Solutions in Exceptions: Building on the Positive

“Every morning I drag myself out of bed, get the kids ready for school, and barely make it on time to work. My job’s fine, not great, but it pays the bills. My marriage’s ok. I don’t really have anything to complain about, but something’s not right.” Like many people I see, Tom’s not coming in with a specific problem. He doesn’t want to find a new job or move to a different place; he’s not overwhelmed with sadness or anxiety; he just doesn’t have that zip in his step.

Often with people like Tom I use Solution-Focused Therapy, a theory developed in the late 1970’s in Wisconsin by married therapists Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. The goal is to help clients see the exceptions to their problems as solutions, and it works well when people don’t have a specific complaint. I begin with the exception question technique, exploring his life before he felt lethargic. Tom paints a picture of a time when he and his wife were in successful careers, bringing home substantial paychecks and spending weekends hiking around Colorado.

At this point if I abandon the Solution-Focused technique and asked Tom what turned his life from great to so-so, he would blame the economy, family obligations, and living in the mountains. We could spend several sessions exploring his feelings around these topics, and conclude that perhaps he should find a new job or move down the hill.

However I continue to employ the exception question technique and ask, “What, no matter how small, is working in your life today?” It turns out Tom enjoys family time, dislikes his job, but appreciates his employer’s flexible schedule policy. Plus Tom loves the mountain community and de-stresses by meeting with a group of guys once a week for poker night. After a few sessions and some minor changes building on the positives in his life, Tom feels better and enjoys his life again.

Change is not always about focusing on problems or feelings about problems. Sometimes it’s seeing what is working, and building on that. Take some time this week to find the exceptions in your life; I’d love to hear what you discover!