Understanding Solution-Focused Brief Therapy And Its Benefits

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Although some forms of therapy are long-term and often require years of commitment, some clients are looking for short-term therapy with quick solutions. Solution-focused brief therapy is one therapy modality that an individual can move through relatively quickly, often focused on problem-solving and finding solutions that can be implemented immediately in the client’s life to address behavioral problems, relationship problems, or other concerns unique to the client’s situation. If you’re looking for an action-based therapeutic modality, it can be beneficial to learn more about how to get the most out of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT). 

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Wondering if solution-focused brief therapy is for you?

SFBT can be used in both therapeutic and social work settings and often involves fewer sessions than traditional psychological or psychiatric treatment. With a solution-focused approach, the patient hones in on what they can change and learns to accept what they cannot. Instead of focusing on problems, SFBT concentrates on the successes, accomplishments, and positive things clients can achieve to address their challenges satisfactorily, and, in effect, change their lives. Each client in solution-focused brief therapy is seen as a developed, capable individual with existing skillsets that can support them in pursuing goal-directed behavioral changes.  

SFBT may also be combined with other approaches. The International Journal of Solution-Focused Practices, for example, notes the use of SFBT in combination with storytelling to help children gain a clearer understanding of their situation and explore creative solutions to their issues. 

Learning solution-focused therapy entails looking at previous solutions to problems with a view of instilling confidence in a client's ability to solve their present problems. 

How many sessions does solution-focused treatment usually take?

While some types of counseling might last for months or years, SFBT aims to achieve results in a shorter amount of time. While this type of treatment may require as many as 20 sessions, it often works in around five to eight sessions. This abbreviated time frame is possible because SFBT is commonly used for those who have already developed goals and motivation and are seeking support in isolating these goals and putting a plan into action to improve their life. 

History of SFBT

Solution-focused brief therapy was first conceptualized in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Spouses and colleagues Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, both social workers, felt inspired by the work of psychiatrist Milton Erikson, which was predicated on the belief that people already have the resources and the strength to solve problems. Along with a team of therapeutic collaborators, the two psychotherapists began researching ways to help their clients execute fundamental, meaningful changes in their lives. Using the client's goal as a starting point, they sought ways to foster actionable changes in everyday life by emphasizing the client's own competence in finding solutions. This approach differed from therapies that focus on a diagnostic classification to guide the treatment course.  It is associated with social construction models of family systems therapies.

Development of SFBT

The developers of SFBT spent countless hours observing traditional sessions to isolate the questions and techniques that seemed to produce the most tangible benefits. They recognized patterns of effectiveness and began developing a forward-thinking counseling focused on the individual’s future progress instead of their past.  

SFBT became a therapeutic process focused on future-oriented interventions aimed at helping clients move towards a goal by tapping into their resources, acknowledging previous successes, and enacting behavioral changes that align with their goal(s). In terms of families, SFBT homes in on the family process of discovering solutions, rather than focusing on problems.

SFBT is now an evidence-based practice used in various settings, including schools and clinics. Tales of Solutions: A Collection Hope Inspiring Stories, authored by Yvonne M. Dolan and Insoo Kim Berg, the co-developer of SFBT, explores new developments and stories of how small actions can yield significant results in a wide range of contexts, serving as a valuable resource for those who wish to learn more about this approach. 

The Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy describes SFBT as "a short-term goal-focused evidence-based therapeutic approach, which incorporates positive psychology principles and practices, and which helps clients change by constructing solutions rather than focusing on problems."

Key concepts of SFBT include:

  • Emphasizing the collaborative relationship between client and therapist, which is aimed at assisting the client to discover their own solutions
  • Facilitating, through questions and active listening, the client to find their main competencies and behaviors that can help them achieve their goals
  • "Solution talk and co-construction of meaning"
  • Encouraging clients to increase helpful behavior
  • Encouraging clients to seek alternatives to unhelpful patterns of behavior
  • Viewing solutions as related to goal setting, as opposed to focusing on the problem

The first session covers the client's future hopes and goals, where a miracle question and exception questions may be asked. The latter focuses on a time when part of their goal has been achieved, or their concerns or issue did not cause them conflict. 

The process begins by the client creating a detailed description of how their life will be different in the absence of the problem or improvement of the situation. 

A collaborative approach

Worldwide counseling outcome research indicate that SFBT offers constructive collaboration between client and therapist, as they work together in investigating solutions to a particular problem. This collaborative approach in solution building makes it suitable for a wide range of cultural contexts as the client contributes to finding a practicable solution that make sense to their situation, drawing on their resources. 

The use of SFBT has been found to be helpful in addressing classroom behavioral problems and has been implemented in school settings all over the world. While generally viewed an unsuited for major psychiatric conditions, this psychotherapy-based therapeutic approach has been used for more serious concerns. For example, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy with Clients Managing Trauma by Oxford University Press offers perspectives from solution focused practitioners working with clients who have experienced trauma. 

The book explores how the SFBT approach can address trauma symptoms of clients, drawing on current research and evidence-based practice, and compares how it differs from others therapeutic approaches that address trauma. SFBT has also been shown to help reduce addiction severity.

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

"Miracle question" in SFBT

De Shazer and Berg used their research to found the Brief Family Therapy Center and implement their newly developed SFBT techniques, including the use of scaling questions and coping questions to help patients understand their current goals and mindset. They also developed the concept of the “miracle question.” The miracle question asks clients to imagine a world where their problems have disappeared and their goals have been achieved. As an example, the miracle question could ask, “If a miracle occurred and your problem no longer exists in your life tomorrow, what is different?” 

The practice of SFBT has increased, though it is not used often outside of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) countries. Research on bibliometric differences relating to SFBT outcome research in WEIRD vs. non-WEIRD countries indicates that the practice is becoming more popular worldwide, however.

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Tips to engage in treatment effectively

Individuals engaging with SFBT are often asked to participate actively in their sessions. SFBT was designed to be hands-on and focused on problem-solving, so the client works with the therapist to find solutions. Below are a few tips to get started when you seek treatment with an SFBT therapist: 

Know what you want to achieve

To find meaningful solutions for your challenges, come to counseling with a goal that your therapist can help you achieve. When you show up at your first solution-focused brief therapy session, your provider may ask what you hope to accomplish by the end of sessions and how you could best use their support. They may also help you refine or narrow the scope of the goal or consider how it connects to other personal goals. 

Be present during your sessions

Since SFBT takes place in a limited time frame, try to use every moment you have with your therapist. Arriving early so that you’re not rushed or cutting into your session can help. It may also be helpful to take a few minutes before the session to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Reflect on your goal, what you talked about in your last session, and any relevant updates or thoughts you may want to discuss. That way, when your session starts, you may feel prepared to present your ideas and delve back into the topics that matter most to you. Some clients may write lists or keep journals to remember key points. 

Do your homework 

SFBT therapists often assign homework to clients to help them make lasting changes outside of sessions. Your therapist is there to help you outline and focus on the constructive steps for reaching your goal, but you’re the one who will take action from there. If they give you a technique to try or a task to finish outside of your session times, doing so may help you move forward between meetings so you can get closer to meeting your short-term goals. 

Practice self-care

Counseling can be an emotional and personal experience. Although you might not delve into your childhood or other elements of your past in solutions-focused therapy, it can still be challenging to make changes in your life. For SFBT to be maximally effective, it could be valuable for you to take care of yourself along the way. Keeping a regular sleep schedule, fueling your body with healthy foods, exercising, and developing a healthy social system may allow you to set yourself up for success as you go through your SFBT sessions. 

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Wondering if solution-focused brief therapy is for you?

Finding an SFBT professional

If solution-focused brief therapy sounds like a fit for you, consult a mental health professional to discuss the option in more detail. While one study highlights the practice’s positive treatment effects, some practitioners may disagree with the methodology to treat all cases. SFBT may also be more appropriate for certain social work situations, such as addressing child behavioral problems, than as a substitute for traditional psychotherapy. 

If you want to try solutions-focused brief therapy, you might begin by searching for a therapist online or through a psychologist directory. During your initial consultation, you can explain why you believe SFBT would work for you and ask if the professional believes it will be a suitable fit for what you want to accomplish. Choose someone who has experience administering this type of counseling. In addition, since SFBT often concludes within 20 sessions or less, try to find a therapist you feel comfortable opening up to in the consultation. 

Seeking other types of therapy

If you’re open to trying more general, widely applicable types of counseling, evidence-based treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be more appropriate. If you hope to be evaluated by a mental health professional to get advice on the kind of treatment that might benefit you, online counseling can also be an option.

With a platform like BetterHelp, you can fill out a questionnaire about your preferences and be matched with a licensed therapist fitting those preferences. You can meet with the therapist via phone, video call, or online chat to engage in psychotherapy for the challenges you may be facing, or to discuss other types of treatment that may benefit you. 

Research suggests that online and in-person sessions can offer similar benefits in most cases, so choose the most comfortable option when looking for a provider. Many online therapists may provide SFBT due to its convenient timeline. You can receive worksheets and resources from home after sessions and participate in messaging with your therapist to ask questions as you work toward your goals. 

Takeaway

Solution-focused brief therapy is a specific methodology that can benefit various individuals. Speaking with a mental health professional about your unique circumstances can help you decide together whether SFBT might be a suitable choice. Consider contacting a therapist online or in your area for further guidance and compassionate support.
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