In the past few decades, a strength-based movement has emerged in the field of mental health. It offers an alternative to problem-focused approaches that have organized prevailing treatments. In particular, solution-focused counseling highlights what is working in people’s lives rather than emphasizing their deficits, limitations, and weaknesses. In this article, I describe some of the main principles of a solution-focused approach to problem-solving.

There are Always Exceptions to the Problem

One of the key assumptions informing solution-focused counseling is that people have existing resources, strengths, and problem-solving skills. If these resources — called exceptions — are identified and amplified, then problem resolution and change can be brought about in an effective and efficient manner.

An exception refers to times when a person is able to effectively resolve a problem or when a problem is not happening. From my experience, there are always exceptions to problems. Addicts resist using drugs. Depressives have up days. Oppositional adolescents comply with the rules.

The problem is that sometimes people do not recognize these exceptions. By looking for and identifying exceptions, one can begin the process of working toward effective solutions.

People are sort of like bicycle chains. They typically work just fine. Sometimes, however, they get a bit stuck or off track. In such cases, one may need a minor adjustment to get back on a natural course.

If we get too involved in defining the problem and how to change it, there is often a risk of exacerbating the issue. The key to change from a solution-focused perspective is to identify one’s natural resources and use these as a basis for problem-solving and growth.

Small Changes Can Lead to Big Results

Frequently, a small change is all that is needed to resolve a problem. And a small change can also result in a snowball effect which, in turn, leads to bigger changes and the resolution of even bigger problems. This idea is related to the principle of inertia, which holds that an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.

Consider how difficult it is when procrastinating at doing a tedious task such as doing laundry or paying bills. Inertia principles suggest it takes an extra force of energy to initially propel the body into motion to start the task. When a person initiates the activity, this often leads to progress and one often finds it easier to stay in motion and proceed with the activity.

Taking a first step is significant because it often takes an extra effort, a sudden burst of activity. I encourage people to uncover precisely how they made these exceptional events happen, as these hold the key to their problem-solving capabilities and skills. This principle applies to human relationships as well. A small change in one part of a system often leads to changes in other parts of the system. So if an individual does something a little different in his or her interactions, then it is likely that his or her partner will respond differently. This may result in changes in the nature of the relationship.

Many Roads Lead to Solutions

Solution-focused counseling holds that it not necessary, nor is it always preferable, to know the cause of a problem to create a solution. It’s also questionable if we can ever know the true cause of some problems, because human issues are often so complex, dynamic, fluid, and systemic. A rule of thumb in solution-focused counseling is to find out what works for you and then do more of the same. There is no single problem-solving method that works for all people and all problems.

Solution-focused counseling encourages people to set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-measured. To set a specific goal, imagine a video description that provides an accurate mental image of the goal being met. If a goal is not measurable, then it is not possible to know if you are making successful progress. Think in terms of “how much” or “how many” when setting goals. Setting goals that are out of reach or unrealistic will likely cause frustration. Commit to a deadline. Doing so helps one focus on completion of the goal on or before a due date. Goals also may be broken up into distinct, manageable tasks with corresponding deadlines.

Sudden and Brief Change

In contrast to the commonly held view that change is necessarily a slow and arduous process, many people experience significant improvements suddenly and in a brief period of time. Solution-focused counseling holds that people possess coping skills (i.e., exceptions) that play a critical role in resolving problems. If these exceptions are identified and amplified, then marked shifts can occur. Such changes are not to be considered as chance events or flights into health. Rather, these events are expected, meaningful progressions. Recognizing positive differences, even small ones, can help establish a foundation for ongoing solution-focused change.