O’Connell (2005) considers reframing and externalising to be particular forms of problem deconstruction (see pages 73-78). He highlights Michael White’s definition of deconstruction as “procedures that subvert taken-for-granted realities and practices” (p73).

Building on the idea of reframing, deconstruction includes any process or technique that contributes to taking a problem or situation apart, questioning the way it is currently constructed in terms of interpretation, and perhaps putting it together again in a different way that offers a different interpretation.

The idea is based within the philosophy of social constructionism. If the meanings we attribute to events, actions and situations are socially constructed, then it is perfectly possible to take these constructed meanings apart and build different ones. Language is central. “In solution-focused work the counselor knows the power language has to construct social reality and is conscious that the language used to describe the ‘problem’ may be part of the problem” (O'Connell, 2005; p74). 

The primary technique of problem deconstruction in SFT is to identify highly abstract terms or constructs such as ‘depression’, ‘stress’ and ‘losing it’ - words that are full of assumptions and can sometimes involve perjorative labelling - and seek to replace these terms with a detailed description of the actual behaviours involved (O'Connell, 2005; p35).

For example a young person who has been suspended from school and faces expulsion might describe his problem as “Whenever teachers look at me funny and stick their nose in I just lose it and I can’t control my anger”. Broken down into observable behaviours and contextualised this problem might be described as “On days when I don’t do any homework, which is a lot of days, Mr Sergeant always looks at me sideways asks me why not. I tell him to mind his own f****** business. Last time he asked me what I will do after I drop out of school and I thumped him. I guess that was an over-reaction eh?”.

This process simplifies the problem by breaking it down into concrete observable behaviours. Specific behaviours may then be examined for their potential role in the problem and in a workable solution. Concrete observable behaviours are easier to change or to implement than abstract ideas.

Another deconstruction technique involves logical testing of the constructs or key terms that the client uses to describe or interpret the problem (O'Connell, 2005; p77).

This can include seeking out the assumptions that underpin the constructs, testing constructs for their predictive validity or internal consistency, and inviting the client to employ a different construct and experiment with that. The aim is to help the client identify aspects of their thinking that render the problem more difficult to solve (e.g. exaggerations, taking all-or-nothing positions, making assumptions that are unfounded, making tenuous connections between two events.

In the problem described by the young man above “Whenever teachers look at me funny and stick their nose in I just lose it and I can’t control my anger”, there are several constructs that could be tested using logical analysis. This conversation can be started with questions like: What does ‘look at funny’ mean? What does ‘stick their nose in’ mean? Why do they stick their nose in? Is it always bad to stick their nose in? Which teachers? How many? What does ‘just lose it’ mean? What does out of control anger look like? At one stage you used the word ‘over-reaction’. What would it feel like to call it an over-reaction instead of ‘losing it’?

It is important to maintain the collaborative stance. “The therapist adopts a ‘not-knowing’ position in which she disowns the role of expert in the client’s life. The purpose of the therapeutic dialogue is to negotiate jointly a meaning for the client’s situation that will create the possibility of change for her” (O'Connell, 2005; p77-78).

Take care to ensure that deconstruction does not get bogged down in lengthy analysis of the causes of the problem. It is contrary to the SFT approach to focus excessively on understanding the problem as this tends to trigger traditional problem solving strategies.

Notes: ‘Unpacking’ is a colloquial term that is sometimes used to refer to a similar process.

This aspect of deconstruction in SFT shares some similarities with cognitive restructuring in CBT. In contrast to CBT, deconstruction in SFT does not involve direct confrontation or challenge of the client’s view. The therapist does not directly offer alternative interpretations based on preconceived theory.