Solution-focused Techniques in Counselling

When using solution-focused techniques, counsellors are encouraged to be flexible in their approach. The primary consideration is to always work within the client’s frame of reference in a solution-focused manner. The use of appropriate language is an important factor in the success of solution-focused therapy. In particular, counsellors should remain enthusiastic about their clients’ exceptions and accomplishments.

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide you with in-depth knowledge of the full range of solution-focused techniques available. However, we should offer you sufficient introduction to begin applying them in your counselling practice. We include the following techniques:

  1. Pre-session change
  2. Problem-free talk
  3. The miracle question
  4. Exception questions
  5. Do one thing different
  6. Scaling questions
  7. Coping questions
  8. Breaks
  9. Compliments
  10. Tasks
  11. Solution talk
  12. Presupposing change
  13. End of session feedback

Pre-session change

As a therapist, you can ask the client during their initial call for an appointment to notice any changes that take place between then and the time when they come for their first appointment. Often clients report that they have managed to contain the problem, or in some way improve their situation. When this happens, bingo! You and the client hit the ground running (O’Connell, 2006).

Problem-free talk

In one way, all solution-focused interventions encourage problem-free talk, but this technique refers specifically to times when therapists give their clients the opportunity to talk about themselves and their interests without referring to the problem. These conversations can provide information that helps the therapist: (1) know how to work with the client; (2) observe which metaphors or examples connect better to the client’s world; and (3) identify clients’ strengths and values pertinent to solution construction (O’Connell, 2006).

The miracle question

The miracle question is a technique that counsellors can use to assist clients to think “outside the square” in regard to new possibilities and outcomes for the future.

The miracle question has been asked thousands of times throughout the world. It has been refined as practitioners have experimented with different ways of asking it. The question is best asked deliberately and dramatically:

Now, I want to ask you a strange question. Suppose that while you are sleeping tonight and the entire house is quiet, a miracle happens. The miracle is that the problem which brought you here is solved. However, because you are sleeping, you don’t know that the miracle has happened. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what will be different that will tell you that a miracle has happened and the problem which brought you here is solved? (de Shazer, 1988, p 5.)

Asked this way, the miracle question requests clients to make a leap of faith and imagine how their life will be changed when the problem is solved. This is not easy for clients. It requires them to make a dramatic shift from problem-saturated thinking to a focus on solutions. Most clients need time and assistance to make that shift (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002).

Exception Questions

Having created a detailed miracle picture, the counsellor starts to gain some understanding of what the client hopes to achieve and counsellor and client can begin to work toward these solutions. This is achieved through highlighting exceptions in a client’s life that are counter to the problem. Finding times when the problem wasn’t so much of a problem helps empower clients to seek solutions.

Exception questions provide clients with the opportunity to identify times when things have been different for them.

Examples of exception questions include:

  1. Tell me about times when you don’t get angry.
  2. Tell me about times you felt the happiest.
  3. When was the last time that you believe you had a better day?
  4. Was there ever a time when you felt happy in your relationship?
  5. What was it about that day that made it a better day?
  6. Can you think of a time when the problem was not present in your life?

When looking for exceptions, be aware that such questions can be phrased to ask for not only the client’s perception of exceptions (individual questions) but also the client’s perception of what significant others may notice (relationship questions).

Examples of each follow.


  • So when the miracle happens, you and your husband will be talking more about what your day was like and hugging more. Are there times already which are like the miracle – even a little bit?
  • If your husband were here and I were to ask him the same question, what do you think he would say?


  • When was the last time you and your husband talked more and hugged more? Tell me more about that time. What was it like? What did you talk about? What did you say? When he said that, what did you do? What did he do then? How was that for you? Was else was different about that time?
  • If he were here, what else might he say about that time?


  • Nonverbally: Lean forward, raise eyebrows, and take notes. Do what you naturally do when someone tells you something important.
  • Verbally: Show interest. (Was this new for you and him? Did it surprise you that this happened?) And compliment. (Seems like that might have been difficult for you to do, given everything that’s happened in the relationship. Was it difficult?)

Explore how the exception happened

  • What do you suppose you did to make that happen?
  • If your husband were here and I asked him, what do you suppose he would say you did that helped him to tell you more about his day?
  • Use compliments: Where did you get the idea to do it that way? That seems to make a lot of sense. Have you always been able to come up with ideas about what to do in difficult situations like this?

Project exceptions into the future

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 means every chance, what are the chances that a time like that (the exception) will happen again in the next week (or month)?
  • What will it take for that to happen more often in the future?
  • Who has to do what to make it happen again?
  • What is the most important thing for you to remember to do to make sure that _________________(the exception) has the best chance of happening again? What’s the next most important thing to remember?
  • What do you think your husband would say the chances are that this (the exception) will happen again? What would he say you could do to increase the chances of that happening again? Suppose you decide to do that; what do you think he would do
  • Suppose he did that; how would things be different for you…around your house…in your relationship with him? (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002, pp. 302-303)

Do one thing different

An early observation by the founders of solution-focused therapy was that clients often continued to employ interactional patterns that were bringing the opposite results of what they desired (Archer & McCarthy, 2007). Thus, an important counter-measure to this tendency is the technique called “Do one thing different”, in which people agree to change what they are doing that isn’t working. It is also typically used when the client feels stuck (de Shazer, 1988).

The technique has eight steps, summarised here by Courtney Ackerman (2017), as advice to the client.

  1. Think about the things you do in a problem situation. Change one thing, such as the timing, what you say, what you do with your body, or where you do/say the things. Even changing the order in which you do things can make a difference. Then recall a time that things did not go well for you. What part of that problem situation do you choose to do differently now?
  2. Think of something that someone else does that makes the problem better; try doing what that person does the next time the problem comes up. You can also think of something that you have done in the past that helped make things go better; what was that, and can you do it next time?
  3. Tune into your feelings; they may be indicating to you that you need to do something. Because emotions are great advisors (giving information and options) but poor masters (who give commands), you want to respect that they have information for you, but allow your brain to determine how you respond to that information. What does the feeling suggest that you might do to help things go better? Does that suggestion agree with what your brain says would help?
  4. Change what you focus on. What you pay attention to will become bigger in your life and you will notice it more and more. Thus, to solve a problem, try changing your perspective. Think of something you are focusing on too much. What gets you into trouble when you focus on it? Think of something you will focus on instead. What will you focus on that will not get you into trouble
  5. Imagine a future time with the current problem gone. Work backwards to figure out what you could do now to make that future happen. What will be different in future when things are going better? What one thing will you do differently now?
  6. It’s easy when there is a problem to talk about what others are doing to cause the problem and why the problem can’t therefore get better, but we cannot control what others do – only what we ourselves do. Change your story. Talk about times when the problem was not happening and what you were doing at that those times. Control what you can control. You can’t change the other person, but you can change what you do, and that might change what others are doing. Think of a time when you did not have the current problem. Talk about that.
  7. [For those who believe in God or a Higher Power]. Focus on God, asking that power to help you do what you need to do. Tell how you will get help from God to make things go better. Focused this way, things often do go better!
  8. Use action talk to get things to go better; it sticks to the facts, talking only about what you can see, not what you believe another person might be thinking or feeling. Make complaints talking about actions that you do not like (not people). Make requests naming actions you would like to see another person do, specifically. Offer praise or a compliment talking about what action you liked.

Following these steps helps clients to recognise their strengths and resources and identify ways in which they can overcome their problem, set goals to address it, and practice useful skills (Ackerman, 2017).

Scaling Questions

Scaling questions invite clients to perceive their problem on a continuum. Scaling questions ask clients to consider their position on a scale (usually from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least desirable situation and 10 being the most desirable). Scaling questions can be a helpful way to track clients’ progress toward goals and monitor incremental change.

To use these types of questions, the therapist begins by describing a scale from one to ten where each number represents a rating of the client’s complaint(s). The therapist might say, “On a scale of one to ten, with one being the worst this problem has ever been, and ten being the best things could be, where would you rate things today?”

Once a therapist is given a number, he or she explores how that rating translates into action-talk. For example, if the client rates his or her situation at a three, the therapist asks, “What specifically is happening to indicate to you that it is a three?” The next step is to determine the goals and preferred outcomes. To do this, the therapist asks the client where things would need to be for him or her to feel that the goals of treatment have been met or that therapy has been successful.

“We aim for small changes that will represent progress in the direction of goals and preferred outcomes” (Bertolino & O’Hanlon, 2002, p 4).

Examples of scaling questions include:

  • You said that things are between a 5 and a 6. What would need to happen so that you could say things were between a 6 and a 7?
  • How confident are you that you could have a good day like you did last week, on a scale of one to ten, where one equals no confidence and ten means you have every confidence?

Coping questions

The client’s concerns are real and troublesome, BUT the individual has managed to survive up to this point, at least enough to get to your rooms and ask for help. Thus, coping questions are the quintessential solution-focused intervention. They can be asked when the client seems overwhelmed and unable to generate any possible solution.

The basic structure is simple. It goes something like: “Since [the problem] began, how do you [solution/cope]?” For example, “Since your schedule became so busy and challenging, how have you managed to complete your work and your other duties every day?” Coping questions reframe the client’s reactions to problems as resources for future solutions. To make this type of intervention work, the counsellor needs to carefully attend to the client’s concerns and to acknowledge the pain that they have caused. The coping questions then focus on what has kept the client going so far: a key resource for future solutions (Archer & McCarthy, 2007).


Most modalities of counselling and psychotherapy would look askance at the thought that the therapist would walk out in the middle of the session, yet taking a break is a hallmark – along with miracle and scaling questions – of the solution-focused approach. By stepping out for a few minutes, the therapist can collect his or her thoughts about what would work best before presenting the client with constructive feedback and helpful therapeutic tasks.

In situations such as group practices, the therapist may have the advantage of being able to use the time to consult with colleagues about what would be best to suggest to the client, but in any case, the counsellor can reflect alone, silently, for several minutes on this. It has a pronounced effect on the client, who also can use the time to collect his or her thoughts.

Upon returning, the counsellor makes a bridging statement, which demonstrates to the client that the concerns have been heard and incorporated into the suggested intervention. As noted above regarding types of clients, the proposed task can vary according to how motivated and ready for change the client seems to be (Hawkes et al, 1998; Archer & McCarthy, 2007).


Compliments to clients serve as reinforcement and validation of that which they are already managing to do competently. Genuine compliments can empower clients and enhance trust in the counselling relationship. There are two parts to the compliment: (1) expressing surprise at one of the client’s accomplishments, and (2) asking the client to describe how this was accomplished. This is typically done during the first session (and throughout the work, as appropriate).

Hawkes et al (1998) suggest that the compliments should be low-key; they must always be genuine. Insincere flattery could destroy trust that is building in the relationship. Instead, the counsellor must express authentic admiration for the client’s resourcefulness in managing the difficulties thus far (Archer & McCarthy, 2007).

Tasks (general)

Called “homework” in CBT and other approaches, tasks are what the counsellor would like the client to do between sessions to advance toward the selected goals. Tasks are designed to be specific to the client’s needs, and are often assigned to follow up on a client’s answer to a miracle question (de Shazer, 1988). It may occur as counsellor and client co-construct a plan based on something already occurring in a client’s life that the client would like to happen more often. The sequence could look like:

  1. Client completes problem description and is posed miracle question by counsellor
  2. Counsellor compliments client for response to the miracle question and for the strength and courage client has demonstrated so far by coping and asking for help
  3. Miracle question responses can often be too broad and ambitious, so counsellor asks client to simplify response. Client may be given a short break to decide on a small (the smallest!) piece of the miracle that is achievable and would signal progress in a desirable direction
  4. Session ends with client taking on task based on the smallest-piece-of-the-miracle response

Solution-focused therapists are flexible, designing tasks partly according to the motivation shown by the client (de Shazer, 1988; Archer & McCarthy, 2007). Note that the “Do something different” technique (above) is a specific example of this general category of task.

Solution talk

Solution-focused therapists choose their language carefully, with the ever-present aim of increasing clients’ hope and optimism, sense of control, and openness to possibilities and change. The focus, of course, is on solutions, not problems. Here is a list of language habits that can facilitate solution talk.

  • Prioritise open questions
  • Use language that presupposes positive change (this one is so important that we have a separate section for it; see below)
  • Externalise the problem (The problem to be solved is “out there” rather than inside the client, as an integral part of him or her)
  • Normalise people’s problems, as that provides reassurance and reduces feelings of inadequacy
  • Use coping questions (as in the section above)
  • Reinforce and notice strengths and successes
  • Create hypothetical solutions (i.e., encourage possibility-thinking by such questions as, “If you weren’t so afraid of being sued, what might you be feeling and doing instead?”)
  • Concentrate on describing and changing behaviours (rather than thoughts or emotions)
  • Use rituals, metaphors, stories, and symbols to convey indirect messages that can promote change
  • Frequently use words such as change, different, possibility, what, and how, which suggest change
  • Use inclusive language which allows supposedly incompatible outcomes to coexist (e.g., “and” not “but”)
  • Use reframing and relabelling to offer different perspectives (for instance, a client can change from experiencing a “failure” to having “an opportunity to learn”)
  • Match clients’ vocabulary or style of talking to promote a collaborative relationship; then change the language to encourage a change in clients’ perspectives
  • Make suggestions (implied and/or indirect suggestions are sometimes more powerful than direct advice)
  • Offer solution prescriptions (e.g., “Do something to surprise yourself” or “Notice what happens that you want to continue to happen”)
  • Interrupt the complaint pattern (changing the frequency, rate, timing, sequence, or location of an undesired behaviour or adding or subtracting at least one element in a sequence of behaviours) (O’Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989)

Presupposing change

When clients are focused on changing the negative aspects (or problems) in their lives, positive changes can often be overlooked, minimised, or discounted due to the ongoing presence of the problem.

The solution-focused approach challenges counsellors to be attentive to positive changes (however small) that occur in their clients’ lives. Questions that presuppose change can be useful in assisting clients to recognise such changes. They can be questions such as, “What’s different or better since I saw you last time?” This question invites clients to consider the possibility that change (perhaps positive change) has recently occurred in their lives.

If evidence of positive change is unavailable, counsellors can pursue a line of questioning that relates to the client’s ability to cope, using questions such as:

  • How come things aren’t worse for you?
  • What stopped total disaster from occurring?
  • How did you avoid falling apart?

These questions can be followed up by the counsellor positively affirming the client with regard to any action they took to cope (Geldard & Geldard, 2005).

End of session feedback

When you give someone a gift, you typically might wrap it up nicely with a bow. Similarly, a solution-focused therapist wants to wrap up the gift of understanding and insight which occurred in the session, putting onto it the “bow” of compliments, and often some suggestions as well. De Jong and Kim Berg note that this is not just about the optics of the session:

“At the end of each solution-building conversation, we construct messages for our clients that include compliments and usually some suggestions. The compliments emphasise what clients are already doing that is useful in solving their problems. The feedback is based on the information that clients have revealed to us in the conversation about well-formed goals and exceptions. It always focuses on what the clients, given their frame of reference, need to do more of and do differently in order to enhance their chances of success in meeting their goals.” (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002, p. 18)

The following example demonstrates the use of end of session feedback with a family of four children:

“Insoo (counsellor): Ok. The team wanted me to tell you kids that we’re absolutely astounded about how well you behaved here. All four of you. It’s sort of boring to sit and talk about things, right? When adults sit around and talk, it’s boring, but you really handled it very well. And also, they said they could tell that there’s a lot of love and affection going on underneath. Under there, underneath it all” (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2002, p. 168).

This article was adapted from the Mental Health Academy course Solution-focused Therapy: The Basics.


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