What Does the Research Say About Solution-Focused Brief Therapy?

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is an evidence-based approach to psychotherapy. Empirically-derived rather than theoretically-based both in construct and practice, the SFBT approach is a goal-directed collaborative approach to psychotherapeutic change primarily conducted through direct clinical observation of clients’ responses to a series of carefully constructed questions.

SFBT is one of the few approaches in psychotherapy that began as “evidence-based,” vs. most other models which are typically “theory-driven”. SFBT developers Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg and their team spent countless hours carefully observing real-life therapy sessions,  meticulously noting any words or behavior on the part of the therapist that resulted in progress towards the client’s stated goal. Language or behavior that reliably led to positive movement in the direction of the client’s goal were preserved and incorporated into the Solution-Focused approach and those that did not were discarded.(Lipchik, Derks, LaCourt, and Nunnally, 2012).

Randomized Clinical Trial and Meta-Analyses Outcome Research

There has been a great deal of empirical outcome research on SFBT, including over 150 randomized clinical trials (RCTs) most of it occurring over the past fifteen years (for a complete review of the scope of research in SFBT, see Kim, Smock, Trepper, McCollum, and Franklin, 2010; and Kim, Jordan, Franklin, and Froerer, 2019). The conclusion of eight meta-analyses, a number of systematic reviews, and the over-all conclusion of the most recent scholarly works on SFBT, is that SFBT is an effective approach to the treatment of psychological problems, with effect sizes similar to other evidenced-based approaches, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy, but that these effects are found in fewer average sessions, and using an approach style that is more benign (Gingerich, Kim, and MacDonald, 2012; Kim et al, 2019; Trepper & Franklin, 2012). That is, the more collegial and collaborative approach of SFBT does not involve confrontation or interpretation. Given its equivalent effectiveness, shorter duration, and more benign approach, SFBT is considered to be an excellent first-choice evidenced-based psychotherapy approach for most psychological, behavioral, and relational problems.

SFBT is effective with diverse clinical populations and different classes of presenting problems. For example, SFBT was found to be effective in the treatment of child and adolescents (Carr, Hartnett, Brosnan, and Sharry, 2018; Gong and Xu, 2015; Gong and Hsu, 2017; Kim, 2008); as well as adults (Kim, 2008; Kim et al, 2015; Schmit, Schmit, and Lenz, 2016). With regard presenting problems, SFBT has been shown to be effective in the treatment of child and adolescent behavioral problems (Carr et al, 2017; Gong and Xu, 2015; Gong and Hsu, 2017); externalizing behavioral problems, including conduct disorder, and conflict management (Kim, 2008; Stams, Dekovic, Buist, and de Vries, 2006); internalizing behavioral problems, such as depression, anxiety, and self-esteem (Gong and Xu, 2015; Kim, 2008; Schmit and Schmit, 2016); and for behavioral support for  health related problems (Zhang, Franklin, Currin-McCulloch, Park, and Kim, 2018).  Also, SFBT has shown to be an effective intervention for substance abuse (Kim, Brook, and Akin 2018; Smock et al, 2008); domestic-violence (McCollum, Stith, and Thomsen, 2011); burn victims (Wang, Xiaomin, Yufeng, and Jinxing, 2016); and depression (Habibi, Ghaderi, Abedini, and Jamshidnejad, 2016). And a recent study (Kim et al, 2018) investigated the effectiveness of SFBT with parents of children with trauma-related problems and substance abuse for children in the child welfare system. It was found that SFBT was as effective as other evidence-based treatment approaches.

Process Research

There have been numerous studies examining the specific processes and mechanisms of change underlying the SFBT approach. In general, SFBT has been shown to have different mechanisms of change than other approaches, most notably Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with which it is sometimes compared. Specifically, SFBT has more positive content within the session with a concomitant tendency for clients to respond in kind (Jordan, Froerer, and Bavelas 2013); SFBT therapists are more likely to use the specific language of the client to co-construct the goals and solutions (Korman, Bavelas, and De Jong, 2013); the SFBT interventions which focus on the strengths and resources of the clients tend to contribute to its successful outcomes  (Beyebach, 2014; Franklin, Zhang, Froerer, and Johnson, 2017).

The research into the language processes underlying SFBT has led to some intriguing clinical applications. For example, Richmond, Jordan, Bishof, and Sauer (2014) demonstrated that clients taking solution-focused intake questionnaires described significantly more solutions, described fewer problems, and improved significantly before their first therapy session than those taking traditional problem-oriented intake procedures. A psychometrically sound assessment device, the Solution-Building Inventory (SBI) (Jordan, 2014) was developed which, instead of measuring the problems and deficiencies, assesses clients’ ability to identify solutions, exceptions to problems, and hope. Sanchez-Prada and Beyebach (2014) showed how therapists can use different language choices and dialogue deconstruction to help clients who report no improvement or worsening between sessions stop the negative spiral and begin showing improvement again.

Brief Summary

  • There have been approximately 150 randomized clinical trials with SFBT (RCTs, the “gold standard” of clinical research);
  • There are been eight meta-analyses on the effectiveness of SFBT;
  • Effect-sizes found in these meta-analyses are in the low to high range, suggesting that SFBT is an effective approach for the populations studied;
  • The research was done with a variety of clinical populations and presenting problems, and was done in “real world” settings, so the results are more generalizable.
  • SFBT’s effectiveness is equivalent to or greater than other evidence-based practices, such as Cognitive-Behavior Therapy and Interpersonal Psychotherapy.
  • While effect sizes are similar to other evidence-based approaches, these effects are attained in fewer sessions, averaging about five sessions and rarely extending over eight or ten.
  • Process research shows that the language mechanisms underlying SFBT is different from other approaches with which it is sometimes compared.

Beyebach, M. (2014). Change factors in solution-focused brief therapy: A review of the Salamanca studies. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 33(1), 62–77.

Carr, A., Hartnett, D., Brosnan, E., & Sharry, J. (2017). Parents plus systemic, solution-focused parent training programs: Description, review of the evidence base, and meta-analysis. Family Process, 56, 652-668.

Franklin, C., Zhang, A., Froerer, A., & Johnson, S. (2017). Solution-focused brief therapy: A systematic review and meta‐summary of process research. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(1), 16-30.

Gingerich, W.J., Kim, J. S., & MacDonald, A. J. (2012). Solution-Focused Brief Therapy outcome research. In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, & Eric E. McCollum (Eds), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 95-111.

Gong, H., & Hsu, W. (2017). The effectiveness of solution-focused group therapy in ethnic Chinese school settings: A meta- analysis. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 67, 383-409.

Gong, H., & Xu, W. (2015). A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of solution-focused brief therapy. Studies of Psychology and Behavior, 13, 799-803.

Habibi M, Ghaderi K, Abedini S, Jamshidnejad N. (2016), The effectiveness of solution-focused brief therapy on reducing depression in women. International Journal of Educational and Psychological Researches 2, 244-249.

Iveson, C. (2002). Solution-focused brief therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 8, 149 –157.

Jordan, S.S. (2014). Asking different questions: Validation of the solution building inventory in a clinical sample. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 33(1), 78-88.

Jordan, S.S., Froerer, A.S., & Bavelas, J.B. (2013). Microanalysis of positive and negative content in solution-focused brief therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy expert sessions. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 32(2), 46–59.

Kim, J. S. (2008). Examining the effectiveness of solution-focused brief therapy: A meta-analysis. Research on Social Work Practice, 18(2), 107-116.

Kim, J. S., Brook, J., & Akin, B. A. (2018). Solution-Focused Brief Therapy with substance-using individuals: a randomized controlled trial study. Research on Social Work Practice, 28(4), 452–462.

Kim, J. S., Franklin, C., Zhang, Y., Liu, X., Qu, Y., & Chen, H. (2015). Solution-focused brief therapy in China: A meta-analysis. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 24, 187-201.

Kim, J., Jordan, S.S., Franklin, C., Froerer, A. (2019). Is solution-focused brief therapy evidence-based? An update 10 years later. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 100, 1-12.

Kim, J. S., Smock, S., Trepper, T., McCollum, E., & Franklin, C. (2010). Is solution-focused brief therapy evidence-based? Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 91, 3894-4009.

Korman, H., Bavelas, J.B., & De Jong, P. (2013). Microanalysis of formulations in solution-focused brief therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and motivational interviewing. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 32(3), 31–45.

Lipchik, E., Derks, J, LaCourt, M., & Nunnally, E. (2012). The evolution of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, & Eric E. McCollum (Eds), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-19.

McCollum, E. E., Stith, S. M., & Thomsen, C.J. (2011). Solution-focused brief therapy in the conjoint couples treatment of intimate partner violence. In C. Franklin, T. S. Trepper, E. E. McCollum, & W. Gingerich. (Eds.). Solution-focused brief therapy: A Handbook of Evidence-Based Practice. (pp. 183-195). New York: Oxford University Press.

Richmond, C. J., Jordan, S. S., Bischof, G. H., & Sauer, E. M. (2014). Effects of solution-focused versus problem-focused intake questions on pre-treatment change. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 33(1), 33-47.

Sánchez-Prada, A., & Beyebach, M. (2014). Solution-focused responses to “no improvement”: A qualitative analysis of the deconstruction process. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 33(1), 48-61.

Schmit, E. L., Schmit, M. K., & Lenz, A. S. (2016). Meta-analysis of solution-focused brief therapy for treating symptoms of internalizing disorders. Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation, 7(1), 21-39.

Smock, S.A., Trepper, T.S., Wetchler, J.L., McCollum, E.E., Ray, R. and Pierce, K. (2008) Solution-Focused Group Therapy for Level 1 Substance Abusers. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34, 107-120.

Stams, G. J. J., Dekovic, M., Buist, K., & de Vries, L. (2006). Effectiviteit van oplossings- gerichte korte therapie: Een meta-analyse [Efficacy of solution focused brief therapy: A meta-analysis]. Gedragstherapie, 39, 81- 95. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate. net/publication/46670172_Effectiviteit_van_Oplossingsgerichte_Korte_Therapie_een_ Meta-Analyse

Trepper, T. S., & Franklin, C. (2012). The future of research in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. In Cynthia Franklin, Terry S. Trepper, Wallace J. Gingerich, & Eric E. McCollum (Eds), Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: A handbook of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 405-412.

Wang, R., Xiaomin, L., Yufeng, D., and Jindong, F. (2016) The effect of Solution-Focused Nursing on the self-efficacy of burned patients. International Journal of Nursing 35(15).

Zhang, A., Franklin, C., Currin-McCulloch, J., Park, S., & Kim, J. (2018). The effectiveness of strength-based, solution-focused brief therapy in medical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 41, 139-151.

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