“ Our Problems Are Our Solutions. ”
~ Stanley Siegel ~
A Brief Description of Solution Focused Therapy:
Exceptions to the Problem
It has been our observation that regardless of the magnitude or chronicity of the problems people experience, there are situations or times when, for some reason, the problem simply does not happen. Bed-wetters have dry nights, combative couples have peaceful days, and teenagers sometimes comply with the rules without an argument, and so on. Most people, therapists included, consider these problem-free times to be disconnected from or unrelated to the problematic times and so little is done to better understand or amplify them. The exceptions to the problem offer a tremendous amount of information about what is needed to solve the problem. Solutions can be unearthed by examining the differences between times when the problem has occurred and times when it has not.
Clients often simply need to do more of what is already working until the problem no longer exists. The concept is so simple. If people want to experience more success, more happiness and less stress in their lives, let them assess what is different about the times when they are already successful, happy and stress-free.
Therein lays the solution -increasing those activities which have a track record of having achieved (even for short periods of time) the desired goal. Initially, a very interesting thing happens when we ask clients about exceptions. They often are quiet momentarily and appear to be lost in thought. The reason for this silence is that people generally cast the events in their lives in black and white terms: “You never are the one to make plans for us. I always do; or “He wets the bed all the time.” Although it is unlikely that only one partner is “always” the planner and it is impossible that any person wets the bed “all the time; this, nevertheless, is the way people perceive it. So, when we ask, “What is different about the times when your husband does make plans for you?” or, “What is different about the nights when there are dry beds?” we are asking people to report on experiences they haven’t really paid much attention to yet. All they have been noticing until now is slow social calendars, hurt feelings, wet beds, laundry, and frustration. They fail to notice or give significance to the occasional time when one spouse does ask the other out for lunch, or that morning last week when the bed was bone dry.
Another reason clients sometimes seem a bit unprepared when we ask the presuppositional question pertaining to exceptions is that they do not expect therapy to be a place where one discusses what is going right. Therapy is a place to talk about problems. After all, no TV or movie therapist ever asks about what is going right. In asking about exceptions, we are not only attempting to redirect people’s attention to what is already working but also orienting people as to what we think is important to know and talk about in therapy.
In the movie Patch Adams, Patch is a man who enters a problem focused psychiatric hospital after he tries to kill himself. He meets many fellow patients but the one who intrigues him most is Arthur, a famous mathematician whom the techs say “counted too many fractions”.
Arthur has a habit of walking around the hospital holding up four fingers and saying, “How many fingers do you see?” When other patients and techs tell him they see four fingers, he exclaims, “You’re crazy.” Patch is intrigued by the question, and late one night he talks to Arthur about it. Arthur holds his fingers up and asks Patch to tell him how many he sees. Patch says, “There are four fingers, Arthur.” Arthur then pushes Patch to think differently when he says, “No, look at me. You are focusing on the problem. You can’t see the solution if you focus on the problem. Look at me.”
Blurring his eyes to see Arthur more clearly through his fingers, Patch’s eyes see eight blurred fingers. Now when Arthur asks him, “How many do you see?” Patch tells him, “Eight.” Thrilled, Arthur says, “Good, eight’s a good answer… see what others fail to see out of fear and unconformity. See what no one else sees. You must see other things or you wouldn’t have come here anyway. You must have seen something more than a bitter old man. I think you are on your way!”
If we focus solely on the problem, and nothing else, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to solve the problem. If we can broaden our frame of reference, it is more likely that the problem may be solved.