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Big Changes Start Small: The Scaling Question

Big changes start small. This is what I learned from behavioral theory. There is a lot of overlap between effective behavioral change and Solution Focused Brief Therapy.  Steve deShazer, co-creator of SFBT said he doesn’t know why SFBT works, he just knows it does.  After studying work about behaviorism and developing habits, I put together some of the reasoning behind why it works.  

Scaling Questions to Help Think Small

One of the things we do in SFBT is use scaling questions.  We ask a client where they would rate their current progress from one to ten, with ten being the best.  Then we look at what you’re doing right that lets it be that number instead of a lower number.  Next we will look at what a half number higher will look like.  Sometimes I even ask for a smaller increase in the number, say one quarter higher because big changes start small.  What we’re asking clients to do is think about small but noticeable changes they can make. These changes should be really easy to perform and implement. 

Small Changes Are Easier to Keep Going

Making one small change not only makes a difference, it’s also easy to keep doing.  This is what behaviorism has taught me.  Changes have to be small and easy for us to keep them going.  When the changes are too big, you can do it for a short time, but soon get burned out by taking on too much at once.

Behaviorists sometimes talk about one percent changes.  They recommend looking for ways to start with 1% improvement of the behavior at first.  If you improve by 1% every week, then in two months you’ve improved by 8%.  In a year, you’ve improved by 52%.  This is good improvement compared to changing by, say, 50% in a week, and then quitting whatever you’re trying to improve because you burned yourself out.  

So when I use the scale, I ask you to talk about what a 1 or 2% change in behavior will look like for you.  I want you to start small on purpose so you have success but aren’t overwhelmed by trying to do too much too soon.

Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan.  He provides counseling for couples, teenagers, and adults.  He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more.  For more information, please visit the website at