client does the “work” outside of the therapy sessions.
The client is the expert on their own life which is why SFBT focuses on asking the client the hard questions. Also, I’m sure we have all had the experience of not liking being told what to do, it generally isn’t very effective and this is no different in therapy. I’ll say more about this in a later paragraph on motivation.
How Will Solution Focused Brief Therapy Help Me?
· Solution Focused Brief Therapy focuses on what you want in your life (rather than what you don’t want).
· SFBT helps focus you towards change.
· It will broaden your thinking on the problem and the way you view yourself in relation to the problem.
· It will assist you in seeing yourself as capable, resourceful and highlight your strengths and past successes.
· It gives you the autonomy in how you decide to move forward in your life and this tends to be the most effective and most empowering.
· It will challenge you to think about yourself in a way maybe you haven’t considered before, in being encouraged to describe the best version of yourself.
· It will expand your thinking so rather than seeing just the “problem” you start to see possibilities and solutions which create momentum in moving forward.
· Research suggests positive outcomes are achieved in fewer sessions than many other types of therapy so it’s cost effective.
· It can assist you in feeling less “stuck” as it approaches a problem from a different perspective than most traditional therapies.
Scientific Theory Supporting the use of SFBT in the Change Process
* For a comprehensive list of the research available supporting SFBT, including summaries and key points go here: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy · Solution-Focused Therapy Institute (solutionfocused.net)
Below are three psychological theories that support the use of SFBT in therapy.
Locus of Control
In simple terms, a locus of control (Rotter, 1966), focuses on what degree a person believes they have control over their own life. A person with an internal locus of control believes things that happen in their lives are a result of their own abilities, actions or mistakes. In contrast, someone with an external locus of control will focus on external factors such as chance, other people’s actions or environmental factors.
SFBT helps focus you on your own traits, skills and abilities and likely expands your internal locus of control due to its focus. An example would be the current Covid-19 pandemic which is causing stress for many, with several factors outside our control. SFBT focuses on how you can approach the current situation bringing the best version of yourself to the fore, highlights strengths / resources you possess to help you get through, and focuses on what you can control (e.g. your perspective) rather than what you can’t control (the pandemic).
An internal locus of control has also been shown to enhance self-esteem and self-efficacy as one feels confident and competent to cope with life’s challenges. This means the focus SFBT puts on expanding your internal locus of control likely has the benefit of enhancing self-esteem and self-efficacy, simply through the way it’s conducted.
Self-determination Theory: Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation
Deci and Ryan (1985) suggest that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful and effective than extrinsic motivation in producing positive outcomes. This is an interesting point to consider in regards to the use of SFBT. I believe SFBT enhances intrinsic motivation as the therapist takes a “back seat” and assists you in developing solutions to your own problems, rather than being more “prescriptive” or telling you what to do.
As I mentioned earlier, trying and succeeding on something you developed or decided for yourself is far more empowering than just doing something because the therapist says so. I believe this is hugely important for those experiencing anxiety as it becomes far too easy to explain away successes by attributing success to a therapist’s suggestion. Autonomy breeds confidence and as a client finds a solution for themselves, actions it, and then reflects on their own success, they get to own that success.
In any type of therapy it is the client that makes it work. Therapy is only 45-50mins; it’s what happens between sessions (the steps the client takes) that are the real marker of change. After all, once therapy is finished a client will need to make choices and support themselves, so why not mirror that process in therapy? It’s great preparation for the real world!
The Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson 2003, 2009)
The Broaden and Build theory was developed by Barbara Fredrickson (2003, 2009). I’m going to paraphrase a bit here, but essentially it is research supporting the fact that when positive emotion is brought to ones awareness it encourages “novel, varied and exploratory thoughts and actions” which over time build skills and resources (Frederickson, 2003, 2009).
In contrast, Fredrickson (2003, 2009) explains negative emotions promote “narrow, immediate survival orientated behaviour and narrow lines of thinking, consistent with specific actions they trigger”. This makes sense to me in regards to anxiety. If we are in an anxious state the immediate thought is to get out of the situation as it is uncomfortable. A survival behaviour (to flee) is sparked into action even if we are not in immediate danger.
We then might get home, calm down, and rethink the situation realising it wasn’t as threatening as it felt in the moment. However, as the cortisol surges (the stress hormone), it can be difficult to think any other way. Anxiety certainly tends to be very “attention grabbing”.
Fredrickson (2003, 2009) also explains that positive emotions broaden our “thought-action repertoires” and build “personal resources physically, intellectually, psychologically and socially”. This is why a focus on possibility in SFBT can be so powerful as it leads us to believe in our abilities and challenge ourselves to consider what is possible.
To demonstrate this theory Bannink (2015) has an exercise in her book “101 solution focused questions for help with anxiety”. I invite you to give it a try with a small issue you may be having in your life right now and test it out:
Turn positivity on by asking yourself: “What is right about my current circumstances?”
“How does it benefit me and others?” “What aspect of my current situation might I view as a gift?”
Now turn positivity off. Ask yourself “What is wrong here?” “What is bothering me?” “What should be different and better?”
Did you notice the difference in your thinking and feeling depending on which questions you asked yourself? Questions, even the ones we ask ourselves, can be very powerful.
The exercise above is a good example of Solution Focused Brief Therapy vs. other approaches in regards to how it deals with problems. SFBT will focus you towards what is going well, what you can do, what your life can become, what you are capable of, what difference you hope to see in your life, and what strengths / resources you have to make that life a reality. Many other approaches are more “problem focused” and seek to find the “root” of the problem. This is not to say other approaches are ineffective, they can be equally effective, it’s just a different way of approaching problems, and in my opinion a more efficient way.
I think SFBT lends itself particularly well to working with anxiety. In anxious moments we think in narrow ways based on fear. Often it is not until we expand our thinking to what’s possible and choose to view ourselves differently that life starts to improve. It’s Fredrickson’s (2003, 2009) theory in action. The more we focus on what is going well, the more our thoughts and actions expand, and this leads to positive outcomes. This broadening of the “thought-action” repertoire is where SFBT excels as it shifts your focus to what’s possible and works diligently to expand your view of yourself and your capabilities.
Hopefully I’ve describe the process of SFBT with enough clarity that it has created a level of understanding without the need for too much “counsellor jargon” (although the Psychology Major in me couldn’t help adding a little to support the points I’m making). I’ve also added the bullet points above for those who don’t want such a hefty read.
As discussed Solution Focused Brief Therapy is effective with a range of issues and often achieves positive outcomes in fewer sessions than other approaches. It helps orient you away from problems and embrace possibilities. If you feel “stuck” or you’ve tried other types of therapy before and felt it didn’t really work for you, why not give Solution Focused Brief Therapy a try? It can change how you view yourself, your life, your abilities, and help provide the momentum you need to create a better life.
Tim Robinson - Counsellor
MCouns (Distinction). Msc Psych. PGDipHealSc (Health Behaviour Change)
Registered Provisional Member with NZAC
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com
Bannink, F. (2015). 101 solution-focused questions for help with anxiety. New York: W.W.Norton & Company.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity. New York, NY: Crown.
Ratner, H., George, E., & Iveson, C. (2012). Solution focused brief therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group.
Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80(1), 1–28.
The Institute For Solution-Focused Therapy: https://solutionfocused.net/
Connie, Elliott (author and trainer): https://elliottconnie.com/