Duncan Law

January 2019

Goal-oriented practice argues that the starting point of any intervention and the primary focus of therapy should be: “What do you want to change?”.  ‘What do you want to change?’, invites the client to share their hopes and wishes for the outcome of a therapeutic encounter: what they want to be different as a result of the effort and what resource they will need to invest in the therapy  – in short it asks for an expression of the client’s ‘goals’.  

Goal-orientated practice necessarily includes the need to understand the ‘problem’ through diagnosis or formulation, but it emphasises the primary purpose of therapy from being one of ‘understanding’ to being one of ‘change’.  This is not to play down the power of understanding as an intervention in creating shift, but in goal–orientated practice the emphasis is on the client’s wish for change and the therapy and therapist is guided by, and focused on, the change goal: “what I want to be different”.

In this sense goal-orientated practice is a therapeutic stance rather then a therapeutic model. Once a therapy goal has been collaboratively agreed it is possible to use any suitable intervention to reach it. Goal -orientated practice does not dictate any particular therapeutic model in which to reach the goal, but rather provides a focus, or a direction of travel, that the therapist and client have agreedto work on together to reach.  It works on the pluralistic principle that there are many potential vehicles that can take you towards the same destination. 

Goal-orientated practice is simply any therapeutic encounter that works towards helping a person move towards what they want to get out of the endeavour of a therapeutic intervention. A ‘goal’ is simply a shorthand for “what I want to be different if therapy is successful”.  Whatever phrase we choose to name ‘goals’, it is the concept behind the phrase: ‘goal -orientated practice’, that is of importance here. 

It might be argued that this is no different in purpose from pretty much all therapy.  The difference with goal -orientated practice is the degree to which the goals are made explicit, collaboratively agreed, perceived as jointly owned, and form a focus for change. In goal–orientated practice the goals of the client and the goals of the therapist are made explicit, and the therapy takes place where these goals overlap, are co-constricted and collaboratively agreed.

This blog is adapted from Law, D. (2018) ‘goal-oriented practice’ in Cooper and Law (eds) Working with goals in psychotherapy and counselling’OUP 

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