Brief Therapy and Solution Focused Thinking

by Michael Mallows

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I want to make myself redundant as quickly as possible when I am working therapeutically with families and individuals. That redundancy is determined not by me but by my clients. My job is to help them realise that they do not need me as much as they imagine or believe.

I seek to achieve this task by working with them on their limiting beliefs, their negative hallucinations, the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that give them a sense of who they are and that tell them where they fit into the scheme of things.

I also help them to see their own personality and potential from a different perspective, to talk to themselves, and to me, with a different story, and to connect with feelings that may have been long buried or denied.   May, indeed, have become destructive.

Working as a coach or mentor, my desired outcome has many similarities and is somewhat different in keeping with my client’s general motivation, in terms of focus and of degree.

I explore each person’s motivations, permissions and capabilities, their fear and courage, their habits and hopes. This article focuses somewhat more on counselling than coaching, but many of the principles and practices will apply across the board.

My attitude is one of light-hearted conviction that they can. My approach is affirmative, assertive, directive, manipulative, validating, forthright, caringly confronting, uncomfortable, loving and, more often than not, effective. 

Friend:  "Michael, don’t you get depressed meeting so many depressed people?"

MM:        “No, because they are not with me because of their depression.”

Friend:   “But don’t they all have a sad story to tell?”

MM:        "Most do, but that is only what drives them through the door. It’s just a story they tell themselves, and me, and often lots of other professionals. In the telling, they are often reliving all the locked in pain, they are burdened with the weight of their past."

Friend:   “So how come you don’t get depressed?” 

MM:        "Because, the reason they are there is not their pain but the spark of hope. I find it amazing that, despite the life they’ve lived and the story they repeat so often and rehearse so well, despite their limiting beliefs and self doubts and depression, despite all that, they still have hope! That spark is the point of contact. What I want to do is fan that spark into a flame of self-belief, self appreciation, self knowledge. Once they remember who they really are, how resourceful and remarkable they truly are, they can face the future with a new hope instead of endlessly repeating the past.”

Friend:   “Would you like a cup of coffee?”   


From pain to possibility

My clients’ distress, depression or despair does not cause me pain, their strength encourages me. Their hope motivates me. Their courage inspires me. No matter what they say, no matter what they’ve done, no matter whether they are willing to work during the session (and I ask a lot of them) or not, whether or not they achieve what they commit to in terms of ‘homework’, and whether they decide to give their all or to give in, I never doubt their capacity to change, to develop, to evolve or, as I prefer to think of it, return to a full awareness of and commitment to their amazing potential and their full humanity. 

The above underpins my persistent belief in our incredible potential. In truth, I can only imagine what it would be like, aspire to it for myself and work towards it. The point, for me, is not the arrival, not even the destination, but the journey. Each living, breathing moment we are already ‘there’ because here is where it’s at. Here is there and now is all the time in the world. I strive, and occasionally get a glimpse, a taste, a hint of what it might be like. I see my own potential reflected in other people, and echo them with my own commitment to a belief in who we ‘really’ are and what we might become. 

So, that’s my basic philosophy and, when I’m in flow, the energy flows through everything I do. It nourishes me and it feels great – I feel great!

When I feel great in that way, it’s Ok for me to feel sad, mad, scared or glad about what’s happening or has happened.

My clients know when I am moved by their story and feel sad, angry or scared. They know because I tell them. They are also clear about what I think is OK or not OK because I tell them.

I also make clear to them my belief that all - ALL – dysfunctional behaviours are evidence and symptoms of something amiss. Something has to go wrong for human beings to want to hurt themselves or each other. No matter how horrible, obnoxious or objectionable the utterance or the action, I see and hear it as someone’s pain speaking. 

The more blocked or belligerent, timid or intimidating a person is. The more defended, the greater their fear. The way they protect of defend themselves may, of course, be totally unacceptable. Not simply because it is illegal or immoral, nor even because it hurts other people (though, as I tell them, that would be reason enough) but because it violates their essential self and impairs their capacity to become the best they can be. 


Separate the person from the problem

Thus they learn that I separate the person from the problem or the pattern. They need not doubt – though they need not believe – that I will be honest with them because I echo things they already know. It is not OK to do certain things to self or to others. They know it, and they do not really want to do those things, which is partly why they come to see me.

At this point, I should mention that many of the teenagers I work with, and one half of many couples, do not really choose to meet me for the first time. They are compelled, coerced, persuaded, nagged, bribed or threatened (given a MacDonald or an ultimatum, or some other offer they can’t refuse), attending on sufferance and behaving insufferably.

The more insufferable the behaviour, the more they are suffering. It is their fear and pain speaking.

I tell them and show them that I will use all my skills to reach through their fear and pain to speak to ‘the part of you that knows’.

That is a phrase I have used countless times over the years. Every person, aged from seven to 57 (what a variety!) has known exactly what I mean. 

Our first contact, letter, telephone, email or in person, will provide a lot of useful information. I make quick assumptions and assessments and will then check out my hypotheses as the communication unfolds. I may check these out directly with my clients, by asking them, or look and listen to what they say and don’t say, their non-verbal cues, and the way they breath, gesticulate, grimace or smile. What they smile at will be as significant as what they wince at, along with what they celebrate or what they shy away from. 

Usually, within the first half hour of a two hour session, I will have a pretty good grasp of the underlying, fundamental problem. That means a lot of time need not be spent on The Story.

More often than not, when people rehearse the story, they put themselves into the state that goes with it – sad, mad, scared or glad. They know all too well how to do The Problem, and I can always recommend them to people who are willing to listen to them, for years if they want.

They need to learn how to do solutions, to turn their head toward the future and their heart toward love, starting with self. More specifically, starting with certain models that enable me simultaneously to elicit and impart high value information that will be of mutual benefit. I gain by being affirming or discarding my hypotheses, my clients gain by learning some models and theories that help them to make sense of the ‘senseless’, to find meaning in the meaningless, and to feel the warmth of connection where that have felt cold and lonely. 

The models include the Self-change Model [SCM], Neuro Linguistic Programming [NLP], Emotional Freedom Techniques [EFT], and, if only to prove I’m not totally addicted to TLA’s[1], Transactional Analysis [TA] and Co-Counselling. 


Logical Levels

Logical Levels provides an incredibly useful framework at any stage of the therapeutic, counselling (managing, coaching, mentoring, teaching or parenting) relationship.

It is useful for formulating questions, for deciding what kind or level of intervention is appropriate, for understanding some of the reasons for so much communication going awry and for knowing whether the change needed or happening is remedial, generative or evolutionary. 

Although the logical levels are most often presented as a hierarchy, I like to imagine them as a sort of Möbius strip {twisting a long strip of material once and then joining its two ends so that it has only one surface} because each level  is connected with and can impact on the others. The hierarchy of logical levels starts at the bottom with Environment, working through Behaviour. Capabilities. Beliefs. Values. Identity. Relationship. And ending with Attitude or Spirit.

We need to go to the level above the one which we hope to have an impact; to change or maintain the environment, we need to do something (behaviour). To develop a new skill, we may need to consider any limiting beliefs, and so on.  

The SCM and the Logical Levels combined can make the first encounter illuminating and empowering for both client and counsellor. Making these models explicit invites the client into a collaborative partnership, a team if you will, negotiating their way towards a mutually agreed goal, which is the client’s best interest and higher self. I want to know, at the outset, where they want to go. If they do not know, how could I possibly imagine that I could help them get there? 

Actually many people have no idea what they want; they are very clear indeed about what they don’t want. They don’t want to the pain, the pattern, the people who dump on them. They don’t want the fear, the loneliness, the distance, and the memories. They don’t want to be who they are, but they don’t know who else to be. Even if they do, they often have no idea how to be that kind of person.

My initial task in that case is to help them determine and for me to decide whether we want to work together, toward what end and for what purpose. That is, if the therapy, or coaching, is effective, how will that manifest in the eyes, ears and hearts of other people in their lives? This ecology check is essential because the place that change really matters is not the rarefied atmosphere of the counselling room but the real world in which they live with the real people who really matter in their lives. There is a cost to pay for changing and a cost to pay for staying the same. One is all too familiar, the other is impossible to know until we change!

“One centimetre ahead is darkness”

What do they imagine they will they say to themselves differently, and in what tone of voice? How will their breathing be different? Their posture, their beliefs, hopes and aspirations? This rehearsal moves us forward, without it, many people endless relapse and relive their past. 


"One centimetre ahead is darkness"

Along with the above, I use many of the techniques of solution focused thinking and brief therapy. The magic question, “If this felt-tip pen was a magic wand and I could change one thing in your life right now, what would be different when you wake up tomorrow?”

Scaling, “On a scale of one to ten, where are you now on this issue?” “What would need to happen for you to move from that state?”

I also use the NLP Well Formed Outcome [WFO!] because it is an elegant framework for future focused, solution oriented thinking.

Using those three models alone in the first session would be helpful. Combined with many other subtle and not quite so subtle responses, it is possible to give people the most incredible boost to their confidence and understanding. This helps them to nurture themselves and or to ask for support and help without being devastated if they are refused.

It might also be worth mentioning that I seldom work for more than four sessions on any issue. There is homework from the first session (sometimes before), which will provide as much useful information whether or not it is completed (or even started). 

MM:     (to client on the phone) “So, how’s the home work going?”

Client: “Well, we haven’t really done much of it; we’ve been so busy…”

MM:     “Stop! Don’t tell me you didn’t have time.”

Client: “No, you’re right. But it was so difficult that we…

MM:     “Stop! It was supposed to be difficult because it’s what you do least and most need to do.”

Client: “Yes, I know that’s what we said. But we are talking more.”

MM:     “That’s excellent, really great. It’s what you really wanted and I want you to do the homework.”

Client: “Yes, we’ll try.”

MM:     “No, don’t try, just do it. You’ve dealt with worse”

Client: "Yes, I have haven’t I!”

 This couple’s home work was to spend a few minutes each day, sitting face to face, holding each others hands i.e. all four hands are holding, and tell each other something they felt sad, mad, scared and glad about each other as partners and as co-parents.

They love each other, but he was programmed not to admit to vulnerability and she was scripted not to ask for what she wanted or needed. So he fumed while she sulked.

They had imported these games into their 18 year old marriage.

When we met for the second session, two weeks after the phone call (above), they had diligently, e done the homework. They had shared tears and yells, disclosed resentments that had festered for years, and discovered depths of passion and playfulness they had not realised they were capable of (I had certainly not suggested they do the homework naked, but hey!).

Two more sessions are booked, and I doubt they’ll need any more, except maybe for the odd top-up.

In a future article I will go into more detail and provide some case studies. 


[1] Three Letter Acronyms.

Michael Mallows is a Management Consultant, Group Worker, Therapist, Supervisor, Adoption Consultant, Coach and Mentor; also an Author, Lyricist, Public Speaker, Team Builder and Workshop Presenter. [Click on any of the links to learn more about him and his activities] His website is and Email: