Solution-Focused Therapy

What is solution focused therapy?

Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is a type of talk therapy where the primary focus is on finding solutions to problems.

Unlike many other therapy types, solution-focused therapy tends not to involve pulling apart the detail of the problem or understanding the underlying issues that led to the formation of the problem. Rather, solution-focused therapy is a short-term intervention. It is a brief therapy option which aims to rapidly generate workable solutions, and thus relieve clients of distress quickly.

What can solution-focused therapy help with?

A solution-focused approach can help with a wide range of issues in individual, couples and family therapy contexts. Although not exhaustive, some examples of the kinds of problems solution focused therapy can help with includes:

Further research is required to clarify the mixed evidence suggesting that solution-focused therapy might also help with:

Solution-focused brief therapy is generally not recommended for more serious mental health problems, like schizophrenia or severe depression (Major depressive disorder). In such cases, participation in other evidence-based therapies is more appropriate.

Effectiveness of solution-focused therapy  

Outcome research shows that the results of available studies suggest that solution-focused therapy can be an effective short-term form or brief therapy for people with behavioral and psychological problems or clients managing trauma. However, it’s difficult to make a definitive statement about its effectiveness as it has not yet been researched in great depth.

Solution-focused brief therapy is generally not recommended for people who are experiencing serious mental health disorders or need psychiatric treatment, nor for those who want to focus on better understanding their problem and the factors underlying it.

How does solution-focused therapy work?

The aim of solution-focused brief therapy is to find solutions to a particular problem quickly, and in doing so, limit the time you spend caught up in the problem. For this therapy process to be effective, solution-focused practitioners assume that when you come to therapy you will already be:

  • Motivated to participate in the process of generating solutions
  • Willing to make changes

You and your solution-focused therapist will work closely together to clarify the problem and generate possible solutions.

Solutions tend to be related to a client’s life experiences, personal strengths, or skills that you already have. This differs from other types of therapy where the focus is on learning new skills.

Several therapy techniques can be used to help you to generate potential solutions. Your therapist might help you to look for exceptions. This involves identifying a situation where the problem was not evident or affecting you and determining why that situation was different. By asking exception questions, next, you would consider how those differences could be used in the current problem-solving situation.

Additionally, you might work together to identify something you did to solve a previous problem. Often, people find that previous solutions can also help to solve current ones. You and your therapist will use the information gathered to set your own goals and agree on strategies for implementing the solutions.

How often are solution-focused therapy sessions?

The frequency of solution-focused therapy sessions depends on your individual circumstances and the problems that you are experiencing.

There is a firm emphasis on experimenting and trying out the proposed solutions in between sessions, where a great deal of change takes place.

As such, it would not be unusual for solution-focused therapy sessions to be less frequent than other forms of talk therapy.

Length of solution-focused therapy treatment

Because of the focus on finding solutions based on your existing abilities, solution focused therapy tends to be quite a brief therapy type.

You may have just one session, or many. One study, for example, found that five sessions of solution focused therapy can be effective.

In other instances, solution-focused brief therapy might be a therapeutic process as part of a greater strategy incorporated to help an overall longer-term type of treatment.

You and your therapist will decide together, based on your individual circumstance and progress, when the appropriate time is to end therapy.

Structure of solution-focused therapy sessions

Although it varies, SFBT therapist sessions tend to be around 45-50 minutes in length and involve a high level of participation on the client’s part.

In the initial session, you will usually work with your SFBT therapist to clarify the problem you are experiencing. The SFBT approach uses exception questions along with a detailed description of the issues, behavioral problems, or relationship problems, you and your therapist will agree on the goals for solution-focused brief therapy. The emphasis is on understanding the current problem enough to start building solutions and supporting problem solving solutions for future hopes.

In later sessions, you’ll review how successfully the solutions (which you apply in between sessions) have solved the problem. You might then need constructive collaboration and scaling questions to generate more solutions and treatment modalities. Solution building is based on your existing skills and strengths often learned through past life events, and review progress towards therapy goals.

What happens in a typical solution-focused therapy session?

Throughout therapy, sessions tend to be focused on the present or future-oriented, with little past-oriented focus. The key concepts of a typical solution-focused therapy session might include the following elements, which require an elevated level of active participation on your part due to the goal-oriented nature of the short-term therapy:

  • The therapist might ask you a lot of scaling questions, to both clarify the problem and to encourage the generation of potential solutions. A classic question commonly posed in solution-focused therapy is called “The miracle question,” which asks you to consider what you would be doing differently if a miracle occurred that solved your problem overnight. The aim of the miracle question and other future-focused questions is to encourage creative thinking about practical solutions.
  • SFBT practitioners might help you to increase your awareness of what is changing, the progress made, and positive aspects of your current experience.
  • SFBT therapists might ask coping questions that focus on your strengths, existing skills, and ability to solve problems.
  • Before the end of each session, you’ll set goals and plans for implementing the solutions as part of your therapeutic process. You’ll probably also evaluate your progress towards solving the problem, perhaps giving a rating on a scale from one to ten.

What to look for in a therapist for solution-focused therapy

  • When you seek therapy, look for mental health professionals with current licenses; this ensures that your therapist has completed the proper level of education to practice.
  • You might prefer to look for a therapist who has completed specialized training learning solution-focused brief therapy. The International Alliance of Solution-Focused Teaching Institutes (IASTI) provides accredited training that therapists must complete to be certified IASTI practitioners.
  • One of the limitations of solution-focused therapy techniques is that less emphasis is given to the development of a strong working relationship between the client and the therapist due to the brief therapy association. Nonetheless, this relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance,” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy. Therefore, it’s important to look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working.

The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:

  • IASTI training
  • Experience with solution-focused brief therapy
  • What therapy with them will be like
  • Their participation in insurance plans
  • Cost of therapy