A brief history of the solution-focused approach

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A brief history of the solution-focused approach


© 2008, Coert Visser

1. Precursors to the solution-focused approach

During the middle of the previous century, change was in the air. This was also the case in the profession of psychotherapy. Many psychotherapists were dissatisfied with traditional views on psychotherapy. Ever since it emerged as a discipline, the dominant view had been that psychotherapy had to focus on problems and problem causes (Walter & Peller, 2000). The therapist was seen as the expert who would expose the nature and the causes of the problem so that it could be solved. Causes were thought to be hidden away deep in the psyche of the patient and were often related to unsolved problems in the early childhood (Seligman, 1990). Furthermore, patients were generally thought to unconsciously resist treatment. What patients directly told about their problems and goals therefore, had to be taken with a pinch of salt. The most useful information was thought to be information that trickled through from the unconscious. To obtain that information, psychotherapists used techniques like dream analysis and interpretation, hypnosis, drugs, and different kinds of projective techniques.

Psychotherapy usually took a long time and did not tend to be very pragmatic and goal oriented. A funny example illustrating this is a scene from the movie Annie Hall by Woody Allen (O’Hanlon, 2000). Woody Allen plays the role of the neurotic Alvey Singer who tells his girlfriend Annie he has been in therapy for thirteen years. Yet it is clear he still has got many problems. Annie asks surprised why there is little improvement after so much therapy. Alvey responds that he intends to give it fifteen years, and if he has not gotten any results by then, he’s going to visit Lourdes.

Halfway through the previous century, several therapists were looking for ways to make therapy briefer, more goal-oriented and more pragmatic. The dominance of behaviorism played a critical role in this. Behaviorism had dissociated itself from psycho-analysis and focused on intervening in concrete observable behaviors. Albert Ellis is a well known therapist who developed a more pragmatic form of therapy, rational emotive therapy (RET). Within this form of therapy, problems were thought to be maintained by irrational beliefs of the client. By identifying and then replacing these irrational beliefs by more rational beliefs the problem could be solved. The ideas on pragmatism that William James (1842-1910) had formulated before were another source of influence to many people in that time. The pragmatists suggested to shift the emphasis from trying to explain and predict truth to identifying what works. James argued that people are creators of reality. He once said: “Truth is what works.” This way of thinking certainly played a role in the work of another pioneering therapist.
Milton Erickson
This pioneering therapist was Milton Erickson. He was an American psychiatrist who had quite a few unorthodox ideas about therapy which he used successfully. We no know that many of his ideas point forward to the principles of the solution-focused approach. Erickson did not believe in diagnostic labels and strongly believed in the power of people to solve their own problems. He was convinced that therapy often did not need to take long and believed that a small change by the client was often enough to set a process of larger change in motion. Erickson also used paradoxical techniques such as prescription of the symptoms. Characteristic of his approach was that he used whatever was there in the context of the client. Each seemingly coincidental feature or event in the life of the client could turn out to be part of the solution. An illustration of this is the case of the African violet lady (source: carol roach, M.Ed, B.A).

An old depressive lady lived alone in a big city. She had no family and friends left and seldomly left her house. A concerned neighbor approached Erickson who agreed to visit her. He saw the house was in total squalor and asked to be shown around the house. While walking through the house, he did not say a word. He did notice a dying African violet. At the end of the tour, he said: “I can tell that you love flowers". The lady agreed. Erickson suggested that she’d go out to buy African Violets and plant them in her garden. He also suggested that she would send one of here African Violets each time someone in her neighborhood died or was born without telling who had sent it. The lady agreed and the news of this mysterious lady who sends everyone her African violets spread quickly through out the city. When she died, many years later, she had become well known in the area and hundred of people came at her funeral. Newspapers mentioned ‘The African Violet lady’ had died.

In a way that was typical for how Erickson viewed life, he once said the fact that he had had polio at age 17 which totally paralyzed him had been an important advantage to him. The reason the said this was that he was convinced it had helped him to become very good at observing other people. Instead of complaining about his situation, he accepted it and turned it into an advantage. He is said to have conquered his paralysis later by teaching himself step by step to move again. By the way, besides having been paralyzed, Erickson is said to have had quite a few other limitations: he was colorblind, dyslectic, tone deaf and arrhythmic (Cade, 2007).

Gregory Bateson is another influence on the solution-focused approach. He was an English anthropologist who was married to the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and the son of the famous geneticist William Bateson. Bateson thought and wrote about systems theory and cybernetics. One of his influences on the development of the solution-focused approach was his view that the social system in which people function is a great importance to the development and solution of problems. But Bateson’s greatest contribution to solution-focused therapy may well be that he started The Bateson Project. This was a communications research project in which researchers like John Weakland, Jay Haley and William Fry observed and analyzed video tapes famous therapists like Milton Erickson and Don Jackson. This project formed the basis of the Mental Research Institute and has enabled the work of Erickson to get a large audience and influence.

The Mental Research Institute

The Mental Research Institute has played an important role in the development of the solution-focused approach. At the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, which was founded in 1958 by Don Jackson, researchers and therapists like Jay Haley, Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, Richard Fisch and Janet Beavin developed innovative approaches to therapy. Within the MRI Fisch, Weakland and Watzlawick founded the Brief Therapy Center in 1966 (Cade, 2007). The therapists within this center developed a briefer, more goal-oriented and pragmatic approach to therapy. They viewed the person who came for therapy not as a patient but rather as a client, a customer even. They took what the client said very seriously which meant that they focused on the problem that the client presented. Before that time, it had always primarily been the therapist who determined what the topic of the conversation was. Further, the MRI therapists believed it was not necessary to talk extensively about the childhood of the client and about any underlying problem causes. They believed that the reasons for the current problems existed in the here-and-now and that solutions could be found in the present, too. Their logic was: if the client has a problem now, he or she must do something wrong now. He or she does must unintendedly do something which maintains the problem. The goal of therapy became to find out what the client did wrong and to convince him or her to stop doing this and to replace it by some other, more effective, behavior.

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