In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Solution-Focused Therapy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Relevance to Social Work
  • Research
  • Adaptations

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Social Work Solution-Focused Therapy
Jacqueline Corcoran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0088


Solution-focused therapy (SFT), also called solution-focused brief therapy and solution-oriented therapy, is a short-term, strengths-oriented practice model that identifies and enhances clients’ resources for coping with life’s difficulties. Solution-focused therapy arose from the field of family therapy, although several social workers were key to its development. An essential family therapy concept, which is also heavily touted within social work, involves a systemic notion of causality that a change in one part of a routine sequence will result in further change for the system. Solution-focused therapy is a collaborative approach in that worker and client are seen as partners in the change process. Conversations between worker and client, stimulated by key questions, are a pathway to changes in client perception, subsequent behavior, and the responses of other people to these small changes. Behavioral, as well as perceptual, change is implicated since the approach is focused on concrete, specific behaviors that are achievable within a brief time period. Solution-focused therapy has attracted attention internationally and is used for a variety of problems of living throughout the world.

General Overviews

Visser 2008 provides a readable summary in an article on his blog of the history of solution-focused therapy, describing the role of each of the developers. The first journal article to capture attention for solution-focused therapy was de Shazer, et al. 1986, a few of whose authors—Insoo Kim Berg, Michele Weiner-Davis, and Wallace Gingerich—were social workers. de Shazer, et al. 1986 reported how the model arose out of the field of family therapy, with Mental Research Institute (MRI) brief therapy as a specific influence. In both MRI and solution-focused approaches, the pattern around a problem is altered as opposed to discovering its underlying cause, although the emphasis in solution-focused therapy is on solutions rather than problems. De Shazer wrote three texts on the development of solution-focused therapy (de Shazer 1985, de Shazer 1988, and de Shazer 1994), as well as theorizing and analyzing about the change process that became solution-focused therapy. de Shazer 1985 and de Shazer 1988 detail how much of an influence the psychiatrist and hypnotist Milton Erickson was to the author’s work. Erickson believed that individuals have the strengths and resources to solve their own problems and that the practitioner’s job is to uncover these resources and activate them for the client. In his early cases, de Shazer described how he used formal hypnosis but later came to see the hypnotic qualities inherit in interventions, such as complimenting and taking inter-session breaks to develop “suggestions” for the client to follow (de Shazer 1985 and de Shazer, et al. 1986). Insoo Kim Berg, de Shazer’s wife, was more pragmatic in her orientation, and was often the therapist whom de Shazer and their other colleagues studied for her interaction patterns with clients. Her first book with Scott Miller applied solution-focused therapy to drinking problems (Berg and Miller 1992, cited under Substance Use). Berg 1994 (cited under Child Maltreatment) centers on a solution-focused approach for home-based child protective services. With De Jong, she went on to write a textbook for the counseling professions that was updated multiple times, with the latest, De Jong and Berg 2012 (cited under Relevance to Social Work), published after her death. The following techniques are described in these and subsequent works: exception-finding, focusing on times when the problem is either not a problem or is lessened in terms of duration, severity, frequency, or intensity; scaling questions to formulate behaviorally specific goals and tasks and to measure progress; the miracle question, first described in de Shazer 1988, which is a signature intervention to develop in the client’s mind a future without the problem; and relationship questions, which ask clients questions that help them to see themselves from the perspective of another person involved in the problem. O’Hanlon and Weiner-Davis 1989 is an easy-to-read introduction to the assumptions underlying solution-focused therapy, which include the focus on the present and the future, for the most part, rather than the past, which distinguishes it from practice approaches that came before and its social constructionist basis, in which knowledge about reality is constructed from social interactions and is relative to the social context. The language the worker uses and the way key questions are phrased are assumed to lead to changes in client perception. When clients view themselves as resourceful and capable, they are empowered toward future positive behavior. O’Hanlon later collaborated with Bertolino in Bertolino and O’Hanlon 2002, a text with some unique presentations of the standard techniques.

  • Bertolino, Bob, and Bill O’Hanlon. 2002. Collaborative, competency-based counseling and therapy. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    This excellent guide to techniques in solution-focused practice offers the reader many ideas for strengths-based questioning. A particular contribution are the assessment questions, taking typical agency-based intake questions and transforming their wording to enable the worker to find client strengths.

  • de Shazer, Steve. 1985. Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.

    De Shazer explores his background thinking on the development of solution-focused therapy at the Brief Therapy Center, with Erickson as a primary influence as well as the strategic family therapy models. At this point, he writes of the “crystal ball” technique rather than the “miracle question” and most of the interventions he describes in his case studies are strategic/paradoxical in nature. Only in the conclusion does he make mention of what became some of the classic techniques, such as scaling and the first formula task.

  • de Shazer, Steve. 1988. Clues: Investigating solutions in brief therapy. New York: Norton.

    Provides readers with a sense of the history of solution-focused therapy and the development of the theory. Here, he still speaks at length about the influence of Erickson on his own work. Introduces the miracle question, which has become a signature intervention of solution-focused therapy.

  • de Shazer, Steve. 1994. Words were originally magic. New York: Norton.

    Further discussion about the theoretical development of the solution-focused approach, here emphasizing its social constructionist basis. The concept of the “expert” practitioner, who categorizes, diagnoses, and solves client problems objectively, is viewed with skepticism. Sharing perceptions with others through language and engaging in conversational dialogues is the medium by which reality is shaped.

  • de Shazer, Steve, Insoo Kim Berg, Eve Lipchik, Elam Nunnally, Alex Molnar, and Wallace Gingerich. 1986. Brief therapy: Focused solution development. Family Process 25.2: 207–221.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1986.00207.x

    The initial journal article about solution-focused therapy, which emerged from Mental Research Institute (MRI) brief therapy at the Brief Family Therapy Center. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • O’Hanlon, William Hudson, and Michele Weiner-Davis. 1989. In search of solutions: A new direction in psychotherapy. New York: Norton.

    One of the early writings on solution-focused therapy with a clear and understandable description of the assumptions underlying solution-focused therapy and its techniques.

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