Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT)
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/26/2023
Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is a short-term, future-oriented approach to treatment developed by married psychotherapists Steve de Shazer, MSW, and Insoo Kim Berg, MSSW, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.1
As the name suggests, SFBT focuses on solutions to the specific problems that lead a client to seek therapy. It differs from more traditional forms of psychotherapy that tend to explore clients’ personal histories in depth to figure out how to solve their current concerns. SFBT uses some principles of positive psychology, encouraging both therapist and client to explore the strengths and resources the client already has.
What can solution-focused brief therapy be used for?
SFBT can be adapted and used for individual, couples, group, or family therapy. It is most effective when someone has a specific problem they’re trying to solve, but it can also help improve general concerns, including:
- Stress: SFBT can help find solutions to issues in a person’s life that are causing them stress.
- Self-esteem: SFBT focuses on clients’ strengths and can help them improve their confidence in making decisions and solving their own problems.
- Addiction: SFBT offers a positive approach to treating substance abuse that turns attention to strengths, rather than shortcomings.2
- Depression: Depression often worsens existing struggles in someone’s life. SFBT helps people identify specific problems and develop solutions for them.
How does solution-focused brief therapy work?
SFBT is usually delivered over three to five sessions, each lasting about 45 minutes.3
In these sessions, an SFBT therapist explores the client’s current problems and their desires for the future. Then the therapist and client work together to create solutions and visualize a future in which the client’s problem either no longer exists or doesn’t stop the client from feeling satisfied with their life.4
SFBT uses several techniques that help clients understand what isn’t working for them right now, identify times they’ve solved similar problems in the past, and decide how they can use their strengths to solve their current problems.
The “miracle question”
One of the most commonly used techniques in SFBT is called the “miracle question,” where the therapist asks some version of this: “If you woke up tomorrow to find a miracle had happened overnight and your problem no longer existed, how would you know your life had changed?”
The miracle question encourages you to think about what would be different if your problems were gone, with the goal of helping you realize what actions you can take to make this future a reality. Therapists may ask clients to look for times in their life when they’ve already experienced a small piece of their miracle future, then examine what actions led to that moment. The phrasing of the question also helps clients feel that change can happen quickly because it asks them to imagine a world in which their life improves overnight.5
Scaling questions ask you to rate specific situations in your life on a scale of zero through 10, with zero being the worst possible scenario and 10 being the best.6 You may also be asked to rate your overall happiness, or how severely you feel a specific problem affects your life. Your answers can give your therapist more insight into how to help you achieve your goals.
Because they use a number system, scaling questions can be especially helpful for people who have a hard time expressing their feelings. The answers to scaling questions given at the beginning of treatment can also be used as a baseline to measure progress.
Solution-focused brief therapy operates on the belief that regardless of the problem you’re facing, there are specific moments when it doesn’t have a negative impact on your life.7 In SFBT, these times are known as “exceptions.”
SFBT therapists are taught to assume that exceptions are the result of a solution-focused behavior you’re already using. For example, if you’re struggling with depression, your therapist might ask, “When have you felt the happiest recently?” Based on the answer, they may be able to point to what you were doing at the time that helped lessen your symptoms.
Exploring your life for exceptions gives both you and your therapist an idea of what tools are already working to resolve the problem. It also gives the therapist an opportunity to compliment coping skills you’re already using, which can help build confidence.
Benefits of solution-focused brief therapy
Solution-focused brief therapy has many benefits, including:
- Short-term treatment: SFBT is fast-paced and takes fewer sessions than most other types of therapy. That means it’s a shorter commitment and often more affordable.
- Fast changes: SFBT’s consistent focus on finding solutions usually means that changes in the client’s life start to happen quickly. Even if these changes are small at the beginning, they still help empower you and build your resiliency.
- Strengths-based: Instead revisiting past traumas and assessing perceived shortcomings, SFBT focuses on your strengths. This helps give clients the motivation and confidence they need to achieve their goals.
Is solution-focused brief therapy right for you?
If you’re experiencing a specific problem that affects you deeply, SFBT is worth exploring. It can be an especially good fit if you’re looking to make changes quickly in your life.
However, research shows that SFBT on its own may have limitations for people with severe mental health conditions.8 In those cases, longer-term therapeutic treatment may be more effective. Note that SFBT can be combined with other types of therapy.
To learn more about solution-focused brief therapy, browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.