Paradox is a Muddle
An interview with Steve de Shazer
Steve de Shazer, author of many excellent books on Brief Therapy, visited the UK in 1997 to give a couple of 2-day workshops on Solution Focused Brief Therapy. While he was in London, three members of the Bristol Solutions Group seized the opportunity to meet and interview him. They were Harry Norman (HN), Mark McKergow (MMcK) and Jenny Clarke (JC).
HN In which ways did Erickson influence you? Or what attracted you to him?
SdeS What attracted me to Erickson's work was his writing and his descriptions of the cases. He had 700 cases or whatever it was that he wrote up. They're all so peculiar and didn't fit any of the rules and .... so that's what attracted me. That it was something that worked ... that didn't fit into any of the rules of standard psychotherapy. I thought his thinking about it was exquisitely muddled.
HN In what way were you influenced by Gregory Bateson?
SdeS I guess I was more influenced by John Weakland .. and when I started reading Bateson, my first impression was that he was such a fucking awful writer that I couldn't read him. And when I went back recently to read him, I discovered he was even worse than I remembered. So the influence of Bateson, if there is any, is through John Weakland ... and ... so ... has John influenced my thinking? That's another question. He certainly influenced clinical practice and the way of describing it and his ideas about keeping it simple and goal focused and certainly those ideas came out of working with and talking with John. So, it was mostly John who was the most influence my thinking and certainly in the early years.
HN Particularly about goals and keeping it simple. I remember reading once that you said you believed in simplicity and in systems theory and that you take both seriously. Is that still true for you?
SdeS Well, as I was talking about in previous books, I never did figure out what systems people were talking about and so I thought that the system they were talking about, but didn't know it, was language. That's a system. Certainly, language behaves in the way that systems theory describes, the way that "systems" behave. I never .... and if you read the family therapy literature or other "systemic" literature, you'll see that there's no agreement about what in the world is a system. It's a fine muddle and so it means you can talk about anything and say it's a system. But, yes I'm still looking at the "system", the language people are using in the process of doing therapy. That's my conclusion.
HN And it's still true that you're interested in simplicity?
SdeS Oh yes, absolutely. Whatever the client says, that's what they've got; it's all right there on the surface. You can't get much more simple than that.
HN Tell me more about the ways in which John Weakland has influenced you.
SdeS Well, have you ever seen him work? I'm not sure what transcripts would show you. John does do very little in the interview. The client does most of the talking. So, in pacing .. somewhat in the way of formulating the questions .... It's just a general kind of family resemblance if you will. His way of doing therapy, certainly when I first saw it, is so strikingly different from any one else's, 25 years ago. It's just so economical of the therapist's energy.
JC If we read a transcript, we could judge the language, we couldn't judge the pacing. What else couldn't we judge ... what else could we miss?
SdeS Ooh, lots of things ... like of course, visual expressions etc etc. You could tell John was interested by his doing something. If you were watching, you could see the left eyebrow creep up. So ... very small things. John's left eyebrow moving is part of language.
JC How are you defining language? It's not just the words?
SdeS It's not just the words, but the words are the starting point. Everything else is just part of the context of the words. It's not some secret code to be broken. There is some movement towards that: the idea that nonverbal behaviour is some secret code to be broken and that was where the real truth was.
HN You said that 25 years ago you could have held a World Brief Therapy conference in a minibus with Dick Fisch and John Weakland and Paul Watzlawick and yourself and the lady from Mexico City. How did you come into contact with those other people?
SdeS Well, I lived near Paul in that period and I met John at MRI - I went over there. It's across town and so occasionally I would go and watch. I decided I should be on my own. It's pretty hard to become a fourth member of a big three. So, there was no sense in that, I figured that out quite quickly, by observing what they were up to. So I stayed on the other side of town.
HN Was it at some point around about then that you found out that your ideas and theirs were becoming slightly different?
SdeS Oh, they've always been slightly different; you know, how to deal with vagueness and so on. They never, as I saw it any way, ... they would often get themselves in a position of pushing the client to get some clarity and without some clear problem statement etc etc, you can't work their model. I found, at least across town, that clients were different and they didn't much care for being pushed and so I started to pick up Erickson's confusion technique to work with vague clients ... just make them more vague and more of a mess and "I'll straighten it out for you". That was fairly early on - we started to have that difference.
HN So, when you were setting out in Milwaukee to start the MRI of the Mid West, how did things work out?
SdeS Well I guess we've done it. Oh at the time I certainly had no expectations of developing anything except this therapeutic think tank. That was the original idea and that was all there was to it. As far as I'm concerned, at the time, I was perfectly willing to just continue doing that: research, treatment, doing therapy and you know just hang around there and develop that whole business.
And then people started knocking on the door, to see what we were up to, so the team grew and people started coming for training and then they started nagging me to write a book. So I started writing a book.
HN You mentioned the idea of developing a therapeutic think tank. Who were the parties to the original therapeutic think tank?
SdeS Let's see. Who were the original people do you mean? You know, there have been many people over the years. It varies at sundry times and Wally Gingerich was a vital member for many years. He was like the chief methodologist I suppose and I nagged him for many years to go get himself a good job at a good university and so he left us to do that. And we've missed him ever since and so he was a big influence on me. There have been many others over the years and of course Insoo Kim Berg and .... Eve Lipchik and Alex Molnar ... He'd say he's a sociologist, I'd say he's an anthropologist. And then there's other oddballs beyond that. All the people I've ever worked with have had lots to do with things and more or less influence. You see, there are always people coming in and out over the years, some for shorter some for longer, to be part of the team or part of one of the teams. There was no team like in a line if you will, we were all just ... Who is behind the mirror was always random - maybe nobody.
So the idea was to take a look and our original question was "What do therapists do that's worth doing?" The question was modified later to "What do clients and therapists do that's worth doing?" That's the question we've been trying to answer since we started. That's the first major question. The second part of it is Wally Gingerich's question and that is "How does the therapist know what to ignore?" And we're still working on those questions. There will never be a final answer.
MMcK We started by asking about your thinking and how it has developed. About therapy and the way to do it.
SdeS I've just finished a big book about this, "Words Were Originally Magic". I haven't changed my mind since then.
JC Have you ever changed your mind ..... or are you just refining your mind?
SdeS That's another question. I don't think I've ever really changed it. ... Yeah, I think it is a matter of refinement more than anything else. I guess if anything ... I don't know if it's exactly changing my mind, that at one time our data leads us to the conclusion that .. you know.. clients' ways of measuring success are different from therapists' and researchers' ways and since the clients are paying for it, then they have the right to judge success or failure.
Before that, I thought, just like everyone else I expect, or at least everyone in our shop, that clients come in with their complaint and you solve that complaint and that's the job. But that isn't always what's going to satisfy the client.
So ... it's hard to say if that's a real change or just an example of the process of refining the position that we had. I guess, now that I think of it from that angle, that it was only a refinement. Because we had been talking before that about the need to join what we called the "fit", developing fit and that clients had their own way of co-operating and that we had to co-operate with that. The big change as I see it, was the discovery that they had different ways of defining success. That seems to be a shift ... everyone else punctuates it as such ... the big change from problem focus to solution focus. Certainly it appears to be a big shift but I think when I re-read my book "Patterns of Brief Family Therapy", when I had to write a Foreword for a German translation 10 years later, I did see it more as "Oh yeah, it's all there". It was just one half step away.
Well actually when people would come to training right after the book came out, they wondered what happened because it was nothing like what the book ... you know, the description of things in "Patterns". It had changed. "Patterns" was obsolete when it came out.
JC Well, in a way I can see that the change of mind that "the client knows best" is an easier shift than acting as if you believe it. Do you have the same difficulty that ordinary mortals do in keeping yourself out of all this?
SdeS I have no urge to make judgements.
JC How do you do that?
SdeS Well I found out that I was wrong!
JC But as a researcher how do you stop yourself from at least hypothesising?
SdeS How do I stop? I just don't do it. None of us do it. As John Weakland says, you've just got to stand around and watch and wait for something to happen. If you aren't watching and things happen, you just don't notice them. We have to be around and watching. So, that's our attitude. We're just hanging around and watching - that's what we're doing behind the mirror.
JC And that attitude was there from the start, are you saying?
SdeS Yeah. And certainly, the attitude behind the mirror. My background is more sociological and so talking about that with John, I suppose, and hanging around behind the mirror was sort of like going out to visit the natives. It's therapy in the wild or in the zoo perhaps. We never did decide whether it was in the wild or in the zoo! Just hanging around and watching.
JC Well, that's the difficulty of going back to the first thing that you were saying about the language and the context of the language .... (Well the context is part of the language) So, what is the therapist doing to the context then, by sort of ... just observing? It's not just observing?
SdeS It's listening. And taking what the client says seriously. If the client says it's a big problem, then it's a big problem. Even though you don't think it's a problem at all. And the reverse. If the client says he's schizophrenic, then he's schizophrenic if that's what he wants, I don't care.
Most of the time it doesn't work that way; they come in and say they aren't schizophrenic, but other people say they are. To me, they aren't. I wouldn't have said they were any way but .. So, you take 'em at their word and do that as disciplinedly -with as much discipline - as possible.
JC And the context marker is just doing that then - the act of listening, acknowledging them, not denying them, agreeing.
SdeS Uh-huh, basically
HN You mentioned Insoo as an influence on your work. Would you tell us about that? Tell us something about her influence.
SdeS Well, everything that we do over the years is trying to figure out how she and her clients did it. She is the Master. I don't know what other word to use. She is the Master. So all this stuff - what it really is about is attempts to describe what she and her clients do in such a way that other people - first me - the rest of the team - can do it.
HN Shit. We're interviewing the wrong person.
SdeS Probably. But she makes me write these books, so ... She'll say "Steve, it's time to write another book" and I'll write another book.
JC Well, we're glad she does, tell her.
SdeS Yeah, it's always amazing what she and her clients do. I'm trying to give you a good recent example, but I'm not coming up with one. The whole process of inventing the Miracle Question and the whole development of the range of uses for scaling questions comes from watching her work. Once we'd figured out how scales could be useful and we started to expand their use, that was an evolutionary process, but the first scales, I'm sure, the first scales were used and spontaneously developed by Insoo and her clients.
Milwaukee blacks tend to use these things any way. You know, these scales are used out in the wild, at least amongst the Milwaukee population and so they'd answer questions with that. And so we started using the scales more and more. It's a good shorthand, good reference points and so on. And all that developed out of sitting back there watching. The Miracle Question evolved out of one day Insoo asking a question and the answer was "Oh it would take a miracle!" and Insoo said "Well yes, suppose ... suppose a miracle did happen" ... and that started the whole thing. The answer was pretty nice, whatever it was .. the answer was nice. So. Almost all our stuff like that is invented by clients first.
HN Invented by clients and noticed by Insoo.
SdeS Yeah, she reacted to them in some useful way. I'm sure we've all had clients before who said it would probably take a miracle. And for whatever reason, that day, Insoo said "Well yes, suppose there was a miracle". And one day, fairly soon afterwards, we started using it regularly. Insoo had a client whose initial answer was that her husband would be dead! Just exactly the most dreaded answer - one of the most dreaded answers that people imagine. And Insoo said "Oh yeah, and what difference will that make?" And the woman starts to talk about going to see her daughter in Texas and her other daughter in California and at some point in the interview, one or other of them said something like "I don't know why the husband has to be dead for this to happen" and away she went.
And so and then we had another one. I hear of people dreading the answers in this kind of situation. I had a guy who had lost his left leg. And this was exactly the kind of worst-case scenario they give you at workshops: "What do I do if someone says ...." I asked him the miracle question and he said he'd have his left leg back. I said that's a reasonable wish. And there's this long pause and then he says "Yeah ... I guess you mean something that could happen". And that's the way it goes and that's the way you hear it over and over as long as you accept that first "I'd have my leg back" .. you know. That's reasonable. Of course he's going to wish that. If he didn't then I'd wonder about his sanity.
HN I noticed in "Words Were Originally Magic" that you used the terms "systemic" and "interactional" synonymously ....
SdeS Why not? The meanings are the same. I didn't realise I'd used the word "systemic" at all ... it's too contaminated to be useful. It should be given a long rest. It will come back in another life. That happens to words, I feel. It may happen to all things - they just become so contaminated. They eventually become so broad they mean everything and therefore nothing. "Systemic" is one of those.
JC This means that outside the therapy room, outside that context, words are other than their surface meaning otherwise their meanings wouldn't change; they would still have their surface meaning.
SdeS Uh huh. I'm talking about in the therapy room. I want to make myself as clear as I can about that. But I also say that all of these views are right, it's just that none of them are complete. So yes they have all these "Underlying meanings" and yes the common sense thing works: a dog is a dog. But there are contexts where that's not going to work.
JC But your assumption is, because that's simple, that a dog is a dog. (Yeah) Until you realise that that's not right.
SdeS Yeah. You have to make that assumption. Otherwise you go into mind reading or something.
HN I'm interested to get you to say something about the word "interactional" and what that means.
SdeS Systemic! (Laughter - SdeS pokes Harry in the ribs) The primary reference to that is John Weakland in "The Interactional View" - that's why the word is part of that tradition. It means the behaviour that's going on between people. Among people? It's the same as systemic! And so if I use "systemic", if I'm thinking about the word "system", I think about the language as a system. So I'm surprised that I used the word here - at all - in the book. I'll have to have a look.
HN I also noticed you use the words "power", "relation" and "systems" synonymously too.
SdeS I think I was talking about Bateson. That's what I think Bateson does - yeah. And Foucault. And Michael White. ...... It seems a great muddle. They made a great muddle out of it. Bateson and Foucault. Out of relationship, power and system. The power is inherent in the relationship, then power is the relationship. Then you don't need the term "power" or you don't need the term "relationship". And that's what Bateson and Foucault both do.
Bateson objects to the idea of unilateral power. And the reason he objects is because you put the power in the relationship between the people. There's no unilateral power because it's an interactional process. And that's what Foucault says. It's a great muddle. It's almost the old Ericksonian style confusion technique. You read the various literatures and a lot of the feminist studies and they have picked this up and they are making the same muddle. Nobody that I know of has explicitly spelled it out until that little piece, as far as I know, nobody has spelled it out.
MMcK Do you think there's a similar kind of muddle around "epistemology"?
SdeS Oh, absolutely. It's absolutely meaningless. Bateson fucked that one over so badly that it means absolutely anything in the therapy literature. It could mean pea soup tomorrow. It's just ... meaningless. It had a traditional meaning, in philosophy. And Bateson took it away to this therapy world.
MMcK Are there any others of these words, in the therapy context, that you find muddled beyond repair?
SdeS Well, out of the millions, let's see. Power. Control. Paradigms. Paradox is a complete muddle. Family therapy. Family. Therapy. All those. I could probably keep going if I could give it some more thought. As I see it, the field has little or no discipline. And so - you like this word? OK, from now on, we'll call "medieval beer". We like that word so let's see, what can we make that word mean? There's a definition for "medieval beer". So somebody .. Bateson ... liked the word "epistemology", he liked the feel of the word in his mouth, so he used it for everything. "That's a real medieval beer".
MMcK Perhaps we could come at this the other way then. Are there any words that you think are actually still useful?
SdeS In the therapy business? Hmm. Yeah because people keep screwing them up. You see, a nice word like "interactional" because nobody uses it - they use "systemic". Yeah, "interactional" is a nice word. It got so muddled up, with people misusing it, abusing it. So in some ways it's a constant fight against automatically undermining everything. You see, definitions get so broad, and contradictory so quickly. We decided some time back our in house word for what we do is "it". And that's a heavily and legitimately vague word. It shouldn't be vague ... "here we are: we're doing it ". This is it, this is what we do. So that's our current in house name for what we do. It's just gotten so ... and it's incredible to me but ... there are actually therapists out there who will say things like they're puzzled because they can't get miracles to happen by using this approach. .... It's absolutely bizarre.
MMcK You have mentioned, Steve, the electrical engineers who had been on your team, and I think you have said that you'd rather train an engineer than an already trained therapist. (Right) Is that something that you think could be used more in some way in other fields?
SdeS I don't know ... the traditions are so strong: we train people to read between the lines and to diagnose and all those things they go through in psychiatry and social work and so on that to get them to stop that so to speak ... and in the real world, in fact if you look at things like the AAMFT in the United States, and I'm sure it's true in other places as well, they're getting in to this qualification and certification business, it will make it more and more impossible. Now, instead of just being psychiatrists we have psychologists and social workers and family therapists who are trained in the same way, with exactly the same kind of concepts - it's just "system" replacing "psyche" - it's actually the same darn thing again. It's no different.
So to train people to ... or to have people to be trained, who don't do this digging business, this archaeology or whatever digging, who want to stay on the surface - it's very hard to find them. Very hard. So, in practical terms, no - I don't think there's anyone who uses this thing in the real world.
Family therapy originally was the attempt to undermine, change, psychiatry, that's all. I think John Weakland would say that in some form or other. Yeah, to introduce the interactional view, or the systemic view, to psychiatry and change psychiatry. And as a result to change the way therapy is done at the same time - where those things are separate and distinct. At least in the United States I guess it's more of my style and therefore become this fourth thing and it has everything that's wrong with family therapy as generally practised, it has everything wrong with it that psychiatry and psychology did and so, to me, it's no improvement at all.
MMcK So, is what you're trying to do, in your trainings, is it almost to untrain people who tend to come in through the door?
SdeS Well, yes. Most of them that come have made the decision that ... already to try to stay on the surface. So, most people who come to our training (people who come to our workshops, that's a different category), usually have made the decision. Yeah, so it's unlearning. And among other things, learning to tolerate silence. That's very hard. (39 seconds' silence.)
MMcK At the risk of breaking the silence, we were musing the other day that we hadn't seen any brief or solutions certification process being advertised or done. Do you think that if such a thing were to be offered, it would start running the risk of going the same way?
SdeS Oh I'm sure it would, and I'm sure that somebody will do it. It won't be me. Sure. I have fought it off, various people at various times, begging us to do this sort of thing - I have fought it off. That would be the death of it all. Because that killed family therapy. I'm sure that the pressures are on and that somebody, somewhere will ... and I'm sure that in the United States at times, in places it was useful, politically, but it ends up killing the field. Most fields grow or develop evolutionary things by some outsider.
JC Were you an outsider? (Yes.) You hadn't got any particular baggage apart from what you'd read?
SdeS I never had any training at all. I read Jay Haley and Bateson and John Weakland, coming into the field of psychiatry by accident ... And as soon as Don Jackson gets on board, things started to change - they start to publish in psychiatric journals. Amazingly, they were accepted - I never quite understand how. Of course, Jackson had all these, you know, wonderful papers. I mean he was certified and trained under Solomon. So he had Solomon's blessing and so he had some power. But it's still amazing that it was ever published. There's some of the most crazy stuff - it was pretty crazy, in the mid 50s/early 60s - crazy some of the stuff he and Jay Haley were writing. You know the paper "Transference Revisited"? Well, it was published in a psychiatric journal of some sort in the late 50s. That was Haley and Jackson - or Jackson and Haley, I'm not sure. And, you know, the context in which that paper was written - published, I mean - was bizarre. It shows up there. It's like finding in some old conservative journal from the beginning of the 19th century written by a guy from the Fabian Society. What in the world are they talking about?
Jackson got in to the group, ... oh five years too early. If he had come along later .... the fact that he was there so early. He was there in the first publication, in Nature or Science or whatever damned thing - Science I guess it was - they were forced into publishing by that .... we've got to have a product pretty soon so they wrote one. But from there on, pretty soon Jackson's name was moving up in the psychiatric journals. Maybe just a year or so later would have been useful as far as getting these ideas some sort of foothold in the non-psychiatric world.
But it goes in to the psychiatric world and now .... It was too soon. So there must have been a hell of a lot of influence somewhere.
HN I'd like to ask you about "The Structure of Magic". What is the value of this book?
SdeS I don't think "The Structure of Magic" has any value at all. The two books on Erickson ... nice books and a way of looking at what Erickson did in that one case. I don't want to make too much of one case, but that's ... It's a nice way of looking at it - it's a nice workshop piece of work. Their books "Patterns 1 and 2" are really nice books - tight! I think in "The Structure of Magic" they start getting looser. You just start wandering around in Never-Never Land. My objection to even the Patterns books is that it's only one case they're talking about. Really narrow subject. It's a nice job, but the danger of that is of generalising from one sample, which is what they did, as I see it.
HN What sorts of outcome research have you done at the BFTC, what did it show?
SdeS We've been doing outcome research all along. Some of it was published in "Keys", some of it in "Clues", some of it was in "Putting Difference to Work". I think the research shows that what we've done is consistent with those pieces. If you asked the client if they met their goals, say 6 months later, you're going to get in the vicinity of 80% will say that they either met their goals or they have made so much progress that the problem is not a problem. In 6 months, about 80%. That's pretty consistent for some years now.
It doesn't usually qualify as research - it's just an outcome study. The legitimate journals don't think it's research. But it stacks up using basically the same questions as MRI used and we started off using exactly the same ones and then modified it using solution focus. And I generally find that two thirds, three quarters of them say that no new problems have developed - two thirds will say that other things have improved in addition to whatever the problem was before. Almost nobody will be in therapy. And currently we average about 3 sessions a case, for the last 3 to 5 years.
HN Thank you.
"Paradox is a muddle - an interview with Steve deShazer", first published in Rapport 34, pp 41 - 49