Solution Focused Brief Therapy Association

fostering the growth of solution focused practices

Yvonne Dolan's Article

Yvonne Dolan

Yvonne Dolan, June 30, 2008

I want to begin the first of these columns by thanking all my colleagues from the SFBTA Founders group for giving me this opportunity.

I thought I would begin by answering some questions about my own history and experiences with the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy approach and invite you (dear reader) to send me your own answers or responses to any or all of these questions. I will then share your responses in future columns. You can email them to me at Please send them as an attachment so they can be easily forwarded to our web editor. (Depending on the setting where you learned SFBT, you may or may not be aware that Steve de Shazer was an excellent cook. Just for fun, and as a little advance thank you for what I hope will be your contribution to this column, I have included Steve de Shazer’s personal recipe for Sicilian Spaghetti Sauce at the end of this column.

1. From whom did you learn the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) approach, in what setting were you working at the time, and what first appealed to you about the SF approach?

2. In what ways has the SFBT approach effected your work with clients and colleagues, and what impact (if any) has it had on your personal life?

3. From your viewpoint, what aspects of the SF approach contribute most significantly in it’s effectiveness in therapeutic, supervisory, and/or organizational settings?

So here it goes:

From whom did you learn the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) approach, in what setting were you working at the time, and what first appealed to you about the SF approach?

I first learned about the Milwaukee Brief Therapy Center and the approach that eventually became known as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in the early 1980’s when I was working at a Shelter in New Orleans for runaway and homeless youth, aged 13-18. We were funded by church groups and charities and had so little money that we were only able to house, feed, and counsel each child for 3 weeks, so we desperately needed an effective short term therapy approach that would allow us to help these children. At the time, it was assumed that brief therapy was only suitable for “minor” problems and not “serious” issues like childhood sexual abuse, assault, severe neglect, trauma, and loss.

Many of the children I worked with had been sexually abused; most had been emotionally abused, neglected, and battered. In most cases one or both parents were missing, in jail, or incapacitated by severe drug and alcohol abuse or chronic mental health problems. Trained in Strategic therapy and Ericksonian psychotherapy, I was naturally curious about new developments in Brief Therapy, and so I began reading articles and issues of de Shazer’s newsletter, The Underground Railroad. What I read was compelling and made me dare to hope that I COULD help these children at least to some degree despite the extremely limited financial resources of the program where I worked.

In 1983 I phoned the Milwaukee Brief Therapy Center (BFTC) to arrange a visit there. I traveled to BFTC that summer and spent several days behind the mirror observing therapy sessions with my then partner, Charlie Johnson. We were staying in Insoo and Steve’s guest room, and every evening we all sat around and talked about brief therapy, and the particular sessions we had observed that day. I was so fascinated by what I was seeing and asked Insoo and Steve question after question.

I particularly remember Steve’s view that “how” was a more useful question than “why” questions and also his background in Philosophy, particularly Formal Logic, the work of Derrida, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Kant and the fact that he saw these thinkers as being relevant to the practice of psychotherapy. This visit lasted for a week and by the time we left, we had all become friends

Insoo was hospitable and warm, and demonstrated a great sense of humor. Tacked up on the wall of the observation room she had pinned up hand written examples of some of the more outrageous problem descriptions BFTC clients had given over the years. Typically, these problem descriptions defied conventional logic yet painted a vivid, meaningful picture of the client’s experience as seen through their own eyes. It was hard to read one without smiling and yet also feeling moved and compassionate towards the person. Even now (nearly 30 years later) I still remember one that read: “My mother’s apron strings are 300 miles long.”