Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It’s a common belief that to resolve any mental health issue, you’ll need to be in therapy for years. The idea that therapy can take years may deter some people from wanting to get started in seeking mental health care. However, not all methods of therapy require you to attend multiple sessions over a long period in order to find solutions and achieve results. Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is a goal-oriented form of therapy that an individual can move through relatively quickly. Solution-focused brief therapy can help in creating sustainable behavioral changes.

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SFBT may help you accomplish your goals

Solution-focused therapy: A definition

Many forms of therapy involve revisiting past events and reexamining one’s childhood. Doing so often helps clients identify and understand where their challenges in life may be coming from, which is often the first step toward investigating solutions. For some mental health problems, this is a necessary part of the process to manage presenting problems. However, not everyone needs to go through that process to gain the benefits of therapy. That’s where a solution focused approach may be helpful.

According to the Encyclopedia of Social Work, this type of focus therapy “holds a person accountable for solutions rather than responsible for problems” and may be used in both therapeutic and social work settings.

It can best be thought of as a way of thinking rather than a set of therapeutic techniques. Per the same source, it “focuses on what clients can do versus what clients cannot do. Instead of focusing and exploring clients’ problems and deficiencies, the focus is on the successes and accomplishments when clients are able to address their problems of living satisfactorily”. 

How does SFBT work?

Solution focused brief therapy is an evidence based practice that involves various techniques, such as coping questions, scaling questions, and goal setting. Solution focused practitioners may also ask “miracle questions”. Through these techniques, many clients learn to think about different ways to perceive and solve their problems. 

For example, if a client faces difficulties maintaining relationships due to trust issues but has a close bond with a sibling, a solution-focused therapist would explore the dynamics of that sibling relationship as an exception to the client's general trust concerns.

How many sessions does SFBT usually take?

While some types of therapy might last for months or years, solution focused brief therapy concentrates on ways to find solutions in a shorter amount of time. While this type of treatment may require as many as 20 sessions, that's not the norm. Instead, a constructive collaboration with a SFBT therapist will typically take 5–8 sessions. This abbreviated time frame is possible because SFBT is commonly used for most clients who are motivated to make behavioral changes but need help solution building and putting a plan into action.

A short history of SFBT

Solution-focused brief therapy was first conceptualized in the 1980s at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee. Spouses and colleagues Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg found themselves inspired by the work of psychiatrist Milton Eriskon, which was predicated on the belief that an individual already has the resources and the strength to solve problems in their own life. With this in mind, the two psychotherapists began looking into the best way to help their clients at the family therapy center achieve real, meaningful change in their lives. In other words, they were seeking to find out “what works in therapy.” 

They spent countless hours observing traditional therapy sessions to isolate the questions and techniques that seemed to produce the most tangible benefits. They recognized patterns and began developing this new type of forward-thinking therapy, which is focused on the individual’s future instead of their past, finding solutions to current problems in everyday life rather than focusing on root causes. Counseling outcome research has since shown that this therapy is effective, offering lasting change for individuals and families. It may be a useful therapeutic intervention for many clients with relationship problems and challenges with everyday life. SFBT may also be effective for improving child behavioral problems.

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Tips for getting the most out of your session

Individuals participating in solution focused brief therapy SFBT are expected to take an active role in their sessions. It’s the single best way to get the most out of the treatment, since it was designed to be hands-on in this way. That said, what follows are a handful of other tips that may also help you take advantage of your brief time in solution-focused therapy.

Know what you want to achieve

As you can sense based on the name, this type of therapy is future oriented and all about solutions. For it to be effective—that is, in order to find meaningful solutions for the problems you’re facing—you’ll need to have a goal in mind that your therapist can help you achieve. When you show up at your first session, your provider will likely ask you about your future hopes and goals. Your provider may help you refine or narrow the scope of the goal, but having a general idea in mind will be important for this solution focused approach.

Be present during your sessions

Since this type of therapy takes place on a limited time frame, it’s in your best interest to use every moment you have with your therapist. Arriving in plenty of time so you’re not rushed or cutting into your session can help. It may also be useful to take a few minutes beforehand to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Get back in touch with your goal, what you talked about last time, and any relevant updates or thoughts you may want to bring up this time. That way, when your session starts, you’ll be prepared to be fully present and get the most out of it.

Do your homework 

It’s the case with most types of therapy, but especially SFBT: The bulk of the work will need to be done outside of your sessions. To enhance your concentration, you must first learn how to focus. Your therapist is there to help you identify trauma symptoms, behavioral problems, and other potential issues, and outline and focus on the most constructive steps for reaching your goal; but you’re the one who will have to take action from there. If they give you a technique to try or a task to complete outside of your session times, doing so will help you move forward in between meetings so you can get closer to getting what you want or need.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Practice self-care

Most types of therapy are emotional processes, including SFBT. Even though you’re unlikely to delve into your childhood or other elements of your past, it can still be hard emotional work to uncover what you need to do or change to get where you want to be. For this work to be maximally effective, it will be helpful for you to take care of yourself along the way. Getting enough rest, fueling your body with healthy foods, exercising, and spending social time with people whose company you enjoy can all help you set yourself up for success as you go through your solution-focused brief therapy sessions. 

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SFBT may help you accomplish your goals
Finding an SFBT therapist or solution-focused brief family therapy center

If solution-focused brief therapy sounds like a good therapeutic intervention for you, it’s typically best to consult with a mental health professional such as one affiliated with a therapy association. While one study highlights its “small but positive treatment effects”, some practitioners in the field disagree with the methodology, especially for certain cases. The SFBT therapeutic approach may not be appropriate for people living with major psychiatric conditions or those who experience addiction, depending on addiction severity. It may also be more appropriate for some social work situations rather than as a substitute for traditional psychotherapy. Speaking with a mental health provider can help you learn more about what methodology might be right for your particular situation.

If you’re strongly interested in solution-focused brief therapy, you might begin by searching for a therapist who offers solution focused therapy as an option. You can explain to them why you believe it would work for you and ask if they think it would be a good fit for what you want to accomplish. Make sure to choose someone who has experience administering this type of therapy. In addition, since brief therapy tends to conclude within 20 sessions or less, you’ll also want a therapist with whom you can quickly feel comfortable.

Seeking other types of support: Family therapy center, online therapy, and more

If you’re open to trying more general, widely applicable types of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or are looking to be evaluated by a mental health professional to get advice on what might be best for you, you might consider online therapy. With a platform like BetterHelp, for instance, you can fill out a questionnaire about your needs and preferences and get matched with a licensed therapist accordingly. You can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to engage in therapy for the challenges you may be facing, and/or to discuss other types of therapy that may benefit you. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy sessions can offer similar benefits in most cases, so you can feel confident in choosing whichever format feels most comfortable for you.

While solution-focused brief therapy has proven to be effective for many clients, it's essential for individuals to seek therapy tailored to their unique needs. In some cases, other models of treatment, such as psychiatric treatment or brief family therapy, may be more suitable, depending on the client's life and the issues they face. Someone seeking help with relationship problems may benefit from couples therapy, while a teen going through classroom behavioral problems may find art therapy beneficial. It's important to consult with a mental health professional who has experience assessing a client’s situation to provide the best options for therapy.

Takeaway

Solution-focused brief therapy, just like solution-focused family therapy, is a specific therapeutic methodology whose key concepts center around finding solutions to current problems in a short amount of time. This type of therapy can be beneficial for many people, particularly those who are motivated and goal-oriented. Speaking with a mental health professional about your unique circumstances can help them decide whether SFBT might be right for you.

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