Possibility therapy encourages people in therapy to discover solutions to their challenges rather than dwelling on the causes of their problems. The focus is often on future opportunities rather than past pains.
This approach draws from the humanistic therapy of Carl Rogers. Possibility therapy centers around the individual. The person in therapy often directs the session and sets the pace.
Carl Rogers developed the aspect of humanistic psychology that focuses on the person in therapy. His method of treatment offers compassion without judgment and validates individuals as experts on their own lives.
In the 1980s, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg created solution-focused therapy, which builds upon the idea of humanistic therapy and seeks solutions instead of stigmatizing problematic behavior. Possibility therapy, an offshoot of solution-focused therapy, helps people see the possibilities in their lives instead of the limitations. Psychotherapist William (Bill) O’Hanlon is possibility therapy’s primary creator.
Therapists who practice possibility therapy acknowledge that no one is perfect, offering acceptance instead of shame to the individuals they work with in therapy.
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Possibility therapy derives its approach from three core goals:
- Validating experiences and ideas
- Encouraging people to see things from new perspectives
- Accessing strengths and resources to reach a solution
Practitioners of possibility therapy help individuals see opportunity in challenges. They often work to alter negative and self-defeating thought patterns, replacing them with hope for greater possibilities. A few examples include:
- Treating problems as fleeting and changeable rather than permanent and unmanageable
- Replacing blame with a focus on solutions for the future
- Viewing each problem as something experienced rather than a characterization of the person
- Seeing problems as periodic instead of viewing life as riddled with problems
Possibility therapists work with people to clearly identify specific problems and shape solutions to those issues. A person who is upset about stress at work might aim to understand why work is so challenging, then implement solutions for a better workday. Those solutions might include changing their interaction style, looking for a new job, or making an effort to notice positive occurrences at work.
Possibility therapists tend to see themselves as guides, not experts. The person in therapy is seen as the expert on their own life. The therapist may seek to help them access their own inner resources and facilitate their ability to see solutions and possibilities. Possibility therapists typically do not make specific prescriptions, nor do they view a single set of behaviors or emotions as “normal.” It is then up to the individual to define what a healthy, happy life looks like for them.
- Validate feelings while still acknowledging that other feelings and ways of being may be possible
- Seek out exceptions to the problem to help people abandon global “always” and “never” thinking
- Encourage people to abandon labels in favor of description and concrete action
- Help set realistic goals
- Aid people in accessing internal and external resources and encouraging them to notice signs of positive change
- Offer alternative ways of thinking about and framing things
- Promote reflection on the way issues are thought about by highlighting the value of personal experience
- Use a collaborative framework
Therapists often encourage people to explore multiple solutions, allowing them to reflect on a range of future outcomes. This focus on the future turns attention away from pain in the past, can discourage rumination on painful emotions, and may offer prompt relief even before the goals set in therapy are achieved.
Possibility therapy does not require any specific certification. However, therapists practicing this method must be licensed mental health professionals. Bill O’Hanlon and other proponents of possibility therapy frequently offer lectures and seminars about the approach. Because possibility therapy is a philosophy rather than a prescriptive method, each therapist’s approach is likely to vary.
Possibility therapists may work with families, couples, groups, or individuals to find solutions. It can help people manage a range of issues, but may be especially effective in goal-setting for those who feel stuck or frustrated.
Research suggests possibility therapy can alleviate a range of symptoms. A 1994 study pointed to its role in couples counseling, since it uses a nonpathologizing approach that can help couples more positively communicate. Some therapists use possibility therapy with adults who were abused as children. In this context, possibility therapy can turn attention to the future, helping people reduce the impact of past hurts.
Possibility therapy is a generalized approach that draws from humanistic principles, not a formula for treatment, meaning therapists may need to draw upon their own experience and wisdom when treating individuals. Less experienced therapists or those unfamiliar with humanistic principles may not know how to most effectively utilize the method.
Research into the effectiveness and appropriate use of possibility therapy is limited. Few studies use experimental models or controls to weight outcomes or compare possibility therapy to other approaches. This means possibility therapy must be treated as a novel, experimental approach rather than as evidence-based psychotherapy. More research is necessary to validate its use.
- Friedman, S. (1994, January 14). Possibility therapy with couples. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 4(4), 35-52. doi:10.1300/j085v04n04_02
- O’Hanlon, B. (2010). Frequently asked questions about possibility therapy. Retrieved from http://www.billohanlon.com/FAQS/questionsaboutpossibilitytherapy/billohanlon.html
- O’Hanlon, B. (n.d.). Solution-based basics. Retrieved from http://www.billohanlon.com/LazyMan/files/solution-based-basics.pdf
- O'Hanlon, W. (1998). Possibility therapy: An inclusive, collaborative, solution-based model of psychotherapy. The handbook of constructive therapies: Innovative approaches from leading practitioners. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1998-07937-007
- What is the solution-focused approach? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.brief.org.uk/about-us/what-is-the-solution-focused-approach