Steve de Shazer, Pioneer of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Steve de Shazer changed the way family therapy unfolded. His objective was to simplify it. Above all, he wanted to make it more efficient. To this end, he proposed relying more on the knowledge and skills of the patients.
Steve de Shazer, Pioneer of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 18 April, 2023

Steve de Shazer is recognized worldwide as one of the pioneers of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT). This is a modality of intervention based on conversation and the principles of social constructionism. The latter emphasizes the way in which the context affects perceptions, affections, and reality.

Solution-focused brief therapy adopts a minimalist approach. It employs a series of small steps capable of producing change. This is gradually extended until it generates systemic or global changes.

Another of this specialist’s great contributions to the field of psychology was the depathologization of problems. Indeed, instead of focusing on deficits and abnormalities, he concentrated on the patient or client’s capabilities. In fact, this idea plays the starring role in his therapy.

“Where you stand determines what you see and do not see; it determines also the angle you see it from; a change in where you stand changes everything .”

-Steve de Shazer-

Shazer’s life

Steve de Shazer was born on June 25, 1940, on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Milwaukee (Wisconsin, United States). He was the son of an electronic engineer and an opera singer. His first great passion was classical music, and he became a jazz saxophonist.

De Shazer graduated from university with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Later, he continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin until graduating with a master’s degree in social work. He trained under the mentorship of John Weakland, another of the pioneers of brief therapy. The two had a friendship that lasted a lifetime and proved extremely fruitful for both of them.

De Shazer married the psychotherapist, Insoo Kim Berg. The two founded the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee in 1978. This became the epicenter of the development of their theories. De Shazer was a fan of baseball, long walks, and beer. He read Wittgenstein in his original language and was a great admirer of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

Patient tells his problems to a psychotherapist
According to Steve de Shazer’s theory, listening to patients is essential for finding solutions to their problems.

A new approach to therapy

De Shazer’s great contribution to psychology was to reorient the practice of therapy. He started from the idea that individuals are capable of creating valuable solutions, starting with their own resources. He asked clients to talk about the last time they’d managed to solve the problem that had brought them to therapy. In fact, he considered that solutions had to come from the knowledge and ideas they already possessed.

In this model, the role of the therapist is to focus attention on the present and the future, leaving the past behind. The process begins when the client manages to visualize their desired future and takes small steps to achieve it.

This perspective is also grounded in the idea that there are many positive events happening in the life of someone who attends therapy. Its goals include identifying these positive aspects and isolating the things that the client wants to change. They carry out work to foster continuous change. The therapy is guided by eight principles:

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  2. Once you know what works, do more of it.
  3. If it’s not working, do something different.
  4. Change is constant and inevitable.
  5. The solution isn’t always directly related to the problem.
  6. Acknowledging what the client is doing well.
  7. All problems have exceptions. For example, when they should’ve appeared but didn’t.
  8. The future is created and negotiated.
family in therapy
In its infancy, brief therapy assisted a large number of families with problems. Its application is similar today.

A legacy of great importance

The great objective of Steve de Shazer was to simplify therapy. He wanted it to be less onerous for the patient or client yet, at the same time, more effective. During his work at the center he founded, he personally attended 700 consultations per year.

As a rule, he helped poor families with huge problems yet no social security or government aid. With these clients, De Shazer demonstrated that the greatest virtue of a therapist is knowing how to listen to their clients and take what they say seriously.

Shortly after the year 2000, he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. However, he didn’t want to stop working, because he couldn’t conceive of his life without being in contact with knowledge. He died shortly after getting off a plane in Vienna in 2005.

His ideas were given the most credence in Europe. For instance, today, there are at least 50,000 UK employees who’ve been trained in solution-focused brief therapy. It’s similar all over Europe. Indeed, De Shazer’s legacy is universal.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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