‘Exceptions’ are times when the problem was not present, when it was not as bad, or times when the client was managing the problem more effectively. The solution-focused therapist is constantly on the look out for the mention of possible exceptions, and seeks to explore or ‘un-pack’ them.

‘Exception questions’ or questions that explore exceptions in the past remind clients of times when things were better, and this helps to inspire hope that things can be better again  (Pichot, 2007; p125-126).

Exploring the circumstances around exceptions, such as what the client was doing differently, reveals clues about solutions that could be revisited or developed further (Kim, 2008; O'Connell, 2003; Pichot, 2001).

Questions that explore exceptions include: 'How did you do that? What is happening during those times? What are you doing that is helpful? Could you do it again?' (O'Connell, 2003; p7).

A key ingredient in making the most of exceptions is to assume that the client had some degree of control or influence over the circumstance around the exception, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary (Nelson & Thomas, 2007; p20-21).

Experiential modalities such as outreach and residential settings in which workers interact with young people offer opportunities for exceptions to be created in real time and observed directly. When exceptions are found the worker encourages the client to keep doing what worked and even expand on it if possible (see O’Connell, 2005; p58 for illustration). 

Exploration of exceptions can provide opportunities for ‘competence-seeking’ or searching out the skills, strengths and other qualities that the client possesses but may have forgotten about. It also provides opportunities to identify strategies that do not help and which may need to be discarded (O'Connell, 2005; p59).

If exceptions to do not emerge naturally in conversation there are questions that can be used to elicit them such as: There are times I am sure, when you would expect the problem to be there but its not. How do you get that to happen? When is it less intense? When don’t you notice it so much?

The scaling question is a technique for drawing attention to times when the problem was absent or less severe and create opportunities to explore exceptions (Pichot, 2007; p125).

Ask the client to rate the severity of the problem today or in recent days with 0=no problem and 10=most severe ever. If the problem is severe today ask the client to think of a time when it was less severe (i.e. rating 0-4) and then to describe that situation. If the problem is less severe today ask them to think of a time when it was more severe (i.e. 7-10) and ask them to identify what is different now. For more on scaling see Evaluation.

Take care not to be overly zealous or combative in the use of exception seeking. A tell-tale sign is the frequent use of ‘yeah but’ statements. This happens when the therapist seeks to challenge every negative client statement with a previously stated fact that appears to contradict the negative statement e.g. ‘Yeah but what about the time that you …’. This can feel like the therapist does not understand or is dismissing what the client is trying to say (Pichot, 2007; p125).