de Shazer: 1940 – 2005
Steve de Shazer, brief therapist and one of the primary developers of the solution-focused approach, has died. Having been struggling for some time with health problems, he was taken ill whilst on a flight over Europe and taken directly to a hospital in Vienna where he died on Sunday 11 September.
first met Steve and his wife Insoo Kim Berg over quarter of a century ago. He
was tall and gangly and was dressed like a lumberjack. I was immediately
impressed with how badly he lectured (then) and how interesting his thinking was.
We became friends. We shared in common the experience of being profoundly
influenced by Jay Haley’s early seminal book, Strategies
of Psychotherapy (1963), and a fascination with the work of Milton H.
Erickson. Steve recently wrote,
After Strategies – which made so much sense to me – everything else was (poorly written) nonsense until I found Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy which is a selection of Milton H. Erickson’s papers. It is not going too far to say that these two books changed my life and shaped my future. (de Shazer, 1999)
The other great influence on Steve was the mentorship of, and his subsequent long and close friendship with, John Weakland of the Brief Therapy Center, Palo Alto. It was John who put him in touch with Insoo and so must take, to some extent, either the credit or blame for some of what followed. In 1978 the two of them moved to Milwaukee to set up what they called “the MRI of the Midwest” where with a group of like-minded colleagues they developed the ways of thinking and the practices that became known as the solution-focused approach. This approach was based on the assumption of pre-existing abilities, on client strengths and resources, and on the certainty that there have invariably already been exceptions to the behaviours, ideas, feelings and interactions associated with problems. Therapy would be focused on an amplification of these exceptions and on helping clients, through techniques such as the miracle question and scaling questions to build a detailed picture of how their futures could be different. It was not seen as necessary to explore problems or their origins unless the client particularly wished to do so. Steve was the author of many chapters and articles and of five books, each demonstrating a stage in the development of the thinking behind and the practicing of the approach. A sixth book, More Than Miracles, will be published posthumously.
Steve had been a professional jazz saxophone player and his interest in the spaces between the notes as much as the notes themselves seemed to be very much reflected in his minimalist approach to therapy. He also loved the character of Sherlock Holmes and shared Holmes’s determination never to draw a conclusion ahead of the facts. He described hypothesising as “a disease” which gave therapists the illusion of knowing something. He loved philosophy and cooking - at which he excelled - and taking long walks.
When I think of the many, many hours I spent with Steve we rarely talked about therapy. We talked mostly about literature or listened to music (classical or jazz) and drunk beer, another of his passions. He was prepared to walk miles to sample a particular beer and once walked me practically to a standstill around the many pubs of Heidelberg, each having its own special brand. He also brewed his own.
The world of therapy has lost a clear and original thinker, a creative iconoclast, and many of us have lost a valued friend. He was not always the easiest of people to get on with. He could be very opinionated, was somewhat eccentric and did not suffer fools easily. He seemed much more at home in Europe than in America and, in fact, spent a lot of his time here. He once told me, “American audiences don’t seem to like me: they don’t understand my sense of humour”. He was much more caring than his sometimes gruff and abrupt exterior suggested. I found him, as I know others did, to be a very good friend.
The last conversation I had with Steve was by telephone some months ago. We were bemoaning the fact that so many teenage girls were coming to see us and subsequently referring their friends to us, and that we had discovered a facility for engaging and talking with these young women - “forty five years too late”.
Haley, J. (1963) Strategies of Psychotherapy. New York: Grune & Stratton.
Haley, J. (1967) Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy: Selected Papers of Milton H. Erickson. New York: Grune & Stratton.
De Shazer, S. (1999) Beginnings. BFTC Website (www.brief-therapy.org)