Ratkes, 1, 2001
From the Whirls of a Flowing River -
a Conversation with Elam Nunnally
Professor Elam Nunnally of Wisconsin University has trained,
consulted and supervised Finns for over 20 years. He started as
a couple communication course supervisor in the end of the 1970's,
and has been educating students on the solution-focused approach
since 1985. He has also written and published a lot of articles
on both topics. For 14 years, Elam belonged to the research group
at Family Therapy Center (BFTC) in Milwaukee, as a part of the
astoundingly creative process out of which the solution-focused
approach was born. The following conversation took place on the
first of August, 1999, in his home in Milwaukee.
Tapio Malinen: I would like to get to know the history of the
solution-focused therapy through you. Could you tell me about
the time that your first contact with the BFTC group?
Elam Nunnally: As far as I can remember, it was in 1976. At the
time, I had a private practice, but I also did volunteer work
at Family Service. I wanted to work in pairs with someone, and
I can't really remember when I first met Insoo Kim Berg, but either
way, she was the one I started working with. I may have called
Family Center and told them about my interest. During our first
year together, Paul Watzlawick and John Weakland came from California
to Chicago to hold a two-day seminar, where we all went. Insoo,
Eve Lipchik, Marilyn LaCourt and a young man whose name I can't
remember, but who was the first one to pay attention to the changes
before the meeting [Don Norum], and Jim Derks. When we came back
from Chicago, we were excited and immediately started to apply
the things we had learned in the seminar. Insoo and the Family
Service group started to have training meetings, and I joined
them after a couple of months. We used a one-way mirror and tried
our best to mimick the Califonians' work methods. I think it was
in 1977 that our group traveled to California for several days
to learn from Watzlawick and Weakland. I didn't go that time.
But it was here that John Weakland introduced Steve de Shazer
to Insoo Kim Berg. Steve followed Insoo to Milwaukee, and some
months later, they got married.
T: Did Steve also work at Family Center?
E: Yes. I worked there one afternoon every week. On other days,
I worked as a professor at the university, and I also had my private
practice a few nights a week. Steve and Jim Derks then left Family
Serivice and founded Brief Family Therapy Center, which at first
operated at Insoo's house. Later on, we found a place of business
on Capitol Drive, and I also moved my private practice there.
This happened in 1978. Insoo still stayed at Family Service, where
she worked as a leading trainer. However, she also worked part
time at BFTC. Insoo's salary was the only income for the family,
because BFTC wasn't making a lot of money yet. Some months later,
Eve Lipchik and Marilyn LaCourt ended their studies at Family
Service (Eve had also attended my lectures at the university while
completing her MSW degree).
After this, Marilyn, Eve and Insoo all left their former jobs
and started to work full time at the BFTC. The center now had
five employees. I was also there part time, as well as a family
doctor called Marvin Wiener. However, Marvin wasn't there for
long, because he got a post as an employment doctor. The young
man [Don Norum], whom I mentioned being with us in Chicago, never
came to BFTC. He did keep contact with us for some time, but then
left Family Service to act as the head of mental health department
at Family Health Plan, and sort of left the scene.
T: Did you ever work full time at the BFTC?
E: No, because I had my post at the university.
T: So you were part of the BFTC team from '76 all the way until...?
E: Until 1990. For fourteen years. Marilyn left the group four,
five years earlier. I think that was in 1985 or 1984. It was around
the time that we were becoming solution-focused. That development
had, however, begun as early as '82 or '83. Eve left the group
either in '86 or '87.
T: I was told that the solution-focused approach was developed
E: That's not entirely true. The approach was developed a little
earlier than that. In '85, Steve published his book “Keys
to Solution in Brief Therapy”, and that same year, I held
my first solution-focused training in Finland. Our method was
already clearly solution-focused at that time. It had definitely
formed a few years earlier.
T: In my opinion, David Kiser's dissertation “The Process
and Politics of Solution-Focused Therapy Theory Development”
gives a good and process-oriented description of the formation
of the solution-focused method, and it discusses many different
levels of this process. In addition to intra- and interpersonal
stories, there is also the political and philosophical level.
E: There is one thing, however, that is not discussed, something
significant for me that we perceived as the method was forming.
Our clients do not become dependent on us. In earlier psychotherapy
literature, client dependence and transference was discussed a
lot. We, on the other hand, noticed how indepedendent people had
become while working in a solution-focused framework. I remember
that one day, there was a big blizzard, and Eve couldn't make
it to the office. I had come in earlier, and her client arrived
at the right time. I went to them and said that Eve couldn't make
it and I will be your therapist today. They replied, ”OK.”
I read in the notes what kind of feedback had been given the previous
time and if there was some homework. That was all I needed to
know about this client.
T: You simply picked up where Eve had left off.
E: That's right, and the following week, Eve was there and picked
up where I had left off! After that, Steve and I decided to take
turns in our consultations at the Janesville psychiatric clinic,
so that every other Friday he'd be there, and every other Friday
I'd be there.This didn't disrupt the direct client work, quite
the contrary. Our methods were so similar and small personal differences
didn't have much of a meaning to the clients; they always met
a bearded guy, no matter what. Since there was no dependence,
the therapies were easy to terminate; all we had to do was ask
if this is enough. Have you reached your goals now? Would you
like to come for a follow-up visit sometime, or shall we call
you? People used to spend months ending therapy relationships,
and there was a lot of discussion about the feelings involved.
Now all we did was ask, ”Is this good?”
T: So this is is the feature that David Kiser doesn't mention?
E: Yes. And it isn't that the clients didn't value what they
got out of therapy, they just didn't care who did the job, as
long as it worked for them.
T: They were happy to get what they wanted and to reach their
E: That's right. One relic among others.
T: Steve told me yesterday how the scale question was born. One
of the clients had come into their second session, and the therapist
had asked how they are and what is better. The client had spontaneously
replied: ”I'm almost at a ten!” The therapist started
playing with numbers, and this developed into the scale question.
Your experience is similar. Something happens during the work
process, you find that it works, and you do more of it.
E: Sometimes whatever happened, happened completely by accident.
For instance, the blizzard taught us that it doesn't really matter
who the client meets, as long as the method stays the same.
T: So you simply observed what worked and did more of it.
E: Eve and I did disagree somewhat on the miracle question, which
was made almost into a relic. I don't think the miracle is really
about the miracle question, but rather everything that makes the
client think in terms of a problem-free future. The miracle question
is only one way of doing it. Insoo and Steve, on the other hand,
don't think like this. To them, the miracle question is like a
relic [laughs]. We disagreed on this for the most part. I think
the miracle question is a great invention, but sometimes focusing
solely on that can cover up the process itself, and there are
other ways of guiding the client to think of a problem-free future.
T: So you can use many tools to achieve the same goal.
E: That's right. It distrubs me a bit that one – albeit
efficient – question has been canonised so much.
T: Perhaps it is a kind of trademark, and you must protect that
E: Perhaps. Either way, there are a lot of feelings involved
in these issues sometimes.
From Couple Communication to Darned Events
T: I would like to go back a bit, so that I could understand
what you did before '76, when you came to Family Service and met
the future BFTC group members. What had happened before that?
What had you studied?
E: I had completed my degree in Minneapolis in '72. At the time,
we were working on a couple communication development program
that spread around the world. I was traveling a lot from between
the west coast and the east coast, training people. It was a pretty
tough time, because I was also working full time as a professor
in the university.
T: Where you already in Milwaukee at the time?
E: I came here in 1970, one year before getting my degree. Until
1975, all of my free time was spent training couple communication
trainers. And this was happening all across the country. I also
brought the program into Finland and Norway. Around that time,
I also started my own part-time therapy practice, but before that,
all my of free time was spent with couple communication.
T: How did you work as a therapist at the time?
E: I focused on communication and networking in the style of
Virginia Satir's. She was my mentor at the time. She also wrote
the foreword to a couple of our textbooks, because we had applied
some of her thoughts in them. I used her ideas a lot in my work.
So this is the way I worked until I traveled to the Watzlawick
and Weakland seminar in Chicago.
T: It must have been quite an experience for all of you!
E: Yes, it was. That was when there was a spark and things started
happening. And things gained a meaning.
T: Then you came back and started to work differently and do
E: I still remember some bon mots from that seminar. For example
how Weakland defined life to be one damn thing after another.
T: And you had been in contact with Gregory Bateson and Milton
Eriksson. Weakland and Haley had, for several years, spent weeks
on end following Milton Eriksson's work in Phoenix. And before
that, Weakland was involved in the famous Bateson research group.
E: The Bateson project was very important for family therapy
and for other therapy orientations later. While working with communication,
I observed that it wasn't the most significant thing for everyone
when many other things were going on. The Watzlawick-Weakland
seminar filled a large gap in this respect.
T: So you were already looking for something that would work
E: That's right. Focusing on communication did work better than
the old psychoanalysis of the 1950's. More than half of the people
who came to different clinics in this country never came back
for another session. The psychoanalytical approach didn't speak
to them or help them.
T: My impression is that a real feeling of being heard was perhaps
not created there.
E: No, and neither was an experience of relevance. We simply
explored history, and the clients wanted to talk about their problems.
Problems were responded to by listening to more of the person's
life story, and even if people usually like to talk about themselves,
it didn't have much of a meaning for the problem solving. At the
time, our clients were wiser than us. The most important thing
is to have good intentions.
T: I would like to return to present time now. I know from my
own experience that you still work powerfully within the framework
created by the group at BFTC. Could you tell me something about
your recent work experience that has left a specific impression
on you. What are you enthusiastic about these days?
E: On my latest trip to Finland, I thought it was significant
to notice how diaconal workers use the solution-focused therapy.
Their clients often come into the office because of their economical
and practical problems. During the sessions, people complain about
how hard life is on them and their loved ones. Therapists would
usually classify these type of clients as a ”visitors”,
who do have real problems, but who don't quite belong in therapy.
If you ask them, ”How would you know if your problems had
been solved”, they will reply, ”I'd know when I've
gotten money.” You can't apply the regular exiamination
of benefits and goals with them. However, examining the exceptions
works very well in this particular case. ”How have you survived
in your life so far with all these problems?” For instance,
I remember a client who hadn't paid their rent in a while, and
this was no the first time. ”How on earth did you manage
to live so that you weren't evicted?” - ”How did you
manage to convince your landlord that, despite everything, you
are a reliable person who shouldn't be evicted?” We used
to think in the solution-focused circles that you can't really
work with ”visitors” in any ways except by giving
positive feedback. Diaconal workers can't really work like this
and send away their clients.
T: So you can work with ”visitors” without making
them ”real clients”. They also benefit a lot from
the attention paid to their current methods of survival. But what
was it that made this so significant for you?
E: That was the very thing! That there are ways of working with
these clients, other than listening to them sympathetically or
handing out money. Having this insight has had a great meaning
for diaconal workers; they don't need to belittle their work,
and they can really feel they're helping these numerous ”visitors”
by paying attention to small exceptions and empowering their clients
T: OK. When you think about your current and past work experiences,
your role in the development of the solution-focused therapy,
and your own life history, do you find resources there that have
somehow shown up in the course of your professional journey?
E: Oh, there are so many! It's difficult to pick anything more
detailed or specific... Maybe the idea that in life, making money
and using power are meaningless, unless you also further the human
condition. It doesn't matter what you work with, as long as you
do what you do meaning well. I didn't know this yet when I was
picking my own line of work. I thought that you must consider
carefully, so that you don't have to regret your decision later.
At first, I was oriented to something other than relationships,
but when I volunteered in work camps in Finland and other places,
I thought that in a job related to relationships, I could also
further peace work. Afterwards, however, I've noticed that this
The Stream of Change
T: What kinds of values or basic assumptions have inspired your
work throughout your long career?
E: I believe that all people are valuable, even if they have
committed horrible acts or crimes. Their value as human beings
is immeasurable at all times. Every person literally contains
god. And that is why we are always immeasurably valuable just
the way we are.
T: Has this belief always been in you, or has it perhaps developed
during your long career as a therapist? Can a certain kind of
work also create certain kinds of values? Which came first, the
chicken or the egg?
E: Different methods always provide an opportunity to be connected
with different sides of humanity in different ways. If you use
all of your time having conversations with someone about how horrible
some person is, how horrible this person or the world is, you
are only connected to one part of reality. If, on the other hand,
you direct your interest on what works, what people like, in what
areas they've succeeded, then a part of you is in contact with
a different part of the other person. You don't get as tired when
you work in a solution-focused way, and you are always in contact
with the element of hope in yourself and your client. Their hope
touches you and your hope touches them; so you are basically in
contact with the people in a very different way.
T: And it affects you as a therapist. Could you argue that the
solution-focused therapy also affects its user in a spiritual
E: Yes. It positions you and your client into a space where respect,
gratitude and compassion have a great role and influence.
T: What is your current metaphor for solution-focused therapy?
E: I recently read de Shazer and Miller's article ”Solution-Focused
Therapy as a Rumor”. In Finland, I met lots of people who
knew only very little about the solution-focused approach, and
they had very weird ideas about it. In the end of the 70's and
80's, we didn't train people in a solution-focused framework,
but rather according to the model of the Californian MRI Brief
Therapy. When we switched to solution-focused therapy, they also
felt they were working in a solution-focused framework. So there
are lots of rumors about the solution-focused approach, and they
mix with different methods. Another metaphor could be a river
that is constantly changing. It is different in different places.
It is even different in the same place. It changes all the time.
T: As rivers flow, they also change their environment. And while
flowing into the sea, they might connect waters from many different
E: I like this river metaphor. There have been many schools of
thought involved in the development of the solution-focused therapy–
paradoxality, balance theory, chaos theory – that have caused
their own whirls and then been left on the background. However,
change is something that has remained as a common denominator
the whole time. And the river's journey has been fun and inspiring.