Are humans like aeroplanes? The problem with solution focused therapy.


counselling exeterSolution focused brief therapy (SFBT) is an extremely popular type of counselling which helps thousands of people everyday. Its success for clients lies in that, instead of being asked to dwell on the past, or to wallow in their problems, they are directed by the therapist to think about solutions for their difficulties. It has some very clear ways of doing this.

It is ultra-pragmatic and interested in only what works for the client. One of its foundational beliefs is “do what works and do more of it; if it does not work, do something different.”

Criticisms of SFBT are hard to find. Usually, difficulties are couched in the same terms that SFBT uses – does it really work? Is there empirical data for it? Does it ignore problems by focusing on solutions? These are different ways of asking: is SFBT effective?

I agree that it is effective and does help people. My issue with SFBT goes deeper. I would like to look at two simple philosophical problems that SFBT raises which explain why I don’t offer this type of therapy as a practitioner. The problems relate to the assumptions behind SFBT.

The first assumption is that: solving problems is good.
If I were a business person, an airplane pilot or a structural engineer, I would definitely think that solving problems is good. Is there a fire in engine number one? Bridge looks like it’s about the fall over? No profits for the third quarter in a row? These are all well defined problems that are perfect for a solution focused approach because it is clear that airplanes should try to stay in the sky, or land safely; bridges should stay up and business should make profits.

Humans are not like bridges, airplanes or businesses though. The function of all these things is well defined. What is the function of a human being? What should they optimally do? There are plenty of different answers if we look at the last 3000 years of literature, poetry and philosophy. I would doubt that the best and clearest answer to what human beings should do though is: solve problems all the time.

The second assumption is that: solving problems makes life go better.
Some people, who apparently don’t have very many day to day problems (the super rich, royalty) still suffer. See Diana, Princess of Wales for a good example. Many with intractable, unsolvable problems appear pretty happy. Few of us would want early-onset Parkinson’s disease but Michael J Fox has embraced his illness as a gift.

If we go along with the idea that human beings are rather like bridges or airplanes then life probably would go better if we managed our lives like pilots or engineers. I’m not convinced human existence can be simplified like this though