Principles of Brief Solution Focussed Therapy


This article provides a definition of brief and outlines the core principles and foundation on which Brief Solution Focussed Therapy is based. 

A Definition of Brief

The definition of brief can be considered in terms of time frames ranging from weeks or months to even years encompassing as many as fifty or more sessions for traditional psychotherapy. Presently in practice, brief is considered to equate to somewhere between six and ten sessions. In fact research suggests that long term therapy across therapeutic orientations is more of a myth than fact in terms of client retention rates in therapy (deShazer, 1985, 1988; Miller et al. 1996).

Given that clients stay in therapy generally from six to ten sessions an alternative definition of brief might be useful.

deShazer et al (1986:207) suggests that we draw a distinction between (a) brief therapy defined by time constraints and (b) brief therapy as a way of solving human problems.

de Shazer, S. (1985) Keys To Solutions In Brief Therapy, W.W. Norton and Company London.
de Shazer, S. (1988) Investigating Solutions In Brief Therapy. W.W. Norton and Company, NY.
de Shazer, S. (1988) Putting Differences to Work W.W. Norton and Company, NY. p 162.
Egan, G. (1986) The Skilled Helper A Systematic Approach to Effective Helping,Brooks and Cole. Cal. p 23 - 28
Miller, S. Hubble, M. and Duncan, B (1996). The Handbook of Solution-Focussed Brief Therapy, San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

Principles of BSFT

There are two foundations on which BSFT has developed. The first referred to as the central philosophy and the second being the practice of matching the uniqueness of human experience. The central philosophy of BSFT is stated in three points:

  1. If it ainít broke, donít fix it:
  2. Once you know what works, do more of it;
  3. If it doesnít work then donít do it again, do something different.

(Berg and Miller, 1992:17)

The uniqueness of human experience acknowledges that each person is a unique individual. This is to say that issues evolve overtime, manifest differently subject to current resources, personal values, political climate and therapy context. Hence psychotherapy should be formulated to meet the uniqueness of individualís needs rather than tailoring the person to fit the Procrustean bed of hypothetical theory of human behaviour (Berg and Miller, 1992:8).

The underlying principle of BSFT considers that coping with life events generates sequences of behaviours that are adopted by the client. These behaviours constitute entities in their own right and the individual may not see any way around. The sequences reveal and reflect identifiable forms that can be considered within the counselling context and adapted. In this thinking there has been a clear shift from the person as pathology to other influences impacting on the individual from the environment. There is a view that analysis of the ideas and repetitive sequences generated from this behaviour is sufficient to effect change. These considerations do not require concrete understanding on the part of the therapist of the family dynamics, personal history or experiences of the client. There is not necessarily a logical relationship between the problem and the solution (Cade, 1985; de Shazer, 1985).

There are a number of additional principles/ assumptions on which the practice of BSFT is based. These assumptions include:

  1. Clients are the experts on their own lives or have the abilities to be, as a result of the skills they bring to the session consciously or unconsciously.
  2. Repeated negative experiences has the effect of blinding the individual from noticing their strengths and capabilities, ie the solution oriented rather than problem oriented behaviour that already exists. With this principle goes the belief that change is inevitable and will happen with or without therapy. The solution focussed approach is based on the assumption that change is so much a part of living that clients cannot prevent themselves from changing (deShazer, 1985).
  3. Within the therapeutic relationship an underlying belief in cooperation with the client is necessary. The underlying idea is that therapists and clients co-create realities; each unavoidably influencing the other (Gilligan, 1987).
  4. BSFT focuses on the presence of something rather than the absence of something. By focussing on the presence means that one is no longer focussing on the problem.
  5. Clients often present making initial comments like Ďhe is always naughty at home but not at schoolí or ĎI am always depressed and canít get on top of it.í This is to say that there is an all or nothing frame of reference in place. Every complaint has an exception and the breaking down or deconstructing the concept that something is always a problem is an important aspect of the approach.The emphasis is on what can be done rather than on what cant be done. Clients may then begin to build on what has worked previously though may have been lost in the experience (Berg and Miller, 1992: 1-17; DeJong and Berg, 1998: 1-13).
  6. Change is achieved through appreciating the context as being a key. Values, language and the meaning attributed to these differ depending upon the context in which the individuals operating. This concept in itself, including the therapeutic context in the equation, allows for a multitude of variations within the therapeutic process (Gilligan, 1990:361-368).

Making reference particularly to brief therapy Selekman (1993) identifies a number of assumptions underpinning practice. These assumptions include the notion that resistance is not a useful concept, cooperation is more constructive than a focus on power and control; Cooperation is inevitable; Change is inevitable and only a small change is necessary. Clients bring with them the strengths and resources to change. This allows us to consider that the counsellor is not the guiding force in the process and clients developing this understanding in itself could be significantly empowering. Problems are unsuccessful attempts to resolve difficulties. This assumption would suggest that lengthy time spent on an issue is not necessary, only time enough to explore alternative approaches to the problem is necessary. Therefore in response to the question, How long will this therapy take?, an answer may well be as short a time as possible. Among these assumptions he suggests that there are many ways to consider a problem and none is more right than another (Selekman: 1993).


Berg, I. and Miller, D. (1992) Working With The Problem Drinker A SolutionFocused Approach, W.W. Norton and Company, New York pp 1-20
Beyebach, M. Rodriguez, M. Palenzuela, D. and Rodriguez-Arias, J. (1996) Duncan, B. The Handbook of Solution-Focussed Brief Therapy, SanFrancisco. Jossey-Bass. Pp 299.
Cade, B. (1985) Stuckness, Unpredictability and Change, The Australian Journal of Family Therapy, 6: 9-15
DeJong, P. and Berg, I. (1998) Interviewing For Solutions Brooks/ Cole Publishing Company USA. pp1-13, 188 -194.
de Shazer, S. (1985) Keys To Solutions In Brief Therapy, W.W. Norton and Company London.
Gilligan, S. (1987) Therapeutic Trances: The Cooperation Principle in Eriksonian Hypnotherapy cited in Zeig, J. and Gillian, S. Eds. Brief TherapyMyths, Methods, and Metaphores Brunner/Manzel Publishers. New York. p 361.
Gilligan, S. (1990) Coevolution of Primary Process in Brief Therapy in Zeig, J. and Gillian, S. Eds. Brief Therapy Myths, Methods, and Metaphores Brunner/Manzel Publishers. New York. pp 359 - 376
Selekman, M.D. (1993) Pathways To Change Brief Therapy Solutions With difficult Adolescents, The Guildford Press, London. Chapter 2.