Brief Solution Focussed Therapy:
Underpinning Theory and Development



This paper outlines of the theories on which a range of brief therapeutic approaches have developed. The theories outlined include Communication (Bateson, 1973), General Systems (Bertalanffy, 1968), Cybernetic and Social Construction theory (Gergin, 1982; 1983; Goolishian, 1992). Developed from this point in section two will follow a summary of the core brief family therapy orientations that have evolved in recent years. Special mention will be made to the contributions of Erickson (1954), Guerin (1976) and the work of Watzlawick et al. (1974) and deShazer (1982, 1985, 1988).

Some Theoretical Influences

The Bateson Communication Project

Guerin (1976:2) suggests that The years from 1950 to 1975 may be said to constitute the first quarter century of family therapy and indeed there is prolific writings on the development and applications of developing schools of thought in the literature as evidenced by any introductory social work text. Guerin goes on to suggest that the family movement had its beginnings in the late 40s and early 50s in different and somewhat isolated areas throughout the country (United States). Following the aftermath of WW II, the Korean conflict and the bomb, one of the noticeable reactions was the increased amount of family togetherness (1976:2). The frustration of the limitations of the medical/ psychiatric thinking was increased and new ways of thinking were being sought by those outside the establishment. In these formative years the research remained focussed on the nature of the problems being a reflection of family as being a unit of emotional dysfunction.

In 1952 Gregory Bateson received a grant and established a research project with a view to exploring the complex nature of human communication. This project was not of a clinical nature. From the initial grant Bateson employed Jay Haley and John Weakland and later in 1954, Don Jackson a supervising psychiatrist joined the project as a consulting psychiatrist and clinical supervisor (Guerin, 1976:2-15). As a result of the work of the Bateson Project a number of important developments were made into the understanding of human communication, which subsequently form crucial aspects of our current understanding of family systems. From this work came the most important insight into the concept of the double bind.

As Bateson (1973:242) comments the theory of the double bind asserts that there is an experiential component in the determination or aetiology of schizophrenic symptoms and related behavioural patterns, such as humour, art, poetry, etc. Notably the theory does not distinguish between these sub-species. The Double Bind theory considers the inherent destructiveness of someone offering two contradictory messages combined with a third that prohibited the recipient from noticing the contradiction or leaving the field (Nelson, 1986:225). There was not until this time explanations given for the emergence of schizophrenia for example in later life outside the domain of the genetic explanation and this view certainly left the field open to inquiry from experiential theorists (Bateson, 1972:244). This question opened the avenues for thinking, now new and challenging questions were being asked. The notable and controversial work of the communication project came in the publication of the book ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ (Bateson, 1972). This paper questioned the double bind theory shifting attention away from the idea that family interaction patterns caused schizophrenia to new thinking around questioning how it was that family interaction patterns might go about maintaining it (Nelson, 1986:225). This shift in perspective allowed for the emergence of a precedence resulting in two major developments in the field of psychotherapy, these were:

  1. A move away from pathology as an individual concern to a context of the family system as a whole.
  2. A move towards the communication and interjectional patterns that characterised these families.

Within these shifts one can see some of the early thinking that is now consistent with the current theories of social construction of which I will comment on in more detail later.

Bateson in the book Steps to an Ecology of Mind covers a number of additional ideas to those already raised within the context of human communication. Throughout this publication he makes a number of observations that can be seen to be intrinsic in family therapy and the development of the thinking in Brief Solution Focussed Therapy continued by Weakland et al in later work. Bateson suggests that learning cannot evolve without feedback and without feedback the individual will persist again and again with something that may not appear to work. Bateson suggests that the rat in the box has learned when it no longer receives an electric shock for ‘going the wrong way’ and this success is determined by the observer as being successful (Bateson, 1973:264-274). Bateson then suggests that not being electrocuted is not the only possible outcome. The rat may have learned through experience that a particular pathway does not work but other options are not available therefore it will continue to try (Bateson, 1973:264-274).

The information available at the time, on which any particular decision is made may be limited and therefore the choice may have been correct at the time this point suggests that external factors play an important part in choices and subsequent decisions and that these decisions may not present the best outcome in the long term. Bateson (1973) suggests that feedback is a fundamental aspect of learning and developing an understanding of the environment and of developing an understanding of developing and understanding in itself. Bateson (1973:273) suggests that within the controlled and protected setting of the therapeutic relationship, the therapist may attempt on or more of the following manoeuvres:

  1. to achieve a confrontation between the premises of the patient and those of the therapist who is carefully trained not to fall into the trap of validating the old premises;
  2. to get the patient to act either in the therapy room or outside, in ways which will confront his own premise;
  3. to demonstrate contradictions (differences) among the premise which currently control the patient’s behaviour;
  4. to induce in the patient some exaggeration or caricature (e.g., in dream or hypnosis) of experience based on his old premises.

For therapists these concepts may well translate today into the idea that one can only make choices on the information available at the time of the decision and information is influenced by our individual understandings and contexts. Therefore decisions are both subjectively and socially informed and resource limited. Individual decisions cannot be wrong they may simply, upon reflection, not be the most useful for moving beyond the issue.

In summary communication theory was well established by the work of the Bateson Communication Project. Communication theory itself however, is not really a singly theory but rather a designation converging a number of loosely related areas of study (Nelson, 1986:225). Communication theory as it relates to therapy and social work practice is primarily focussed on theories that examine how people are influenced by information from within themselves and their environment, and how they communicate or exchange information then influence each other (Nelson, 1986:219)

At the time that Batesons project was officially coming to a conclusion the work of Von Bertalanaffy on his concept of systems was gaining momentum. The merge of Systems theory and the work of the Bateson Project was bound to generate new potentials.

General Systems Theory

Over the past few decades systems theory has become, and increasingly provided for a developing practice framework for social workers. Brief Solution Focussed Therapy also has some of its roots in this thinking. Systems theory during its initial development like the communication projects work must have been seen at least as being very alternative with its direct challenges to the ‘well’ substantiated medical model. There have been many modifications to the theory since the 1960s and it has been suggested that it has moved away from a well-defined theoretical framework to a rationale, a context, or an operational style (Rodway, 1986:515). This summary of systems theory is based upon the original work of Von Bertalanffy as was adapted in the development of Brief Solution Focussed Therapy.

Von Bertalanffy has generally been credited with the development of Systems Theory. Bertalanffy began his career in the physical sciences in the 1920s resulting in 1956 with the proposal of a general systems theory. In his work he described a number of principles that were found to be valid for systems in general (Rodway, 1986:514).

In his book General Systems Theory, Von Bertalanffy (1968) suggests that a system is comprised of many elements interacting together as apart of a whole structure. Each element cannot be considered or examined individually it must be viewed within the context of its interactions. The principle of entropy suggests that all systems aim to achieve a state of equilibrium and that the final outcome for a system is, if you like a state of neutrality. This is of course a reasonable claim if considering a chemical reaction or some other such simple system. Systems that contain identical elements and are isolated from its environment are called closed systems. Closed systems always abide by the principle of entropy, a return to a state of equilibrium.

Human systems are naturally much more complex, human beings are individually different in their ability to make independent decisions and in their genetic make up for example. This means that a human system is mathematically incapable of achieving a state of total balance. Systems such as these are called open systems. Open systems maintain themselves in a constant two-way exchange of energy with its environment. For the purpose of considering human beings in a system this energy is considered to be a process of communication including action and feedback. This communication creates a potential for the system to learn and there is consequently a constant evolution and move towards increasingly complex states known as negentropy (Bertalanffy, 1968:139-153).

Reflecting on Bertalanffy’s work Bateson made the observation that unlikely events- events that convey news of difference carry a large amount of information and have greater impact upon the system. Predictable events - events that convey news of sameness, on the other hand, carry little useful information and have little impact upon the system (Hazleton, 1997:11). This notion provides for a significant foundation in Brief Solution Focussed Therapy, to be discussed later.

Cybernetic Theory

Cybernetic theory developed initially from technological developments during WW 11. It focussed on the process of information exchange in machines particularly missile guidance systems and was later taken up on the domestic front with the use of thermostats etc, to maintain temperature control. Cybernetics theory employed the term homeostasis to describe the process whereby machine systems regulate themselves so as to maintain a steady state (Hazleton, 1997:11). This system of preventing change became known as first order cybernetics.

The fundamental aspect of this theory is the application of feedback loops both positive and negative in order to maintain a steady state of homeostasis. Therefore, as outlined previously human systems being open systems operating on the two way energy flow known as communication and having the ability to learn and evolve from this external source of energy will be limited by a homeostatic state. This point is important when considering the issues facing families and their inability sometimes to resolve these issues. This is the point when news of difference is important in providing the additional energy to facilitate change. Feedback loops may maintain an environment or provide the opportunity for change ie, there is a change in the process or content of the communication received and the response may vary according to this new information. This concept of feedback, learning and adapted responses is what is known as second order cybernetics.

Social Construction Theory

Social Construction theory has developed from the thinking on and deficits in systems and cybernetic theory. It has been seen to develop in opposition to the structural and oppressive expert as therapist models predominant in practice until very recent times. Gergen suggests that the strength of the traditional view of science is fundamentally dependent on the stability of the relationship among events in nature. The greater the degree of stability in such patterns, the more promising are the traditional assumptions (or some variant thereof) in yielding a body of knowledge, principles, or laws that may enhance the human capacity for prediction and control (Gergen, 1982:11). Post-structural or post-modern view suggest that the view that there is any framework that posits some kind structure internal to the entity in question, whether we are talking about a text, a family, or a play. In family therapy this has meant that the view that sees the family as a homeostatic system is under attack (Hoffman, 1992:7). More recently family systems people such as Goolishian (1988) have moved their orientation from a cybernetic perspective to a view of interpretation. This means that for those family therapists that espouse this view the feedback loops of cybernetic systems are replaced by the inter-subjective loops of dialogue. The central metaphor for therapy thus changes to conversation, reinforced by the fact that the basic medium of therapy is also conversation (Hoffman, 1992:8). Recent concern has been raised regarding the mechanical metaphor underlying cybernetic feedback theory. The mechanical concept underlying this theory limits the potential in practice for working with experiences of the individual, there is also a concern over considering humans as simple information processing machines as opposed to meaning-generating beings (Anderson and Goolishian, 1992).

Anderson and Goolishian (1992:26) state that people live and understand their living, through socially constructed narrative realities that give meaning and organisation to their experiences. It is a world of human language and discourse. Current social construction thinking is based upon a number of fundamental views.

A summary of Anderson and Goolishians’ (1992:26-28) comments suggest the following as important foundations to therapy based on a social constructionist perspective.

  1. Human systems are language - generating and simultaneously, meaning - generating. A social cultural system is the product of social communication, rather than communication being a product of structural organisation.
  2. Meaning and understanding are socially constructed. There is no meaning or understanding until a level of communication has defined it.
  3. The system, in therapy, will evolve and generate language of specific meaning and definition to itself around some problem. The therapy process is highlighted the co- creation of meaning, rather than the social structure
  4. The aim of the social constructionist views is to generate an alternative way of talking about a problem and therefore an alternative definition of the problem that ultimately renders the problem non-existent. The focus is on the individual definitions of the problem and the development of individual answers.

The Evolution of Brief Therapies

The History and Context of Brief Therapies

From the review of the theory above it can be seen that there were some very rapid if not radical developments in the thinking about problems, their development, maintenance and management. There has been a clear move in practice theory and philosophy from the early days of Freud which laid the foundations for the field of psychotherapy. This initial perspective to working with human problems represented a major advance because it no longer viewed troubled people as morally deficient, and it gave us a common vocabulary - codified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual - for describing human problems. But focussed so heavily on pathology that it skewed our view of human nature (O’Hanlon, 1994:22).

Following the Freudian movement though not replacing it came the problem focussed therapies. These therapies view was that one could influence an aspect of the system and as a result change the system on the whole. Movement could include personal characteristics that may once have been seen as unchangeable. These therapies were generally represented by the cognitive and behavioural schools of thought and were typically focussed on smaller systems such as the family (O’Hanlon, 1994:23).

O’Hanlon goes on to describe what he calls ‘the third wave’ of therapies. In the early 1980s some therapists began adopting what might be called a precursor to the third wave - competence based therapies of which BSFT is one. We believe that the focus of the problem often obscures the resources and solutions residing within clients (O’Hanlon, 1994:23). These approaches also considered that the client carried with them the solutions to their problems and the therapist was no longer the ‘expert’ and the source of the solutions. These developments were largely influenced by the work of Milton Erickson and were focussed on solution exploration as opposed to problem development. These approaches considered unhelpful communication styles almost as ‘systems failure’ that resulted in the problem continuing. The fundamental view was that a little change could result in significant differences, however they were still limited to smaller interractional systems.

The third wave coming to the fore in the 1990s draws upon far larger systems including cultures, schools, newspapers and television, experts family and friends to name a few. All those sources of information that tells us how to think and how to be. (O’Hanlon, 1994:23). The view is that there are so many of these messages that we begin to think of them as our ‘selves. These messages can be very disempowering and distructive. There is a focus on narratives and language in addressing these imbalances. The underpinning philosophy of the narrative approach is that the person is never the problem the problem is the problem.

From the pioneering work done in theory development during the 50s to 70s particularly, many practitioners began to develop differing ideological frameworks for practice. A number of models of brief family therapy developed drawing upon the theoretical base of either psychodynamic or systems theory.

These models include;

  1. Psychodynamic Brief Family Therapy Models of which the use of transference and counter transference interpretations and techniques aimed at drawing out family members distorted beliefs and attitudes.
  2. Structural Brief Family Therapy models of which the essential theoretical that all human social behaviour is a function of the relations that exist between the whole family system and its components or sub systems: for example, marital, parental, and sibling subsystems...these approaches are founded upon a normative model of family functioning (Kosmas, Smyrnios and Kirkby, 1992:119-127).
  3. Systemic Brief Family Therapy models like structural and strategic models have their roots in general systems theory, communication theory and cybernetics. Kosams et al citing Palazzoli et al says the systemic therapist views the family as elements in an ‘interacting error-controlled circuit’, in which the behaviours of any member of the family influence, rather than cause the behaviours of the other (1992:123). The focus of intervention is on the maladaptive cyclical patterns of behaviour.
  4. Strategic Brief Family Therapy model of which Brief Solution Focussed Therapy is a member and the topic of this paper combines communication and systems approaches and the techniques developed by Milton Erickson. The strategic therapist holds that the ways a family views problems and the repetitive behaviours used by family members to solve particular problems, can in reality serve to maintain the problem (Cade, 1987) (Kosams, 1992:122). The techniques are aimed at disrupting and redefining the elements of the repetitive non-helpful cycle.

BSFT and the Erickson Influence

In 1958 Don Jackson, who was later joined by Weakland and Haley, all members of the Bateson Project founded the Mental Research Institute and continued to build on the work of the Bateson Project. Simultaneously in other parts of the United States Steve deShazer, Insoo Kim Berg and colleagues established the Brief Family Therapy Centre. For all of these practitioners the work of Milton Erickson was paramount. To this point I have made a number of references to the work of Milton Erickson and the influence his work has had on the development of (Strategic) Brief Solution Focussed Therapy. What were the key influences from Erickson on the development of BSFT?

DeShazer et al. (1986: 207-8) says that the published history of brief therapy as defined here (in his article) can be traced from Milton Ericksons (1954) paper Special Techniques of Brief Hypnotherapy. Weakland et al (1974:145) suggests that we are especially indebted to the hypnotic work of Milton Erickson and his closely related psychotherapy. These two sets of writers who are to a large extent without argument, are most influential in the development of BSFT. The two foundations for both Weakland and deShazer are:

  1. The therapist accepts what the client brings to the session in terms of the understanding and pre-existing competence or ability to manage the issue and turn these into positives.
  2. There is no attempt to change any causative nature of the problem but rather to alter the ‘reality’ and make sense of it with the client through a process of redefinition (deShazer et al, 1986; Weakland et al. 1974).

DeShazer (1986:208) says as we see it, this is the key to brief therapy: Utilising what the client brings with them to help them meet their needs in such a way that they can make satisfactory lives for themselves. One might argue that one degree or another this is the aim of all therapy.


This paper has outlined the theoretical context in which Brief Solution Focussed Therapy has evolved. It has identified the shift in the thinking from a structuralist ‘expert’ view to the post structuralist ‘not knowing’ view. It can be seen that the initial thinking on BSFT was based very much on structuralist thought, though evolved to become instrumental in challenging this thinking. The BSFT movement is continuing to undergo change at least in terms of its definition of terminology as a result of the continued development of post structuralist theory.


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