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The Evolution of SF Theory

Discussion group at the EBTA conference 2011,
Dresden, Germany.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Main participants:
Mark McKergow, Gale Miller, Kirsten Dierolf, Rayya Ghul

Also contributing:
Michael Durrant, Michael Hjerth, Carey Glass, Jenny Clarke, Bertil Andersson, Wolfgang Gaiswinkler, Klaus Schenck, Aviva Suskin-Holmqvist.

This is a very lightly-edited transcript of what was said during the hour and six minutes of discussion. Some of the participants hope to expand this into a more fully-formed paper.


Welcome to this discussion group on the evolution of SF Theory. My name is Mark McKergow I'm Director of SF Work, Centre for Solutions Focus at Work based in England. I work mostly in a management consultancy context. I'm also a Director and Board Member of SFCT and Editor of 'Interaction' - the Journal of Solution Focus in organisations. I'm going to ask my colleagues to say hello and who they are within ten seconds each.


My name is Kirsten Dierolf I run a company called Solutions Academy in the business community giving coaching, training and organisational development and I am also the President of SFCT and co-Editor of 'Interaction' together with Mark.


My name is Gale Miller and I'm a sociologist.


My name's Rayya Ghul I'm an occupational therapist and occupational therapy educator from England.


It's an interesting issue - the evolution of SF Theory because of course SF is known as the theory of no theory. I hope we're going to demolish that idea in the next 58 minutes.

First of all I'd like to show you a couple of dictionary definitions of theory. The first definition; "a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about the natural phenomena." I have highlighted the word 'explain'.

Number two, "a branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements accepted principles and methods of allowances as opposed to practice. For example a fine musician who had never studied theory." We also see also that it comes from Latin and Greek theoria or theori meaning to gaze upon. And if there's one thing we've all done is gaze upon Solution-Focused practice for an extremely long time.

So here we're talking about explanatory statements and it's going to be interesting as we go through the discussion to see how the idea of explanatory statements can sit in a form of life in which Wittgenstein encourages us to do away with explanation and let description take its place - intriguing.

So the discussion will take three parts. Firstly to look at SF theory in the past - where did solution focus come from? What does this tell us about theories that might be relevant? Secondly theory in the present - where are we now with the idea of SF theory and is that a good place? Perhaps what's good about it and what isn't. And finally theory future, possible developments, next steps, what's coming up, where are we going.

You'll notice that my colleagues and I are on the stage here with some empty chairs. We'd very much like to encourage anyone who'd like to make a contribution to please come and take part in the Panel while you wish, come and sit in one of the chairs that means I have something to add, to ask or to say.

So theory past... I guess we have to look back to the Brief Family Therapy Centre and the one of the four of us who was there was Gale Miller. So Gale would you like to open with where did SF come from and what does this tell us.


I don't know where it came from. I can tell you my experience. Steve and Insoo would insist that it came from practice and that the so-called theory part is an add on that makes it more complete, more interesting or whatever, but it's not necessary. I never knew whether I should believe that or not so keep that in mind.

I think of the definitions that Mark just put up here for us the one that comes closest to my sense of theory in Milwaukee is the theory as a gaze, theory as a standpoint for seeing. And one explanation I suppose could be that that wasn't the driving force. Clearly when they talked about their practice they talked about Milton Erickson and Erickson's principles and assumptions.

The Palo Alto Group was also very important for Steve and Insoo at that time, particularly Steve. Steve was very influenced by John Weakland's work and the book that he did with Fisch and a couple of other people the name of which escapes me was from his point of view a kind of viable approach and principles.

And I think it's important to kind of understand that in some ways at least Steve never gave that up and I was aware of that. Personally I couldn't care less about the Palo Alto Group - I'm a sociologist. And so I would read the stuff and make snide comments about it because I just wasn't all that impressed by it. Now I'm more impressed than I was then. I read Jay Haley and I wasn't impressed and I made a comment about that to Steve. That hissing sound that Scott talked about earlier today [when therapists hiss at other therapist's models] - you've never heard hissing until you have heard Steve hiss.

It was clear that even though he rejected certain things Haley wrote about, he adopted Haley's principles. And I made a similar comment about the Milan Group after I read that and I got the same hissing sound. So I think we need to think about that influence as broader and more basic, more foundational than has been acknowledged in the literature not because it was explicitly a guiding principle

And then there was the issue of Wittgenstein's philosophy. That was always a part of my experience - there that all these people sitting behind the mirror talking about philosophy. Not necessarily Wittgenstein but a variety of philosophers, Schopenhauer and so on. But Wittgenstein was the key guy and I think again it's important to recognise that many intellectuals came from Palo Alto because those people were talking about Wittgenstein as well.

Finally perhaps I would add here perhaps unique to Steve is that he really liked sociology. And when we talked about it it's pretty clear that that came from his relationship with Joseph Berger at Stanford, and learning about the small groups research that was going on there and I never quite understood that because I never really saw what the experience consisted of and somehow that experience opened him to sociology. And then when I came he and I spent most of our time talking about the methodology.


When I think of past theory I'm always very surprised when people say "Oh Solution-Focused, that's just..." They say Steve said that Solution-Focused was a set of tools and that's it - there was just this whole anti theory feel to it sometimes. I came to Solution-Focused from translating for Steve and Insoo a lot. And I started reading Steve's stuff and that's highly theoretical, highly philosophical, even from the first. At the moment I'm currently in the process of collecting all of Steve and Insoo's articles. The idea that it's atheoretical surprises me when I read what they wrote.

When I see a searching movement, also for explanations or for fit. I mean he went from Derrida to Wittgenstein, there was Axelrod's stuff that he referenced. A large searching movement towards which kind of theory does fit with Solution-Focused and then Wittgenstein in the last book More Then Miracles. I don't think that's where it's going to end, even though that was the last thing Steve wrote.


I didn't know either Steve or Insoo particularly well. When I started reading about Solution-Focused I think the thing that struck me most - and maybe partly why there was a reluctance to talk about in theoretical terms - was that what seemed to set it apart for me from the other therapeutic approaches that I've come across was that there was no particular theory of the person.

My reading of most psychotherapeutic approaches is that they start from some sort of psychological position about what a person is. And that position usually has some sort of sensory or mechanistic perspective which is based on the notion of an ideal and then deviation from that ideal or norm. The process of psychotherapy is therefore of some form of correction or fixing or addition or taking away which is essentially the way that the medical model works. And - actually - most problem solving works.

And so what really struck me was that it wasn't based on some kind of theory of the person. So you didn't have to learn huge amounts of complicated ways of referring to the parts of the psyche in order to then do therapy which was aimed somehow at all this kind of fixing. For me that was the thing that was most interesting.

From my reading of that book Change (Watzlawick, Fisch and Weakland, 1974), that was also of its time - I think that people then were looking at the idea of systems. That in itself is structuralist - the idea that as humans we have structures that can be impaired. When you hear other people's theories talking about healing or about damage and so on... I think Solution-Focused lacks - not lacks but it doesn't have that in it and that was actually one of the things that I found most appealing about it. It seemed to be based on what helps people to change. Yes, we can talk about that, there were lots of theories around that, but for me the appeal was about it somehow having no theories, no theories about 'it'.


I'm thinking about what sort of things are in the book Change which I read a long time ago. All that stuff including The Pragmatics of Human Communication (ref), which included Janet Bavelas as a very young woman was an author of back in the '60s. This is all part of the MRI Palo Alto Group which began as the Bateson Research Project trying to see how broken patterns of communication led to what we might call mental illness and other things, interested in patterns of communication.

I think that's a sort of genius move which doesn't go acknowledged often enough. Bateson assembled his team to examine people not as individuals but as parts of patterns of communication and interaction. And if people were mentally ill with schizophrenia then the idea that this is created by interaction... but if it's created by interaction you can maybe uncreate it with different interactions and you could move it on. This is a hugely paradigm busting thing in the late '40s/early '50s and so I think for me that's an important foundation in this work. But that takes on a very pragmatic view and this idea this was the place that invented the one-way mirror so you put a therapist and a group of clients, a family and then you observed them so without them seeing you so you can get a clearer view of the interactions.

The 'Interactional View' was the title that that group then gave to their paradigm - interactional not individual. And I think that lives on in Solution-Focused practice but we don't talk about it very much.


Maybe it's not an approach without a theory but that we differ radically in what we theorise about. What is it that we're trying to explain? I would venture that it's the bunch of talk. Solution Focus is probably once removed from trying to explain the attractions but then after The Death of Resistance, after this paper including the therapist in that interaction, saying that we're looking at this bunch of talk, we're not looking at what happens in the family without the therapist. We're looking at the bunch of talk that happens between therapists and whoever is their client at that time.


And that perhaps distinguishes it from the first order change, second order change model that Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch and their MRI colleagues were very interested - about change within a system and change to the parameters of a system. Somebody from the MRI came to an EBTA Conference two or three years ago and did a workshop about this and I realised that the whole room apart from her had sort of given up thinking about that a decade before. And it was quite nice to be reminded about it and slightly puzzling... it's been left behind.

Michael Durrant:

I'm Michael Durrant from Australia. I knew Steve and Insoo around about the same time as Gale did initially [the mid 1980s]. I think against this whole idea that Solution-Focused was atheoretical, there are two things we have to remember. One is that the foundational original Solution-Focused paper that defined a Solution-Focused Brief theory was published in the same issue of Family Process as the defining Michael White Narrative theory paper. And Steve was very anxious to distinguish those.

So Michael White and his paper clearly said "Here is theory and out of that theory we develop this model theory." And so Steve wanted to make sure that he was very different to that. So I don't think Steve was being atheoretical but I think he said "We develop what we did through practice and then we look at theory." So I never heard Steve say "We don't have theory." But what he did say was "We didn't develop what we do out of the theory." Because I would agree with you I mean you only have to talk to Steve for 30 seconds to realise the man was living/breathing theory and philosophy. So I think it was that way round.

The other thing I wanted to say well you just said "We also have to be very clear that the MRI and the MRI Brief Therapy Project are different things." So the interactional view came out of the MRI and and the Bateson stuff. John Weakland was the only member of the Brief Therapy Project who had previously been part of the Bateson project. So whilst they referred to MRI Brief Therapy approach as the interactional brief therapy approach, everything that's in the Pragmatics book, for example, wasn't necessarily seen in the therapy approach.


One of the reasons why I think that this conversation needs to keep going for a long time is because there are links, philosophical links that Steve and Insoo in some cases didn't develop and sometimes denied they existed, which had to do with their preferences. One of them was pragmatism because when Steve said "It was developed out of a practice.", That that was probably honest, but it's also exactly what pragmatists have been talking about for a long long time. And so there are and were all kinds of other ideas floating around developed for solutions and so on that could be brought into play here. Just because the founders didn't doesn't mean they're not relevant and important.


Thank you Gale. Let's move on to the second point - theory in the present - where are we now? What's the position in Solution-Focused theory at the current point?


Well I don't think that, I think we're at a good point! Maybe that's a good place to start. There was a good question in Scott Miller's session this morning on marketing the Solution-Focused approach. And I'm hearing other comments that we should be aware not to be eaten by cannibals because of our missionary zeal. But I think we're not in a good place because having a theory in many instances is a sign or marker of quality. I'm from the consulting world, and in the consulting world you're up against someone with a huge theoretical system which explains everything and you say "Well I'm just going to ask a few questions and I'm going to ask a miracle question and you have the solutions anyway." It doesn't market too well.

So that's one place where I think we're not in a good place. And the other place - I think there're a lot of misunderstandings of Solution-Focused around - because people haven't take enough care to read what Steve has written and to think about it in philosophical ways.


I've been thinking about this question a lot and I think the question that I have is linked to what Kirsten is saying, is what do we need theory for? Because I think there is not a huge amount of evidence that even a good theory about the person necessarily translates into good practice.

Personally I have benefitted personally from psychodynamic ideas, I have personally benefitted from cognitive behavioural ideas and I personally benefitted from carrying out some Solution-Focused practices - which is interesting isn't it in a way. And so I do wonder that we just develop a theory because we want to look good or to market ourselves - well that just does make me wonder a lot.

I think there are lots of things you can theorise about in Solution-Focus. I actually do think you can even theorise about the person in Solution-Focused and what a person is in a very nteresting way. People want to know about why Solution-Focused works. What is it that causes it to work? Well maybe knowing more about that will help us to do it better, to find areas where we can do it better and there're lots of different people who are looking in many different ways in psychological, in biological, in evolutionary, in positive psychology and so on. Lots of people trying to make links from other traditions to Solution-Focused which is an interesting enterprise but again I would ask what it's for and how that can help our clients ultimately.

And then I think there are theories about the processes and the interactive stuff which we could theorise about and I think some people are theorising about that.


I'd like to draw a distinction between theories of change - which is how do people change - and theories of 'what this client ought to do to get better' which is something best we've learnt to avoid and is best left avoided. That's the frame of the client. But if you come back to the frame of the client and the therapist and you say "Well one way you can tell is Solutions-Focused practice and another way isn't." Then if there's a distinction you can make there must be a way of telling. One should therefore say "Well how do I know and what is the difference?"

Now some people want to think that can be done with description. I think you can describe good practice but there's a risk there that if you merely describe it but you don't know why it's that way, then you just keep doing it and it becomes a sort of cargo cult thing. "If I do this they will get better and it's my job not to worry about why" which is a very uninquisitive place. And for a practice based on curiosity about the client that seems a strange place for the therapist to go and be in their coffee breaks! It's probably tolerable but it doesn't seem to be fully maximising the potential for what's there.

Michael Hjerth:

I'm Michael Hjerth, I'm a psychologist from Stockholm. I'm going to describe why I think we are at a bad place right now, in addition to agreeing with you. To begin with, let me say how I got started in Solution-Focused because I was at a very psychodynamical university. I have one of the diagnoses that doesn't exist in DSM IV which is 'oppositional defiance disorder'. So I didn't follow the rules. I was interested in change so I looked for other theories that could be interesting for change or for this psychoanalytical laws and I found Redberg and Lukman, and I found Maturana and Varela. And I read 'Change' book to understand them so that you could make a psychotherapy out of this how would that look like.

I was supposed to write the dissertation in philosophy about this and someone told me 'they're doing it, what are you writing about', at Harry and Jocelyn Korman's place in Malmo. I went there and saw that yes, they were doing it already. But the interesting point is that the theory that I was reading - the Lukmans, the Varelas, got me interested in what practical implications were this. It made me interested in doing an experiment - what would happen if?

Steve's love for Sherlock Holmes comes from this kind of Victorian idea of science which is tinkering with things, pushing a button and see what happens, I wonder what would happen if we did that... and that comes from theory. So if you're just trying to find out what works and you have nothing that generates ideas about what could work then you're sort of stuck.

Just to give you a very clear example I thought about what the biological processes involved in Solution-Focused could be? There seems to be a connection between cognition and emotion. And if there's a connection about how happy people think differently from sad people, Barbara Fredrickson's research for example. This shows that people who are in a good mood have an easier time to think several steps for the future.

So what would be different if we made sure that people felt good before the session, compared to not feeling good. We could have them sit in a waiting room for half an hour before the session or take a nice walk through the park for half an hour. Would that make a better session? And that comes from theory. I'm quite convinced you could see a difference... I am note sure, but I would really like to try. So I think that theory can give all these kinds of impetus for exploration.

And that is a bit lacking, it seems to me - there is a lot of rehashing of things. Most books I see are rehashing of the same ideas and you just expand the same thing but it seems to me that Steve and Insoo experimented a lot. Is the team part of it or not? Okay let's throw out the team out of the sessions and see if it makes a difference. And that comes from theory.


The success of this approach is a mixed blessing because with material success come all kind of opportunities and pressures to focus on that material success. And sometimes things get lost in that process and I have a few concerns that something was being lost, partly because there was only one person positioned to connect to the world of theory - Steve - and he was gone.

I am more hopeful now, I think, than my colleagues because I have colleagues (gestures around at the assembled group). And when Steve died I didn't see any colleagues so I would differ in that.

Carey Glass:

For me it's around what Rayya said about do we need a theory? For me this comes directly into light when you compare clinical work to organisation work. I think in all clinical work you can ask the questions, the environmental context is such that the person comes in and expects you to work in a practical way.

I'm finding in my organisational work I need to use the principles but I might never use the techniques. Now whether those principles form a theory is another question but I think I'm working in a very different way. You can only have a paradigm if you have a theory. But for me the disctinction is very clear between clinical context and an organisational context and that's where practical questions may be entirely irrelevant but the principles are critical.


Having written several books about the organisational context I can chime in with that. One of the things about the organisational context is that the clear setting of helper and helpee in, as you get in therapy is not there in organisational settings. The power relationships are very different, very diverse - the manager and team is very different to therapist and client in all sorts of ways.

So one has to start expanding this and perhaps this is why some of the developments are coming from people who are working outside a classic therapy content.


I think this is really important. Given a different perspective, when people like us come along to these conferences...I am an occupational therapist and I've worked in Mental Health Services but I wouldn't describe myself as a psychotherapist per se. And so this notion of principles I think is one which now has become of greater interest. At the EBTA conference in Cardiff in 2002 or 2003, I ran a discussion group on Solutions-Focused thinking and Steve just looked at me in disgust and said [grumpy voice] "There's no such thing as Solution-Focused thinking". I didn't care really because I was thinking about how would you be thinking if you were being Solution-Focused. It made sense to me and I found some other people who wanted to talk about that.

I was interested in the idea of what is it actually to be Solution-Focused beyond being just a therapist. And I think that is of interest. How do we make a distinction between Solution-Focused and non Solution-Focused? And one of the ways that I find quite useful is to think about it that Solution-Focused is a very different kind of process of coming to change than in problem solving paradigm.

I think that both are incredibly useful ways of creating change but the problem solving one is more common, it's more well known, it underpins an awful lot of different therapies and different things whereas Solution-Focused I think is different. And just from that perspective alone I think is worth investigating to think about what it is it that is different, because what I've observed in practice having worked with people with very complex situations is that Solution-Focussed seems to work very well with the complex situations when a problem solving seems to be clumsier or more like wading through treacle or very complicated.

I think when you've translated it into organisations where you've got these very large systems... it became more obvious perhaps that Solution-Focussed has a different way of working. It seems to particularly lend itself I think to the very complex cases. I don't know if you'd agree or if anyone else out there would agree with that?


I'd certainly go along with that. If a situation's complex you tend to try and unravel it and in a complex - a technically 'scientifically complex' situation - it's impossible to unravel. So trying to unravel it is really a dead end - you can take an awful long time trying to work with it for nothing. The Solution-Focussed thing about what do people want and what helps us already to move towards that just cuts through that whole question. It's a different, completely different set of questions and a different route that engages people. But the point is you can see the difference very quickly. Two minutes of that and people are in a different place already! Change doesn't happen at the end of the interview or at the end of the workshop, it happens as soon as you begin and before.


Can I change the topic slightly? I want to pick up on what Mark said about the generative stuff coming from the outside. I guess we're moving to the future. I was involved in an online course a while back that included a narrative therapy component and other therapies. If you looked at the course material there was an amazing difference between the narrative part and the other parts. The narrative part was still with all kinds of readings from non therapy sources. I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

One is because they were part of a bigger movement toward a narrative perspective. Second and most important they recognised that they were part of a bigger movement and connected to it. So the very evolution and development of the narrative perspective in therapy is inseparable from the evolution of the narrative perspective in academia, in medicine, in law, in all kinds of other areas so they are interactive, mutually connected.

The development of Solution-Focused thought is quite different from that it's... It stands apart, even connections to people working within the Wittgensteinian tradition are minimal and that's an issue. It's not that there are no connections but they haven't been made integral to the very development of the practice and talking about the practice. And so there's a lot of work to do to expand the intellectual domain of this approach.


Some of the connections that we have been able to make I think are very fruitful. We contacted the discursive school around Rom Harre, and Daniele Moyal-Sharrock was at one of the SOLWorld conferences last year. And I am reading through Dan Hutto's book 'Folk Psychological Narratives'...

I think there are some really valuable connections to be explored not only in the Wittgenstein field but in a lot of other fields too. I'm very happy that founding SFCT and having a peer reviewed journal (InterAction) - which is a very theoretical endeavour, if you wish - enables us to make these connections to many different fields around what we jokingly call 'it' - with our friends/neighbours and cousins in other places who don't know that we exist. Because we've never actually stood up and said "Here's us. You should be interested in us."


So this connects up with a concept from my colleague Jenny Clarke. She calls 'it' the meta-thing, which is the thing that Solution-Focused is an example of. The higher level class of things. Solution-Focused is one of those but what are the others and what do they have in common? And so in pursuing that, the Karlstad Group met several times a few years ago. Some of you were probably involved in that - looking at different neighbouring traditions, some of which have been very fruitfully connected. We have the Wittgenstein the connection that just Kirsten mentions is now developing. I'm a visiting research fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Hertfordshire University which is the headquarters of Wittgensteinal thinking in the UK.

We have connections there also with the narrative hypothesis people who talk about the way in which mentalistic words like belief, desire are used and how that makes sense without a mentalistic component but as a way of getting things done in the way of talking about people which is very interesting. The complexity connection is proving somewhat interesting and fruitful. Connections with the Agile software people who tackle deliberately complex situations in this one step at a time, keep things moving, nudging it forward. There are other fields too.

So this is going on in the background but it's a slow gradual process because in my experience you go these people and you say "Have you heard of Solution-Focused Therapy?" And they say "Solution-Focused what?" And they have never heard of it and they've never ever heard that they might have heard of it and so you have to begin at the beginning. It's incredibly frustrating that our field seems to have become cut off in so many ways from so many interesting people who might have something to contribute to it.


Yes I think one of the things that I find myself butting up against a lot is... I don't know if any of you were at my workshop last year at EBTA which was about training where I gave you the results of my training research. I just gave people a few statements essentially boiling down to find what works and do more of it - the three wise statements that Steve de Shazar apparently based everything on. If it' ain't broke don't fix it, find what works and do more of it, and so on. And I basically gave my trainees those three statements and I asked them if you really believe that what questions would you ask? And they invented Solution-Focused Therapy every time - pretty much all the questions, which I think is sort of the opposite end of theorising.

But the thing for me is that when you position this within the therapy world because the therapy world belongs strongly that what the therapist does makes such a huge difference. What we do with that notion of 'find what works and do more of it' is that we then think that's going to tell us something about our tools and our practices. And I'm not sure that that is... I'm not sure that's what happens. I think for me, I kind of developed my interest in Solutions-Focused on my own... I maybe got it all wrong but for me the beauty of Solution-Focused and this 'find what works and do more of it' and working with the client to do that, is that it makes for locally negotiated tailor-made solutions each time with the client.

So what I'm not saying is that you shouldn't try and improve your practice but I do think you could get over seduced by this stuff. You can get seduced by this idea too much that every single thing that you do and every tiny piece of language you use makes this enormous difference. I think that then links back into this idea of this over inflated sense of what we're up to as therapists.

Jenny Clarke:

My name's Jenny Clarke and I've just been referred to. I'm sitting beside Rayya because I sometimes appoint myself as the so-whatness monitor. Okay, this is all very interesting, but so what difference is it going to make to me and my practice?

think just in the last 10 or 20 minutes I've heard quite a lot that helps me with the so-whatness about theory. Of course there's the commercial domain but I think there's also the 'how do we talk to other people amongst our neighbours' domain which I think is really important. And we have talked about where what we do is driven by practice and theory came later. It's really important that it can work the other way round and I was interested about the Michael White connection that theory can build practice...

Look, we are cognitive people. We are cognitive beings and why not take the odd short cut and do a bit of theorising especially if it informs our practice and therefore makes it better and helps us talk to all these neighbours that we have without the hissy fitting.

So I really am very interested in 'so what' and I've got quite a big answer to 'so what' in the last few minutes. And part of it is about talking to the neighbours and therefore getting better at what we do. And having an interesting time as well!

Bertil Andersson:

Bertil Andersson from Stockholm, Sweden. First I think it's okay to create a theory of Solution-Focus but do it from without too much because then there's the risk of seeing more of your theory than the practice with the client. But I think if you take the theory as more a common word explanation, of course we all explain things all the time and we have assumptions. So we have in them a way of theory we have. I think Steve said "If it doesn't work, change your theory, it's not the guide." Because that's what we do if we have too strong an idea about the theory.


I think that's a very valuable comment. I observe Solution-Focused people sometimes, and if you so much say 'theory' they put their fingers in their ears and turn away and won't engage or won't even speak about it or think about it. I think one possible reason for that is that they've worried about this pitfall. If you start thinking too much about theory you stop looking at your client and you start worrying about what they ought to do rather than what they are doing. I think that's a really excellent concern - AND there must be a way of having some sort of theoretical conversation that gets beyond closing our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears to stop it.


I think what's important is what we theorise about. We do not theorise about the client, we theorise about the interaction between client and therapist, and we do not theorise in the moment that we're doing therapy. I think if that's clear, maybe this reaction can be overcome a little bit.

Wolfgang Gaiswinkler:

I'm Wolfgang Gaiswinkler from Vienna. I think we know that there are different styles, different paradigms for doing therapy and I think it's pretty clear for all of us that there are also different styles and paradigms for doing science and for doing research and for doing theory. Maybe we can refer to cousins in doing science or doing theory or building theory or doing research. One cousin which came in my mind four or five years ago - and I never followed this track and I don't know nobody who did - there's this programme of action research and I always thought what I do with the client is action research. As Mark said I'm pretty sure nobody in the action research field knows anything about Solution-Focused brief therapy and I think they could learn lots from us.

And this field is also very diverse there is nothing like THE action research it's totally diverse, but I think there are a lot of possibilities we can connect with and offer with some very interesting minority problems in doing social research. Because I think the whole social research fields are in a very big crisis because I think they are not very effective in terms of what comes from the universities.


There is at least one action researcher in the UK who knows about it because I had a conversation with her. We discovered we both have the same problem about getting published - nobody wants to publish action research results because it's very contextual. It's not universal truth. The 'scientific' paradigms says we want universal truth. And in action research there is none and Solution-Focused there's very very little so it's a similar thing.


A journalist wants universal truth and then distorts it!

Klaus Schenck:

My name's Klaus I'm from Germany and this is my first time at EBTA. But before that I joined a couple of the SOLWorld conferences that Mark and Jenny kicked off with the Solution-Focused in organisations people. Some years ago I had offered a workshop about connections between Solution-Focus and neighbouring fields. And when I was first offered it, it was declined as being not close enough to solution focus. I was a little bit sad about that but I was interested enough in the topic to bring it back so the second time I offered it to the Solutions Summer University and then that stopped happening, so I couldn't get rid of the topic again! So I offered it again a year or two ago and then finally people showed up and it was accepted.

It made me think that maybe in the lifecycle of an organisation or an association it makes sense that there is a phase when people look inward and defend the boundaries and do not want to talk with their neighbours, because firstly they have to get to know each other and how we're talking. So we build a fortress, and only when we feel comfortable within that group then we can open up again to the neighbours.

And from then on it's possible to go back and forth to look on Solution-Focused and what are we doing and what is different here as compared to others. And then to open up again and look out and see what some of the others are doing is helpful as well - where can we integrate today? And I'd like to see that movement and I appreciate that we've opened up the debate.

Aviva Suskin-Holmqvist:

I'm trying to understand some of the things that have been referred to... I think Gale you said you referred to sociologists and other schools of thought that you recognise. And Rayya, your three simple steps and Michael talking about other schools and medicine and whatever.

And I sometimes think... what if it is as simple as we've said it is. What implication would that have for what we call Solution-Focused thinking? I teach and supervise another different way of thinking about communication. And I say - and I apologise if I'm kind of presumptive - but I say "This is very very very simple." It's a simple thought and then I think... I don't know a lot of philosophy, I know a very little, I know very little bit about neuroscience despite being married to a neuroscientist. But I think there are so many other theories that seem to confirm this very very simple idea we have. So do we have to make it more complicated? Can't we just say 'this is very simple' and a whole lot of other schools that say things that are helpful to us when we are working.


Thank you Aviva for saying that. I have most recently decided that for me the reason Solution-Focused works is because it's about cooperating with reality. And when I say reality what I mean is that we have absolutely no idea most of the time what's going on in the world. We actually have no idea, we have all this conglomerate of thoughts and feelings and activity in the world but not really that sure about what's going on. We certainly can't tell the future - even from moment to moment we can't tell the future. But what seems to work if you want to move forward is having some kind of goal, some kind of clear picture of where you want to end up, and then working towards it in small steps so that you're not making a huge investment in change all the time. You're essentially (and thanks to Mark for really helping me think this one through) hypothesising all the time with the client... well what if this... And then not actually putting so much investment in 'if you do this it WILL work' - the idea that we ever could do that, you can throw that out the window. All we can ever do is move forward a little step and see what happens. Just see if that can work.

And for me this kind of in-the-situation hypothesising, where you are theorising with your client based on their theory of change, their theory of life, their wisdom of how they've built their life up... I think it's an ongoing dynamic process. You ask the client, they say whatever they're saying in response to what you want and you say "Well what difference would that make?" Because people we all talk in symbols all of the time, we all say all these things we want but actually behind that is some kind of meaning. It seems to help if people can define that a little bit more clearly because we don't know what we want until we're asked what difference it'll make.

And so in terms of actually what helps people to move forward perhaps it is simply that Solution-Focused enables us all to cooperate with reality in a more effective way.

Carey Glass:

I would like to ask Gale about the historical place of the word 'theory' because I like it much better when you talked about an intellectual domain. Do we now live in a world philosophically, sociologically, where you have to have a unified theory? Could we simply not have the practical stuff we do and fit it into the various intellectual domains, and do we lack credibility if we do that? What is the historatative theory does it belong in pre modern/post modern? Do we have to have it?


I think you've asked several questions. For a long time there has been no unified unitary all explanatory theory that notion was jettisoned some time ago. I suppose it's not necessary.

I sit and listen to these conversations and I have visions of people thinking of theory as going to the dentist - you just know it's going to hurt! (Laughter) And that's so different to my experience because, in answer to Aviva, there are theoretical points of view that are exactly about why it is that simple things work. Enthnomethodology is a theory of common sense. Harvey Sachs who eventually created conversation analysis began by asking the question "What does it mean to be ordinary?"

Well, what is more fundamental to what came out of Milwaukee? I mean people there spent tremendous amounts of time talking about what does it mean to be ordinary, to use ordinary language, engage in an ordinary relationship. These are all theoretical questions. This is not going to the dentist. I think if you shift the frame to that direction of saying "I don't have to be a professional philosopher. I don't have to read anything and everything in the world. I have to read what informs, what enlightens, what fits." I think that's the place to start.

Michael Hjerth:

I want to comment on what Rayya said about co-operating with reality. From my point of view maybe that is one of the key theories, what is this 'cooperate with reality'. How can we get out of sync with reality, our problems when we are out of sync with reality, is therapy helping syncing up and when things are in sync with reality your problems disappear. This is how I think too there is something going on here. And then we have connections to things like Chinese medicine which seems to work similarly and Buddhist and Daoist thinking which is another connection.


Just to finish up, Gale and I have a book chapter coming out very shortly that we wrote nearly two years ago, postulating a kind of meta thingy idea which we call 'narrative emergence' which is a very ordinary idea - how narratives emerge in conversations. It's so ordinary that it happens to us all the time and we don't notice but it was exemplified by Harry Korman this morning in his showing of the tape and the therapist there letting certain things slip by and commenting on other things. We do this all the time - it's what it means to speak, it's what it means to be human and yet we don't notice it.

So that bring attention on to the emergence of narrative which is very much about listening to what's said and responding to it, more than worrying about some theory of the person or the psychology or whatever else, and we draw on Wittgenstein and complexity in an ambitious and probably foolhardy effort to do this. If you want a pre-print of that go to tinyurl.com/markodws1.

I'd like to close up by saying thank you to Kirstin Dierolf, Gale Miller, Rayya and everybody who's come. Thank you so much.


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