The Getting and Giving of Wisdoms
Submission: Master of Family Therapy (Minor Thesis)
Faculty: Health Sciences.
School: Public Health, The Bouverie Centre.
University: La Trobe University
Bundoora, Victoria 3086
¨Except where reference is made in the text of the thesis, this thesis contains no material published elsewhere or extracted in whole or in part from a thesis submitted for the award of any other degree or diploma. No other person’s work has been used without due acknowledgement in the main text of the thesis. This thesis has not been submitted for the award of any degree or diploma in any other tertiary institution.
Therapists at the family therapy agency that was the setting for this project, had an intuitive feeling that their clients might be aided in their recovery through hearing the experiences of others who have overcome similar problems. Clients were asked to write their stories so we could gather an archive to use for the project. The writing of their stories had a significant impact on our clients. Thus, the aim of this study became to explore the effects on clients and their therapists of both the gathering and the circulation of client Wisdoms – written stories of facing and overcoming mental health, trauma and relationship problems. Using a Participatory Action Research methodology, a group of seven therapists, representing the different specialist teams at the agency, came together to direct the research as a shared group enterprise. The project brought forth important findings that are worthy of further research. We were able to discover that through the process of writing their story, some clients experienced empowerment and self-compassion, and were able to reconnect with family members. The process apparently set in motion a virtuous cycle of healing which promoted self-recognition and possibilities for change. In addition, as a result of hearing another’s ‘success’ story, our clients were able, through connecting with others’ experiential knowledge, to speak about and reflect on their own situation in a more useful and liberating way. The action research process acted as a means to incite us (the research group) to join together to share and listen to our respective findings. If some of us struggled with how to generate and/or share Wisdoms with our clients, we nonetheless, as a group, have been inspired to continue ‘researching’ the use of Wisdoms in family therapy. The journey of this project unfolds as a narrative. It is an invitation to you, the reader, to stay engaged with the lived experience of this researcher, as well as an encouragement to develop your own conclusions about the discoveries made in the context of the inquiry.
I wish to thank the research group: Pam, Colin, Greg, Jenny, Amaryll and Nicky who, because they gave their commitment, interest and precious time, made this project possible. I thank them, too, for acting as my reflecting team. I owe a particular debt to Nicky Maheras for standing by me with enthusiasm, dedication and inspiration, particularly in the early, lonely days of the project. Kathy Lacey deserves a commendation for hearing me out when I most needed a sounding board, for reading drafts and contributing supportive feedback, and for providing a soft and considerate cushion to fall back on when the going got tough. I wish to thank Dr. Amaryll Perlesz, my ‘supervisor extraordinaire’, for the pencilled scrawls of tough love that spurred me on to do nothing less than my best, and whose faith and trust in me I have attempted to honour in these pages. The Meridian Team, Helen Landau, Rosemary Paterson, Cyra Fernandez and Kathy Lacey, were my ‘ya ya’ sisterhood, nurturing me with clients, stories, love and merriment throughout the project’s unfolding. Finally, and most importantly, I have to thank my partner Tony who, while acting as a slave to my ‘master’s’, read drafts and provided humour, patience, support, creative input in the layout & production, a dining room table, and tireless and generous love. My greatest debt, however, has to be to Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, the sound of life that sustains and replenishes me through every endeavour.
THE GETTING AND GIVING OF STORY TELLING
“Please come back, and finish your story!”
Alice called after it;
and the others all joined in chorus,
“Yes, please do!”…
(Carroll, 1866: 38)
THE PARABLE OF THE JEWEL IN THE ROBE
We are like a poor and impoverished man
Who went to the house of a close friend.
The house was a very prosperous one
And he was served many trays of delicacies.
The friend took a priceless jewel,
Sewed it in the lining of the poor man’s robe,
Gave it without a word and then went away,
And the man, being asleep, knew nothing of it.
After the man had gotten up,
He journeyed here and there to other countries,
Seeking food and clothing to keep him alive,
Finding it very difficult to provide for his livelihood.
He made do with what little he could get
And never hoped for anything finer,
Unaware that in the lining of his robe
He had a priceless jewel.
Later the close friend who had given him the jewel
Happened to meet the poor man
And after sharply rebuking him,
Showed him the jewel sewed in the robe.
When the poor man saw the jewel*
His heart was filled with great joy,
For he was rich, possessed of great wealth and goods
Sufficient to satisfy the five desires.
We are like that man.
Because we are unaware, without wisdom
We remain unknowing.
[The Lotus Sutra, chapter 8 (translation by Burton Watson),:52)]
*In Buddhist teachings the “jewel” represents Buddhahood, the wisdom of the Buddha. The man in a drunken stupor symbolises our ignorance about the true nature of our lives. His finding the jewel stands for our awakening to the unlimited potential and wonder of our life.
“Parables are wisdom and compassion distilled to their most fragrant essence.”
(Ikeda, 1996: 112)
“…this miraculous ability of man to be disturbed by another being’s misfortunes,
to feel joy about another being’s happiness, to experience another’s fate as one’s own.”
(Chukodovsky, 1963: 138)
It was suffering that lead me to Buddhism and it was after revolutionising or healing my life through Buddhist practice, that I was inspired to develop myself as a therapist of suffering others. I had grown up, the daughter of a diplomat and his wife, travelling from country to country – a rootless existence compounded by a legacy on my French mother’s side of jewish persecution and on my Australian father’s of ostracism for being different. The sense of not belonging geographically and nationally was no doubt the reason I took so easily to the actor’s lifestyle I adopted in my early adult life. Without my own identity I could so easily put on the identities of fictitious others. It was liberating. It was exhilarating, too, to be able to express a concert of emotions, and to sing these out loud in the voice of the character I was playing. Having never had a voice, I found so many voices within me that I could bring to life. It was a powerful experience for me to tell another’s story. It was healing, too, but not enough. I had to find my own story. I had to tell my own story. In deep conversation with my Buddhahood, I was to realise that my happiness would be found in laying down roots, taking on responsibility and belonging to a community. I stopped acting, settled in one place and turned towards a new career.
FINDING FAMILY THERAPY
The journey took a winding course. It included a relatively brief encounter with the medical model as a qualified psychiatric nurse. But it was with the philosophy and practice of family therapy that I found my ‘fit’. I saw this approach as seeing people’s lives being shaped by familial, social and cultural interactions. It was anti-individualistic. It resonated with my own need for interconnections. My love of language and story, coming as I had from the theatre, made the Narrative therapy field particularly appealing and consequently probably not surprising that the subject of my master’s minor thesis would involve narratives and storytelling. Also, because Buddhism is such an important part of my life, I relate to those aspects of therapeutic models that reflect its philosophy. Just as with the parable of “The Jewel in the Robe”, the teachings of Buddhism all amount to celebrating human life as a great, majestic, and splendid jewel studded tower, that has infinite potential. I now believe that we need not be stuck with our lives, as they are, immersed in suffering. If we could only see the possibilities for our lives, we might write and rewrite the story of our lives in a myriad of differing ways. If we allow ourselves to get off the treadmill of karmic (habitual) responses, and become the authors of our lives, then new possibilities do emerge. If we could see how our lives are deeply and fundamentally, intertwined with the lives of all others we would not feel so isolated, alone or stuck. I see parallels in the Narrative way of working with people.
HUMAN REVOLUTION AND STORYTELLING
It has been part of the tradition of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, the one I have practised for the last 15 years, that we will periodically relate an experience of how, through Buddhist practice, we have revolutionised our lives. We call this process “human revolution”, a process of mind change that leads to beneficial improvements in our lives and the lives of those around us. The experiences of our “human revolution”, become modern day parables. The telling is a demonstration of our taking charge of our lives. It is also a way of giving back- an expression of gratitude for having benefited from hearing others’ stories. Hearing these experiences, encourages us to think for ourselves bringing about dramatic changes in attitude. We are thus heartened to respond with a new chapter to our life’s story. It is a recursive and never ending engagement of living, telling, retelling and reliving. The joy of realisation and consequent changes made, fill us with an irrepressible desire to share this evolution with others. These narratives further encourage and enlighten the listeners to reauthor their lives and so it goes on.
A RESEARCH PROPOSAL
Thus when the invitation came for me to participate in a research project to examine the effects of having previous clients’ narratives of change available to those families currently in therapy, I was very interested. If my life experience was anything to go by, the individual and familial experiences of triumphing over problems might in some way lend courage and hope to other troubled families seeking re-solution in therapy. The gift of giving to others might also be a way of recuperating a sense of worthiness after having previously felt despairing.
THIS JOURNEY- A NARRATIVE ITSELF
The pages that follow are, in keeping with the theme of the project, the narrative or story of my journey of researching the therapeutic possibilities of narratives within a publicly funded family therapy agency. It is written in the third person, in parallel with a discovery made during the research, that a person telling or listening to their story as if they were someone else, invites a distancing that brings with it clarity and understanding.
I felt the need to do this, myself- to thus write the thesis as a story or experience. It is also an acknowledgement that the writing necessarily is from my own point of view, as the protagonist Catherine, and so, even though this is a collaborative research project, I am, in the write-up, a not impartial teller who has a distinctive background of assumptions and biases.
“Would you tell me, please,
which way I ought to walk from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where…” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.
“…so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat,
“if you only walk long enough.”
(Carroll, 1866: 90)
A PROJECT IS PROPOSED
Catherine was beginning to get rather nervous. She was about to embark on a Master’s Family Therapy Course, what an adventure, and she needed a project from which to hang a minor thesis. She was ruffling through her mind at the possibilities, wondering how on earth she would come up with something when at her interview to enter the Master of Family Therapy program, the senior lecturer wondered out loud if she would be interested in participating in a newly funded research project, ” it would be at the publicly funded family therapy clinic where the university is teaching family therapy”.
You could have knocked Catherine over with a feather. “This could be part of your master’s”, said the senior lecturer. “The project will take place in two parts, collection of testimonies in the first half of the year. The second half, would be comparing therapeutic outcomes of people hearing testimonies in therapy with those of a control group that would not read or hear a testimony and would be receiving treatment as usual.” It was sounding complicated, but, being game, Catherine listened on. “You might play a role as project coordinator in developing a semistructured interview for the gathering, do some gathering yourself, transcribe interviews and assist staff in integrating these in their practice.”
How interesting, she thought. Fifteen years of belonging to a Buddhist community that used experiences to encourage its members, meant that she appreciated the potential hope giving effects of hearing others’ success stories. Catherine had also been inspired by David Epston’s work in exploring the idea and practice of using ‘communities of concern’ in the therapeutic process. The anti-anorexia and anti-bulimia leagues were two such communities and the archives produced by these leagues, at David Epston’s suggestion, had been invaluable to her a couple of years before, when she was working with a group of adolescents in in-patient psychiatry. She had observed the group members draw strength and hope from the anti-anorexia league members’ narratives. It was striking. In exposing anorexia’s tricks and plans, in the form of experiential narratives, the league members had encouraged the participants in her group by, she observed, bringing hope and life back to their hearts, imaginations and lives. It was as if these stories enabled the participants to dare to confront anorexia in a different way and thus pen their own stories. The effect of empowerment and pride was tangible. Catherine believed that each person has a wealth of possibilities to draw from in times of suffering, and she saw therapy as a means of harnessing these. David Epston’s co-research (see literature review section), as she understood it, was about this~ about empowering people through assisting them to document the ways they have found to reduce, transform or eliminate the oppressive effects of a problem. These documents then have the possibility of providing a point of entry, even inspiration, for the reader to tackle their own related problem for themselves.
PART A- COLLECTION
But there was a niggle of a doubt tickling at the back of Catherine’s mind. A half year to collect enough testimonies to enable the second half of the research to work? They would need a good many ~ maybe 200?
“We’ll ask therapists at the agency to make the contributions, you won’t be doing this on your own. Would you like a partner to work with you?” asked the senior lecturer. You bet, she thought. Catherine did not know most of the 15 or so therapists working at this agency and to have someone who was a staff member working along side her, would be invaluable.
PART B- EVALUATION
The second half of the project, “evaluating the efficacy of making these ‘wellness testimonies’ available to other clients in the course of their counselling treatment” (see research proposal – Appendix A), was also worrying Catherine. It appeared to her to be very difficult to measure this with any real validity. She tried to put on the empirical researcher’s cap and imagine a group of identically cloned therapists mechanistically using the same testimonies in the same manner in the same sequence to a group of identical clients who manifested exactly the same problem. Ludicrous! Wouldn’t there be just too many variables to control? For example, the testimony itself (e.g. “fit” with client), the number of testimonies used, the timing of introduction of testimonies, the idiosyncratic styles of therapists, and indeed the uniqueness of each family and degree of severity of the problem. A systematic application and evaluation would definitely be needed as the original project suggested but, she wondered, how?
A BROAD BASED RANGE OF PROBLEMS
The subtext (acknowledging client expertise) underlying the aim of “increasing therapeutic cost-effectiveness”, however, thoroughly grabbed Catherine and her new work partner, Nicky. Both had, in different ways, experienced the importance of privileging client knowledge and ability to overcome problems. Catherine certainly saw therapy as a means of empowering people to see themselves as agents of change and consultants in their own right, and preferred this to identifying the therapist’s actions as critical to the emergence of solutions. What was also very new and interesting about this project, for Catherine, was the use of narratives with families presenting with a wide range of problems. The therapists at the agency worked with families experiencing sexual abuse, eating disorders, family conflict and violence, mental illness, loss and grief, child and adolescent behavioural difficulties, and head injury. Indeed, teams were set up to specialise in these different areas.
FINDING THE NAME
Initially, the name “wellness testimony” had been mooted for these documents. For Catherine and Nicky, the word “testimony” had important legal connotations, something spoken under oath, or of profound social justice significance (as in holocaust survivors). It was sounding too definitive, even too ‘earth shattering’. And “wellness” connoted a physical more than a psychological state. Catherine and Nicky hoped that these documents might 99 also include simple discoveries, where change is seen as a process rather than a state. They did not all have to be dramatic life stories of change. They could be experiences relating to a small aspect of life. A different, more simple, name might make the collection appear less dramatic, more user friendly. Catherine had been moved and inspired by Judith Kelleher’s (2000) Master’s thesis which told the stories of resilience and strength, or ‘Wisdom Journeys’ of mothers whose sons had met traumatic brain injury. And then, a book of “Tribal Wisdom” fortuitously crossed Catherine’s path: “A person should rely on her own resources; the one who so trains himself is ready for any emergency” (Omaha, oral tradition). Catherine and Nicky pondered for a moment after reading this, and in concert arrived at “Wisdoms”, agreeing on the notion of wisdom as “understanding coming from experience”. The name of the project would be
WISDOMS. GROWING PAINS
As project co-ordinator it was Catherine’s role, together with Nicky’s assistance, to motivate staff to begin generating client Wisdoms. Little did they know how difficult this would prove to be! Feeling lost and bewildered amongst this unknown tribe of people, a lot like “Alice in Wonderland”, Catherine wondered where they should start. They decided to produce “exciting’ newsletters (see Appendix B). When there appeared to be no response after the initial distribution they thought to include, in a subsequent edition, a short description of the process and the outcome of a smallish ‘Wisdom’ that one of them had generated. They hoped thus to muster interest and give a sense that a Wisdom need not be a life story or biography. When there was still no response, Catherine and Nicky decided to send out invitations to staff from other agencies to collect narratives from their own clients. They hoped, thereby, to speed up the collecting as well as share the project and future archive with other agencies. In addition, regular morning meetings were offered, but coffee and muffins just did not inspire.
SIX MONTHS LATER
What was happening? It was half way through the year and they had twelve to fourteen hours of audio-tape recordings, none of which had been transcribed or edited into a workable document. All of these had been the result of their single handed interviewing and indeed follow-up interviewing of the clients other therapists had sent to them. It had already taken much time. The therapists seemed reluctant to actually get down to generating Wisdoms themselves. Catherine and Nicky, wondered if their recruits (the therapists) were finding it all a bit too difficult. Perhaps generating narratives would need to take the sort of time that an already busy schedule scarcely permitted, especially as they were finding that few of their clients felt confident enough to write their own Wisdom, even when supplied with a series of questions to assist them (see Appendix C). How to encourage staff members to contribute to a project of which they had a distant grasp and for which their own frantic pace would not permit experimentation, was a question Catherine and Nicky now found themselves asking.
Already ethical issues that hadn’t at first been anticipated were arising. Interviewing the clients of other therapists was proving to be both therapeutic and disturbing. One woman reported reeling after an interview with Catherine. Hers had been a horrendous story of abuse and without her own therapist to ‘hold’ her as it were, during and after the interview, the telling of her story was potentially re-traumatising. Nicky and Catherine began to wonder if the interviewing process needed to come with a warning. It was becoming a big responsibility for both of them. There needed to be safety nets in place. In addition there were concerns about the impact a story might have on significant others who were not involved in its creation. Other family members might find the version defamatory. Would there be legal implications? Whose version, in a family, was most valid? How do you incorporate all versions? If the wisdom held identifying information how could it remain anonymous? There could not be video or audio recordings if confidentiality was to be assured. Questions were raised, too, with regards to the lengthy transcripts. How useful would these be to future clients and their therapists? Who would be responsible for the editing?
A CHANGE OF PERCEPTION
Even after David Epston was invited to run a workshop on “co-research’, in order to stimulate staff interest and introduce a way of generating Wisdoms that might overcome these ethical problems, there was still no obvious improvement in Wisdom generation. It became patently clear that a rethink was needed. All in all, the project team needed to consider a way of generating Wisdoms that was ethical, as well as efficient, that is, producible and readable within the time, space and safety of the therapeutic relationship. The therapists had to believe that it was a valuable therapeutic intervention, as well. Catherine and Nicky concluded that if archiving and using client Wisdoms was to be an ongoing, practical and therapeutic venture, something they themselves had already begun to experience, the therapists, too, would have to have this understanding. How could Catherine and Nicky best enable a group of therapists from this agency to experiment with the process? It was becoming clear that unless the therapists themselves ‘owned’ the project there was only a small chance of success.
PREPARING THE GROUND
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar…
Alice replied rather shyly,
…”I-I hardly know, sir,
just at present-at least I know
who I was when I got up this morning,
but I think I must have been changed
several times since then.”
(Carroll, 1866: 60)
“But if I am not the same,
the next question is, who in the world am I?
Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
A LITERATURE REVIEW
It was time to search the literature and discover what had been before. Because Catherine and Nicky had already inadvertently found that the impact of being interviewed for their story in writing, had a significant impact on some of the clients they spoke with, Catherine saw that it would be important to look at any related findings in the literature. Not only that, because the project was looking at circulating narratives of hope with clients at the agency, she would need to look at what the literature said in relation to these. She decided to explore these areas and as she read more she realised there was one area she had not thought to look at and this was the effect on the author, of having a story to give another. Thus the areas in the literature have been divided into four sections:
- NARRATIVES OF AGENCY
- GIVING BACK
- HEARING STORIES OF SUCCESS
The psychotherapy literature overwhelmingly indicates the positive healing effect of having one’s story of trauma spoken and/or written. Pennebaker (1989, 1993) is prominent in having conducted a number of cross sectional and longitudinal field and laboratory studies looking at the effects, on the physical health of adults, of recounting their experiences of past trauma.
Pennebaker’s studies have included research on over 300 students of psychology, 200 employees of a large corporation and 33 Holocaust survivors. Using standardised physiological tests as well as qualitative data, the studies ascertained the degree to which disclosing or inhibiting the communication of past traumas affects a person’s physical health (their T-cell count). Attention was paid by the experimenters to create an atmosphere that allowed for honest expression of ‘deepest secrets’, without inhibition, including negative feelings, such as anxiety and sadness. Anonymity was assured. Pennebaker concludes from his studies that, “requiring people to write or talk about trauma is associated with both immediate and long term health benefits” (1989:212), and health is endangered if the telling is inhibited. That said, he also found that the impact of disclosing is not immediately beneficial because the subjects often reported feeling significantly more sad, depressed, frustrated and guilty, in the time following the telling. However, over time, significant positive physical and psychological changes do occur, as a result of uninhibited disclosure of facts, thoughts and feelings. He found that it is not the degree of past traumatic experience that affects health but the degree to which a person holds back or suppresses fundamental thoughts and feelings about the trauma. The implications for therapists is that writing itself is a powerful therapeutic technique, and that movement towards the development of a narrative or the construction of a story might be an important goal of therapy with trauma survivors.
A Research group in Language and Writing at The Ackerman Institute in New York (Penn, 2001) has been inspired by Pennebaker’s findings, in their work with families “that suffer in silence with a chronic illness” (34). They discovered that encouraging families to write about their relationships with each other and the effects of the illness, and then having them read these aloud in each other’s presence, can be a “lifeline” that reconnects the family with each other and relieves the effects of the relational traumas of not being able to talk about the illness. Peggy Penn says, “the most important thing to say about using writing to address the silences of chronic illness is that to write gives us agency; we are not acted on by a situation, we are acting” (49).
Other therapists have also found that putting traumatic experience into language (not necessarily writing) aids in assimilation, understanding, agency and consequent healing. Therapists working with people who have been victims of the holocaust, childhood sexual abuse, grief and loss, as well as other significant traumas, suggest that if the trauma remains unstoried i.e. without language, and without an audience to the narrative, then the trauma continues to be relived in current relationships and daily circumstances. Since failure to integrate the distressing experience into an autobiographical memory is the core problem in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), an important aspect of the treatment consists of translating the nonverbal perceptual and affective states into a narrative memory with words, meaning and form (van der Kolk, McFarlane & Van der Hart, 1997). “Reexternalising”, i.e. literally transmitting the story of trauma to another outside oneself, thus constructing a narrative of meaning about the past that can be reflected upon and related to, helps to be able to live in the present, free of the trauma (Felman & Laub, 1992; Bird, 2000). The telling of the experience in a meaningful and coherent narrative (e.g. defined, talked and/or written about) helps to gain a sense of control and mastery (Parry, 1997; Sedney, Baker & Gross, 1994; Shantall, 1999; Penn & Frankfurt, 1994) and also helps to make sense of the event in the context of a person’s current emotional and psychological situation (Crawford, Kippax, Onyx, Gault & Benson, 1992).
Indeed, Parry (1997) states: “It is only when a person’s succession of scenarios are linked together in a sense of a life narrative that she is able to assume agency” (122). Certainly these studies do not suggest that it is necessary to articulate the story in writing to find therapeutic relief, however, the effects of writing one’s experiences, as an adjunct to or instead of the oral articulation has not, in these examples, been delineated. There is potential for this project to consider this.
NARRATIVES OF AGENCY OR SELF DETERMINATION
[To be an authority of one’s own life, and thus find the solution to one’s own problems]
Benson (1997), working in the area of physical well-being, attests to the great importance for healing, when the patient and his or her treatment team believe that the patient has the strength and ability to recover themselves. Related to this, but moving into the area of trauma and abuse, is the work of van der Kolk (1999), a neurobiological psychiatrist. He has convincingly demonstrated that if the limbic system of severely abused people is reprogrammed to ‘remember’ a sense of agency and resourcefulness, then the pre-existing limbic memories of fear, guilt, and self-loathing can be dissolved. In this way, again, as with the findings of Felman & Laub and Bird, above, the individual is able to live in the present unencumbered by the feeling memories of past trauma.
Peggy Penn (1998) has found that intractable rape flashbacks can be dissolved when a protective figure or voice is introduced by the victim herself into the written flashback story. The victim is thus empowered to take charge of her life and the rape no longer recurs in her mind to interfere with personal agency and direction.
Parry (1991) suggests that the construction of one’s story reflects what one believes about oneself. If one believes that one is a loser then one chooses events that support that belief. Thus it might be possible to re-write one’s story as one of success and in so doing change the direction of one’s life.
The work of David Epston and Michael White, leading exponents of Narrative Therapy and the practice of “re-authoring”, demonstrates this. Based on the post-structural (linguistic/narrative) understanding that persons both shape and are shaped by experience and that experience structures and is structured by expression, they demonstrate the process of taking over one’s story consciously and making it one’s own (Epston, White & Murray, 1992). Rose’s story has become a seminal case study to illustrate the process. Rose gives testimony to the dramatic changes in her life that ensue as a result of the re-authoring. She says: “Possibly having my own [as opposed to others’ versions of my] story helped me find out my own attitude and thoughts…I started feeling I had validity…basically feeling so much better about myself allowed me to consider a very different kind of future for myself” (107). The authors conclude that freedom comes about from allowing each individual (oppressed by a problem) to understand themselves as active agents in their lives and able to construct his or her own life story as they would have it.
Believing that one has a sense of agency in one’s life appears to be a pivotal part of the process of healing.
In a bid to credit and honour client achievement and to privilege self-determination and personal agency, Epston and White (1990, 1995) will often conclude therapy with an interview that records and documents the problem-solving and preferred “knowledges” about self and relationships that have been “resurrected and/or generated” (1995: 13) during therapy. These are knowledges that have enabled the clients to free themselves of the problem. They suggest that having these knowledges available for self and others means these become more viable and enduring for the author.
Lobovits, Maisel, and Freeman (1995) also contend that having client stories of hope circulated to others gives therapeutic outcomes an added dimension: “whereas previously they may have felt degraded by the problem, the opportunity to contribute to others allows people to claim a preferred status e.g. from patient to consultant” (225). For example, “when Maria and her parents were told that reading her entry was useful to another child, it made them all proud and confirmed her status as a temper tamer”(227). These authors have also developed handbooks of children’s success stories and advice as offerings to readers potentially facing similar problems. These documents, they say, serve multiple purposes: empowering and respecting the children who have overcome problems, validating their struggle and success, giving their story purpose by enabling them to reach out to others, and to keep accounts that can serve as encouragement in times of their own setback. This is reminiscent of Frankl’s theory (1984) that human beings need to find meaning in life to be able to endure difficulties. One way to find meaning, he tells us, is by helping others, thereby transforming personal suffering into personal victory (Shantall, 1999; Boss, 1987).
HEARING STORIES OF SUCCESS – BEARING WITNESS
David Epston has created “archives”, defined by him as “a place where public records are kept” (1999: 146). These contain collections of people’s written and oral experiences describing the effects of debilitating and life threatening conditions (anorexia, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa) and the problem solving tactics that have helped them liberate their lives (Epston, White & Murray, 1992; Madigan & Epston, 1995; Grieves, 1997; Epston, 1999). We are told that hearing and reading these experiences brings hope to fellow sufferers (Epston, 1995) and even inspires recovery (Epston & White, 1989).
In order to begin collecting for his archive, David Epston (1999, 2000b) developed the practice of “co-research”. He defines this as “two persons[client and therapist] seeking knowledge and understanding in a common conversational endeavour, one as participant researcher and the other as practitioner researcher” (2000b). These documents reveal and record the “knowledge in the making” of the insider or sufferer. They do not promise to have all the answers. Thus the archives become a ‘well-spring’ for fellow sufferers to gain hope and inspiration, rather than prescriptions or right answers. David Epston uses these “insider knowledges” when he consults with clients struggling with related problems.
This process is illustrated in the case example of ‘Ben’ hospitalised with an “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”, externalised as “Mr. O.” (Epston, White & Ben, 1995). Ben is quoted as saying that what contributed significantly to his recovery was finding in David someone who, “really knew what I was going through, almost as if you were feeling the same pain I was feeling and could reach out and show me” (292). With Ben, David had “crossreferenced” knowledges he had of OCD from other boys and thus “thickens” [from Geertz (1973), a “thick description” of a cultural event is distinguished from the thin and multiple points of view available], in Ben’s mind, understandings of and possibilities for combating OCD. It appears that cross-referencing in some way contributed to Ben feeling so completely understood by David. Ben also cites two league members, whose stories he read, as also being helpful in his liberation: “[they] were my teachers and they had been through it and they knew what to do and what not to do and they passed that knowledge on to me…[I] feel like they are on my side and up in the front lines with me” (299). What is clear from this article is that the reading of the experiences of these league members, as well as the therapist’s cross-referencing, were a fundamental aspect of winning over “Mr. O”.
There was only one related study to be found outside the area of Narrative Therapy. This was an ethnographic study that field tested with a group of 10 Mexican American families, the use of 13 families’ parental stories of managing their concerns when a first born child enters the community school system. The researchers used the transcripts of the ways parents had managed their concerns and then categorised these thematically into 12 different categories of parental concern. Stories that corresponded thematically to the transcripted stories were read aloud to the ‘inexperienced’ parents. Each parent was then asked a series of closed questions. The parents who heard the stories, related to them to the extent that they were able to acquire new ways of managing specific concerns as well as finding their overall concerns were lessened. The researchers found that their study had implications for clinical work with families and were interested in conducting a further analysis to identify which stories were preferred for useful information or for emotional relief, or which encouraged behavioural change.
RATIONALE AND SIGNIFICANCE
So it was that Catherine found that there was nothing in the family therapy literature, other than in the area of Narrative Therapy, and one article from the nursing literature, that described effects, on client progress, of listening to others’ experiences.
That the effects of writing was mostly explored within the areas of trauma and chronic illness and again not in family therapy, surprised her. That said, in the areas where there was research on the impact of writing the evidence of it being therapeutic was overwhelming. If some people found it difficult to talk in therapy, then writing could prove to be a useful alternative. The added dimension of encouraging the client to write their experience as a ‘success’ story in order to help another, would be worthy of further considersation, In addition there was no literature on the impact on family therapists’ practice of collecting and circulating narratives of experience, whilst working with families experiencing a wide range of mental health and relationship problems and this might prove to be the key for the direction this project could take.
The next step was then to reconsider the aims of the project including the methodology by which these might be achieved.
BACKGROUND TO CHOOSING THE RESEARCH METHOD
Reading the literature was both a surprise and a confirmation of Catherine’s own experience of the potential effectiveness of narratives of ‘triumph’ to inspire and give hope. She knew the latter from the work of David Epston and her own experience in a Buddhist community and in therapy. What was new and surprising to learn were the important therapeutic effects on people of having their experience documented.The original reason for the project was to establish whether listening to others’ stories would affect therapy outcomes and now she was finding that the writing itself has potential therapeutic benefits. The research, thus, had to be about the effects of both the giving or writing of a Wisdom and the sharing of a Wisdom in Family Therapy. “Is writing a persuasive story of triumph different from just writing one’s story per se, and is it important for the listener to feel the person writing has moved on? Does this matter?”, she wondered. She, herself, wanted to learn more about the would-be effects (positive and negative) of having and hearing narratives on the families she was working with. However she also had to consider the agency’s needs: the establishment of an archive and the involvement of the therapists working at the agency, in order to make the funded research project happen. If therapists were to be involved, Catherine thought, they would have to believe, themselves, that gathering Wisdoms can be therapeutically useful and valid and not going to be an added burden on them to have to produce.
She recalled how the therapists who had come to a meeting during the early setting up of the project had posed a number of questions and dilemmas:
“How does a therapist generate a wisdom with their client?”
“Is it about an outsider interviewing the client and therapist together?”
“Is it about allowing the client to express what they would like others to know, what others would find useful, or is it about ‘let’s go on a journey of discovery and let us find out what has happened that has helped you through’, or is just about telling the story warts and all?”
“Is the ‘what has happened narrative’ useful to have in an archive? “
“At what stage of therapy does a therapist introduce the idea of writing their story?”
“What if the therapy has made no difference?”
“Does the therapist’s attitude to the interview affect whether a client sees it as a genuine coresearch inquiry (about change and what has made change happen) or a request to say nice things to make the therapist happy?”
“Are we bothered about the multiplicity of testimonies and the way of gathering? Are some more effective than others?”
“How do we ensure that the testimony of one person remains true to that person without it becoming slanderous to others in that person’s life, e.g. non present family members?”
“What is the therapist’s experience of hearing their own client’s story?”
“What is the client’s experience of having their therapist hear their story as a narrative?”
“What would be the impact on someone of giving their testimony if they do not receive any feedback from people reading or hearing these?”
These complexities had demonstrated to Catherine why just asking for therapists to contribute narratives from their clients had been anything but simple. She also realised that the literature, apart from David Epston and Michael White’s work, did not speak about the experience on the therapist’s practice of generating and using narratives in their family therapy practice. It was also not evident if and how therapists coming from a systemic viewpoint might develop this practice. For all these reasons Catherine needed to find a research methodology that might fit all these requirements, as well as her own philosophical and therapeutic position.
Social Constructionism It had not been difficult for Catherine to embrace social constructionism and the idea that understanding is always interpretive, that there is no privileged standpoint for understanding (Wachterhauser, 1986; Bruner, 1987). Buddhist theory very much espoused the relativity of all human beings’ viewpoints based on the theory of karma and a person’s life condition. It also espoused the theory of “dependent origination” or the intersubjective nature of human identity: “All phenomena in the universe, including the self, come into and go out of being as a consequence of mutual dependence” (Galtung & Ikeda, 1995: 31). Buddhism recognised, too, the powerful influence of language, not only to colonise the ‘weak’ or less informed, but also its ability to transform, through dialogue, the human tendency to dominate and subjugate others.
She connected with the ‘second order’ cybernetic position, that the act of observation changes the nature of the thing observed. The observer and the observed, far from being separate, are coupled in the most intimate of ways. There is no such thing as objectivity. It had been demonstrated philosophically (von Glaserfeld, 1984), logically (Keeney, 1983, von Foerster, 1984) biologically (Maturana & Varela, 1987) and theoretically (Gergen, 1985) that the so called objective stance for identifying phenomena is impossible, for these are actually the product of culture, history and social context.
Bruner (1986) had put forward the distinction, as he saw it, between the ‘paradigmatic posture’ and the ‘narrative posture’. In the paradigmatic position the interpreter focuses on generalities and attempts to discover empirical truths. He described ‘narrative’ as a process that takes account of context and intentions through stories told, to make sense of human experience. It was the narrative posture that would best serve this project, she felt.
In short, as she understood it, the social constructionist stance could be summarised as a recognition of: the subjective nature of experience and thus the changing nature of meaning over time (Gergen & Kaye, 1992); the contribution of context and relationship to meaning and the collaboration of culture, society, and familial history in the construction of personal identity (Hoffman, 1992); the changing, evolving and dialogical basis of the story of self (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992; Bruner, 1990); the generation of beliefs in the day to day language and communication processes of people (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988); the acknowledgement of multiverses- as many versions of a situation as there are persons to understand it, each understanding influencing the other and changing it in some way (Maturana & Varela, 1987); and the belief that meaning is always political and the fixing of identity and meaning as a way of serving the interests of the powerful in any society (Weedon, 1967).
Hermeneutics and Narrative Hermeneutics, as a science or art of interpretation, emphasises the idea that people live, direct and understand their lives through socially constructed narrative realities that give meaning and organisation to their experience (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988; 1992). The implications of these ideas for Family Therapy was that the therapist’s role is seen here, not as an expert of a client’s problem, but rather as a facilitator participating in collaboration with the client to co-develop new meanings, realities or narratives. This therapy is a linguistically mediated activity. In this way, through conversations with the therapist and others, the client is empowered to move beyond the current problematic situation or selfdescription. In the therapeutic encounter the idea that selves are realised as by-products of relatedness, means that multiple descriptions of problems and solutions can be considered. “The therapist and client form a relationship to which both bring resources in terms of which the contours of the future may be carved” (Gergen & Kaye, 1992: 174).
NOT KNOWING POSITION
In addition Anderson and Goolishian (1988, 1992) had in various ways emphasised the need for the therapist to be continually reflecting on their own biases and how these impact on the therapeutic relationship. This meant the therapist has to avail her/himself to ‘not know’, that is to acknowledge her/his own accumulated experience and understanding and its impact on the generation of meaning, in any therapeutic encounter. Secondly, it required through various reflective practices, including transparency, supervision and peer reflections, a willingness to stand aside from her/his ‘view’ while still acknowledging this. Johnella Bird (2000) calls this therapist position as being between ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’.
ABOUT THE CONTEXT
Catherine felt that an understanding of the organisation’s and thus the therapist’s fundamentals would be an important prerequisite, too, to choosing the methodology. The practitioners here espoused and had developed a way of working with families they called Family Sensitive Practice (Farhall, 1999). These reflected, for Catherine, their underlying values of participation and collaboration, empowerment, open mindedness, flexibility and compassion.
In addition this was a learning organisation that emphasised experiential learning or ‘learning by doing’. They practised live supervision where the student is given opportunities to learn ‘in vivo’ following which, coach (supervisor) and students engage in learning through dialogue and reciprocal reflection. The academic staff, it appeared to Catherine, respected both intuition and theoretically based knowledge.
There was another important consideration. Traditionally, as Catherine understood it, the therapists in this organisation rarely had the opportunity to share with each other what they had learned from their respective clients, as time and schedules did not permit. Catherine had heard Professor Robert Putman (2000), American sociologist, say, when delivering a speech on the decline of community in the western world, that the loss of connectedness in daily living is creating serious problems. He said that in “immeasurable ways” communities work better and people’s lives are more satisfying when they connect with each other. He added that without connection we are less productive, but “where people are connected to one another, what tends to evolve is a norm of reciprocity”. Wouldn’t it be advantageous, thought Catherine in the light of this if, in addition to the other aims, the project enabled exciting and reciprocal interaction between the therapists involved, which might include sharing with each other the knowledges they had gained from their clients and so enhance job satisfaction!
All of these ideas had important consequences on how the research might be conducted.
CO-OPERATIVE OR PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH
She listened in lectures, searched around. She found Collaborative, Participatory Action Research – just the fit. Collaborative Research, she discovered, involves a group of people who investigate a topic and the initiating researcher does not dictate the process of the research. People come together to study (reflect, discuss, theorise) a process that occurs outside the group (Reason & Heron, 1995). Description is valued over precision, and meaning over statistical manipulation. This was a methodology that was appealing because it had its roots in social action and group enlightenment. It had emerged, too in resistance to “conventional research practices that were perceived by particular kinds of participants as acts of colonisation- that is, as a means of normalising or domesticating people to research and policy agendas imposed on a local group or community from central agencies far removed from local concerns and interests” (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000: 572).
This could be it, she thought. It was about LEARNING BY DOING and actively involved all participants in creating and determining meanings for themselves. It was about each group member participating critically and self reflexively. This, Catherine believed, might be a way the therapists at this agency could feel ownership of the research project. Action Research also had social constructionism and hermeneutics embedded in its method (Reason & Hawkins, 1988), which meant that the “researcher’s attention is not focused solely around theories and observed problems but rather is allowed to float more widely… researchers can use their personalities and values as instruments, they allow both feelings and reason to govern their actions, and they partially and sometimes wholly create what they study: for example the meaning of a process…” (Cherry, 1999: 69). This certainly appealed.
“What if we involved a discreet group comprised of individual therapists from the different specialist teams to direct the research as a shared group enterprise”, she asked her supervisor. “Great idea!”, was the response. Because there were six specialist teams, Catherine thought it would be most interesting to have the working group comprising of herself (youth and family therapist) and a representative from each of the teams: sexual abuse, acquired brain injury, families where one member suffers from a psychiatric illness, and general child and adolescent and family issues. In this way the group might develop unique and diverse ways of recording and using client Wisdoms with a wide range of identified client problems. The members of the working group might find themselves eliciting practices of using client Wisdom narratives in therapy that may be unique and relevant to the client group they work with but different to therapists and their clients from other teams. There might also be a chance to identify common patterns across the different client groups. In addition, having a representative from each team meant that the findings from this project have the potential to be broadened to each team. She could not assume this, however, because Action Research is context sensitive and not necessarily generalisable across a whole organisation or an entire discipline (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000).
The participants would of course need to be willing to commit to this in a spirit of mutual purpose, intention, and responsibility and be desirous of active participation and learning. She would be responsible for collecting and documenting the findings.
She spread the word, communicating these ideas and inviting representatives from each of the teams to participate. The response was positive and a complete group was formed with volunteers from each of the teams as well as herself. It was just as she had hoped. This would be a cooperative inquiry that aimed to develop therapist practice. The personal, particular and local understanding of the people involved in the project would be valued over findings that purport to be objective and generalisable (Reason & Hawkins, 1988).
She explained to the group that the key features of Participatory Action Research, as some called it, were the recursive strands of “Planning a change; Acting and observing the process and consequences of the change; Reflecting on these processes and consequences, and then Replanning, Acting and observing, Reflecting, and so on…” (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000: 595). These processes are systematically reviewed and evaluated. In Collaborative Inquiry, the individual is asked to access direct, personal experience in “real life’ which contrasts with reading about others’ experiences and ideas and simply thinking about ideas in a training situation (Kolbs, 1984).
The group would be working for verisimilitude or credibility and persuasiveness rather than validity (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990). This meant that the central meanings, emergent themes and proposed theory must be recognisable, acceptable and owned by the working group (Caulley, 1994). Participants would be willing to discuss, until there is agreement that the analysis is an accurate reflection of their perceptions. Congruence as to meanings, comments, and findings would be sought.
What was exciting Catherine about the cooperative inquiry method of Action Research was the way it could at once maximise the individuality of the participants and their work, whilst capitalising on the collective reciprocal effect of working together (Heron, 1988). She hoped this would provide a good balance between uniqueness and group universality. The skills involved in Action Research, the group learned, too, are not unfamiliar to practising Family Therapists. These include an open and curious stance that suspends judgment and interpretation when inquiring into others’ views. It also requires that the therapists regularly inquire into the assumptions from which they make their own meanings and inferences. It requires the ability to test and explore, to reflect and question. It requires cooperation and collaboration. It requires critical reflection (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000; Cherry, 1999; Reason & Heron, 1995).
The primary aim of this inquiry was becoming evident. She felt it would be about the generation of understandings and meanings about the gathering and circulation of client Wisdoms for this group of therapists working in this particular organisation, and how these would impact on their practice.
RAISING THE QUESTIONS
The group came together in the earlier sessions to wrestle with anxieties, hypotheses, dilemmas (see Deconstructing Beliefs) and of course the questions they would be addressing. In a collaborative process they agreed that the research would attempt to answer the following,
- What is each therapist’s (and her/his clients’) experience of gathering and documenting ‘client Wisdom narratives’?
- What is each therapist’s (and her/his client’s) experience of sharing ‘client Wisdom narratives’ in therapy?
They could see that these two aspects were in a measure dependent on each other and so would be worked on concurrently by each therapist, but be considered separately by the working group.
Catherine gave the group members an outline of the way they might conduct the research,
1. What is each therapist’s (and his/her clients’) experience of gathering and documenting ‘client Wisdom’ narratives?
- Each therapist from the working group will be asked to work with their clients to develop a document that will serve to mark their experience and learning and that might be shared with others.
- Each therapist will bring their document to the working group and read the document and share their experience of co-creating the document. The sharing of the process as well as the reflection by the group will be recorded and transcribed. Discussion about ways the document might be developed or condensed might also occur.
- Each therapist will take understandings, learnings and ideas developed in the working group discussions back to the therapy context and work further with the client on the current document or use ideas from the group to develop a new document with another client.
- Again each therapist comes back to the group to discuss, compare and contrast experiences. The subjective perceptions of the observers will be synthesised.
2. What is each therapist’s (and her/his clients’) experience of the sharing of “client Wisdom’ narratives in therapy?
- Each participant in the working group goes out and experiments with introducing a client 2299 wisdom narrative in a therapy session with one or two clients. They note or record their experience in as much detail as possible but without interpretation and explanation e.g. the who, when, where, how, what, and thoughts and feelings of the experience. Included in this will be an account from the client about how the experience was for them (as recounted to the therapist) i.e. how hearing/reading a client wisdom narrative has in any way influenced their lives and behaviour.
- These experiences are brought to the group. Each member expresses opinions about each account in turn. The group will observe for similarities and differences to their own experience plus consider contradictions, conflicts and generalisations. The group will then reflect on associations that are conjured up from the process e.g. past experiences around client wisdom narratives that the group discussion evokes.
- The group will then attempt to make sense of their reflections, discussing the impact of these on their own practice. From these they will revise the processes they had previously tried.
- The conclusions reached at each meeting by the group will be used to direct future action. Discussions will be transcribed and themes and common sense understandings will be examined as the study progresses. These ideas were presented to the group and, with some adaptations related to the circumstances of each participant (see ‘Writing Up’), were agreed upon.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS
The acts of data collection were the individual therapists’ reflections on their internal thinking and feeling and external behaviour, as well as the feedback from their clients (raw data). The data analysis was the group’s reflections and conclusions (from the transcribed group discussions) as well as Catherine’s ongoing thematic analysis of group discussions. Each member of the group was asked at each group meeting to reflect on what he or she considered to be relevant data: what they noticed, what they attended to- thus highlighting the subjectivity and relativity of each participant’s data collection.
Ethics approval was sought from La Trobe University Research and Ethics Committee and the project was also approved by The Centre’s Executive. Ethical considerations included ensuring confidentiality at all stages of the research process as well as ensuring that each client involved in the project be given a consent form with all relevant information about the project included (see Appendix D). No client information was considered until the form had been signed. Video and audio tape recordings were transcribed so that client identification was minimised. All material used by therapists with subsequent clients had to have permission from the authors, through the signed consent. The authors were told that these could be withdrawn at any time. The author of the narrative was also told they could change the details of their “story’ at any time throughout the project.
THE WRITING UP
The group of seven that finally came together met nine times between November 2000 and August 2001. The group consisted of three people from the executive of the organisation (C., P., and A.)* who, between them, would have over half a century of experience in a wide range of family therapy models and family presentations. J. too, has extensive experience as a family therapist and specialises in the area of sexual abuse. The others were less experienced but came from a variety of backgrounds. N., who had assisted me in the first part of the research is, and had been working for the last three years, with families where a member has an acquired brain injury. G., who is a relative newcomer to family therapy, having completed his Diploma two years prior, has a background in mediation. All would regard themselves principally as systemic family therapists.
I have chosen to de-centre myself and put myself in the third person, as Catherine, so as to make apparent that I am one voice in a group of many and varied voices. It has been my intention in the introductory sections to expose some of my assumptions through outlining my socio-economic, educational, political and religious background, so that the reader can ascertain for her/himself the validity of my learnings.
The action research cycle for this project consisted of separate individual participant cycles of experience and reflection with and about a clinical case (family/couple/individual). This was followed by collective reflection in which each person’s findings were shared for feedback and discussion. In this manner the research group in effect conducted micro case studies of the impact of giving and receiving Wisdoms. Following group reflections, each * Initials are used in order to identify and distinguish group participants, who, though core to the research findings, are in the background. The purpose of the research was in no way intended to make the group participants “subjects” to be analysed by the researcher. Rather each was to be a collaborative partner to the others in sharing discoveries and reflecting on these with the group. Consequently any additional information the reader might want about any of the participants can only come through the data (transcriptions of group reflections). It has to be noted that, of course, the meanings each gives to the experience is embedded in each person’s cultural, political, socio-economic and familial context but it is not within the scope of this research to examine these. This of course limits the research findings.
The participant would, individually and in their own way, plan the next action cycle as well as reflect on their learnings and how they might experiment further. In other words each participant was responsible for drawing and managing their conclusions as well as performing the introduction and gathering of Wisdoms.
In the writing up of the research I have selected a discrete number of case experiences that were brought to the group from the ‘Getting’ and the ‘Giving’ categories of the research, . I have highlighted for each the salient points of the different stages of the cycle, to inform the reader of the processes and to illustrate how I have drawn my own learnings. The cases selected are the ones that, for me, following group discussions, led to further actions and/or learning from at least one group member.
After each of my own experiences I tried to pay close attention to it by recording in writing as much detail as possible my observations, thoughts and feelings, as well as what the client(s) said. This included asking myself why this particular ‘event’ had meaning for me. The other group members principally relied on the memories of their sessions with their clients and this too can be a valid way of collecting data (Moon & Trepper, 1996).
A WORD ABOUT THE SUBSECTIONS OF THE FINDINGS ACTION
Describes what the person who is describing their case did and what they then observed, experienced and heard back from their clients.
Includes the group conversation about the individual therapist’s case presentation. The reflecting process involved our asking each other to describe, ‘research’ and wonder about the experiences and meanings we were making.
The movement from holding the experience within me to talking about it with the group provided me with an opportunity to re-view and re-interpret my meanings in the light of others’ different perspectives. Having a linguistic space offered me a way of expanding on my own reflections. I found this a two way reflective process: my own reflections, as with each participant’s reflections, are drawn out and put side by side with the “knowing” of others. My individual meanings were thus enriched, challenged, enhanced and extended by interaction with others.
I will take from Lansbury (1992) a definition of learning that fits with my view: “the process by which behaviour is modified as a result of education and experience” (16). In this section I highlight what I myself have drawn from both listening to the group and my own reflections of the experience, if the case is the one I am describing.
This learning environment, which was for me the research process, included the uncertainty and discomfort that accompanies a new and unknown intervention. However it was only by allowing myself to dare to plunge, despite at times a certain discomfort and anxiety, and ‘give it a go’, that I was able to get the most benefit from the process. Through wrestling with real life uncertainties I was able to learn. I also found that while – for reasons which will be explicated in the findings – many of the participants held back from taking action, when Nicky and myself (who had the advantage for having begun the project much earlier) showcased our experiences, the others were challenged and stimulated. I saw the participants thus consider their own clients in the light of our findings and ponder on how they might consider taking action themselves. All of our thinking was thus invigorated.
In the description of the action research in the pages that follow, I hope to be presenting the findings so that the reader is informed about how explanations were constructed. There are no ‘tangible outcomes’ as such and this, though never discussed, may have created an important tension for the group. We would want evidence that we had used the funding to good effect but at the same time we wanted to allow ourselves the flexibility, openness and adaptability that action research methodology requires for it to be most fruitful.
“Will you won’t you, will you, won’t you,
won’t you join the dance?
Will you won’t you, will you, won’t you,
won’t you join the dance?
(Carroll, 1866: 151)
THE GETTING AND GIVING OF DECONSTRUCTING BELIEFS ABOUT THE PROJECT
When the group met initially to plan how they would go about collecting the narratives Catherine found there were some preconceptions that had to be ironed out in order that the ‘action’ might start. For example one group member,
J., asked, “I am a systemic therapist, to what extent is this about a narrative approach to my practice?”
C. then asked, “Are we going with an externalising narrative genre?” Catherine wondered if bringing David Epston to the Centre in order to introduce the ideas of co-research to the agency, and her own leanings towards Narrative Therapy, might have inadvertently implied that the research would require the therapists who were gathering the Wisdoms to adopt the Narrative Therapy model.
It was certainly appearing this way as each group member spoke his or her concern,
J: “The ingredient of the therapist has to be considered. The way it is conveyed is significant. It is different to tell a story than to look at externalising the problem and to look at the story of the problem. Narrative therapy is not my style. I am not going to be able to talk to them in that way”;
and C: “David Epston’s co-research work is about clients’ relationship to problems, with a belief and expectation that the person can win over the problem. The problem is the problem. People are agents not victims, his work is not about the contexts of age, background and culture”;
and G: “It raises for me the tension I am having with narratives, whether they be pure or whether we are doing a White/Epston co-research”.
SYSTEMIC VS NARRATIVE?
These were times of transition, in the family therapy field. In Australia particularly, the 3366 debate had run hot between the growing numbers of narrative therapists and the systemic band, a generation of seasoned therapists who were faithful to a relatively much longer tradition and historical development in their field.
The therapists at this agency saw themselves as systemic family therapists. As Catherine understood it the majority of the group members had played with a number of family therapy models and ideas, which reflected the changes in the field since its inception.
Initially family therapists had joined together in a movement away from a psychodynamic, individualistic orientation of therapy, towards looking at people in families as influenced by and influencing each other in patterns of relationship. Indeed, they hypothesised that family systems generate and maintain symptoms. Thus, at first, they took on a cybernetic perspective and looked at families as they would a mechanical system, regulated by feedback loops. Then the strategic work of the Milan school, exerted considerable influence. This school, as Cecchin (1992) puts it, were in those days, “seduced by the idea of games” (87) and power plays or battles between family members and between family members and their therapist, and the idea of problems serving as a function in maintaining the system. The therapists from the Milan school worked strategically by asking questions that would obtain information so that the therapists, who saw themselves as needing to control the interventions, might develop hypotheses and plan effective strategies for the family.
However, when the ideas of social constructionism were brought to the fore, an important shift developed in the Milan school and others in the family therapy field. Beliefs changed so that what became important was the idea that the way a person perceives and conceives things is what influences their behaviour. How knowledge is generated, what is privileged, and what is suppressed influences people and their relationships. A ‘second order’ cybernetic perspective of therapist involvement was adopted. The family was no longer the object of treatment, independently observed by the therapist, it became a meaning generating system. Within this wave these Melbourne therapists coincidentally, when Tom Andersen (1987) was experimenting with reflecting teams in Norway, were also experimenting with reflecting teams. In addition the notion of curiosity and the idea of therapy being a process of circular (Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin & Prata, 1980) and reflexive questioning (Tomm, 1987), was also taken up. They also pushed family therapy to pay heed to the feminist critique of power, and to look at the bigger social and cultural issues affecting family members and their interactions. This included the role of women, discrimination and oppression, social and economic disadvantage, as well as the impact on families of trauma and mental illness. And then in the 1990’s Narrative Therapy became a recognised model of therapy in its own right. However, it appeared that the way this approach entered the field left these family therapists unimpressed. Catherine learned that twenty or so years before, psychodynamic therapists criticised systemic therapists much in the same way as systemic therapists were now criticising the narrativists. As Hugh and Maureen Crago (2000), the editors of ANZJFT put it, “Narrative therapy today, like systemic therapy then, can be pilloried for its insistence that it alone has ‘the answers’, for its apparently arrogant attitude of ‘Why bother with other approaches when I can learn more about narrative?” for its disdain of history, and its sureness that it owes little or nothing to other therapeutic traditions” (iv). If this was the position certain narrative therapists had adopted then Catherine was not surprised that any implication that this project should have a Narrative Therapy basis might disturb group members. In this way, some group members were moved to say,
“The Narrative Therapy model is only one model for therapeutic change”
and… “If this requires us to take the Narrative [Therapy] approach to the narrative then I am not comfortable with it”;
and… “The struggle is finding a way that suits your style, your way of working. I must say the narrative stuff is a huge struggle for me.”
Cecchin (1992) had said “I believe a social constructionist therapist may, at different moments, follow many different leaders, but never obeys one particular model or theory. He or she is always slightly subversive towards any reified ‘Truth'” (93). Catherine believed this group saw themselves, similarly, as ‘social constructionist’ therapists.
She took a slightly different view towards Narrative Therapy, but she thought this probably related to when she entered the field of family therapy- the 1990’s. She felt the need to get to know a model that philosophically appealed thoroughly, so that later, she could adapt the model to her own unique personality. Catherine suspected that some of the research group members had originally been ‘apprenticed’ to Family Therapy with predominantly one model, the ‘strategic’ model of therapy (Tom Paterson, personal communication) and now each practised their own unique style that incorporated many different influences. She had chosen the Narrative Therapy model as a guide to her family therapy work because she found the revolutionary idea of locating the problem, not in the person or in the family relationships, but in the problem, inspirational and compassionate. ‘Externalising’ as it was coined, she could see, freed the therapist and client alike from the need to apportion blame and offered an invitation to learn something different and so change patterns of behaviour. The idea, also advocated, of positioning herself, the therapist, not as expert knower of a family’s life but as a co-explorer with the family of their lived experience, was important (Bird, 2000). Focusing on lived experience and how people make sense of their lives and how this influences interpersonal interactions and the direction of people’s lives, rather than the interactions between family members per se, was why narrative therapists did not see themselves as systemic therapists.
To her mind the recognition, too, of the potential for dominant discourses to limit and control people’s lives, and to influence people’s perceptions of reality, to rob them of their ability to find solutions were, in the form of re-authoring therapy, powerful intervening tools for a therapist. In addition, she valued that narrative therapists, strongly influenced by the feminist movement, recognised and made a concerted and ongoing attempt to make transparent the powerful position of the therapist in a client’s life, and challenged her to locate herself (politically and socially) in front of her clients. But principally, it was that Narrative Therapy was unique in the field in adopting the idea of ‘audience to change’, that clinched it for her. Its innovators stated that “if one looks at agency as a resource that is distributed by others- being granted the right to speak- then what others think of oneself must be taken into account; it is not sufficient simply to change one’s picture of oneself privately; one must in addition have a convincing picture to show others” (Epston, White, Murray, 1992: 111). And they found demonstrable ways to implement this in the therapy itself. For Catherine, this idea of inviting audiences to change, through creating an archive, would be an important aspect of the project.
Both /And That said, Catherine was thinking that in the end the most important aspect of the therapeutic models were their ability to free people of painful and distressing problems. Her interest in Narrative Therapy, and indeed in this research project, was far more about a desire to improve her practice and understanding, to better help her clients, than it was to enter into a debate about the relative merits of differing models.
After dialogue and reflection about how the aims of the project might be incorporated into each of the group members’ unique style, they concluded that what would be most interesting would be to remain open minded about the ways they might approach the gathering and circulating of the wisdoms. As C. put it,
“We are saying we are not being prescriptive. The Narrative way is one way, it is an alternative, one way to do it. My belief is that we are always asking questions from a particular framework, whatever that framework is. If it is a Narrative one it will lead to ‘Narrative’ kinds of narratives and if it is another it will be a curious- tell me more kind of narrative, reflecting the framework of the therapist involved”.
“This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead…while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said… Why…the best way to explain it is to do it. (And as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)”
(Carrol 1866: 33-4)
THE GETTING AND GIVING OF GETTING OF WISDOMS
“Do you know what this means, when no one cares? When no one knows who you are? When there is no longer any warmth? There were times when I was overcome by a panic, by the thought that here, in this wilderness, I would perish; and my tales would perish with me. I would be buried in an unmarked grave. No one would ever know what I had gone through.”
Some of the experiences Catherine and Nicky had had early on, in the initial stages of the research, brought a realisation that the writing down of the story could have important and sometimes dramatic effects. Catherine, for example, remembered interviewing a woman who had had years of therapy after enduring a childhood of severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Despite the years of therapy, Catherine was struck by how difficult it was for this woman to tell her story. Yet, even though full of apprehension, she insisted that this was a good thing for her to do. Catherine had listened to her story for an hour and a half. The next day when she rang the woman to follow up on the impact of the telling, the woman told Catherine that when she walked outside after the interview she had been so overcome with intense emotion she had reeled and had to cling on to a tree for support. However, she told Catherine, “I am really glad I am doing this”. When Catherine related this experience Nicky reflected that, “As a therapist you are left with a huge sense of responsibility, we are asking this of this person…it is quite scary.” The woman then took the tapes away and eventually sat down and wrote a version of her story based on what she spoke about in the interview. At the end of it all she wrote to Catherine saying, “This is such a powerful learning and healing experience for me. Thanks for the opportunity, space and safety.” So they were eager to learn more. Did therapists need to be doing this with their own clients so that their clients would be protected? What are the possible impacts on the person of having their Wisdom written?
Crash, Bang…Nicky asked a client with whom she had been working for some two years, if she would write her story for the project. “Margaret was keen to do this herself”, Nicky told the research group,
“it was amazingly difficult for her to put pen to paper…[she wrote] 12 hand written pages…my edit went down to one page [typed]. She has read it and hasn’t made any changes”.
Nicky then went on to say that following this exercise her client made further disclosures which Nicky heard for the first time in two years of therapy with her. These were very significant but weren’t included in the writing. Nicky felt that,
“…there was something about the writing that made it possible to say more…it made the therapeutic work go to another level which was scary for both of us. Margaret became quite distressed [as] she disclosed that…the accident [brain injury] resulted from her violent partner…attempting to kill her…that was a secret she kept for seventeen years…It took her a long time to come back to see me afterwards”.
However, Nicky said that when she did come back she “told the next layer of the story” [childhood sexual abuse]. “She then confronted her mother about not believing her and her sister, and stopped seeing her brothers. Her contact with me became sporadic”. Nicky concluded, “I think she is not coming because she is feeling a lot more liberated…I wish there was more closure”.
The group wondered with Nicky, if the telling that occurred in this process is the same as the telling that occurs in therapeutic conversations? Nicky felt it was different, *the headings under action are the titles given by the clients of their stories “…because I was thinking I have been working with her already for about two years plus and she hadn’t told me before this”. G. responded, “it sounds like layers of her life story came out after she wrote that”. There was also the impact on Nicky that what had mattered most to Margaret in making changes had nothing to do with the therapy itself. Nicky was surprised to note that what she thought would have been important turning points for Margaret to include in her story were not noted by her. Indeed, a concern of the therapists that clients might be feeling that a request for a Wisdom would be interpreted by the client as a request to compliment the work of the therapist, certainly wasn’t happening in this case. How to edit and still remain true to the original was another aspect of the gathering that was challenging.
P. expressed a struggle she was having with, “moving from [the client’s raw copy] to [Nicky’s]version…I have trouble letting go of the original …the process of what you include and what you leave out…seems for me to privilege content, not the process. Like her processes…” Nicky, however, made it clear that the final product, as best she could, was a version that the client agreed upon. It had been difficult because, “…there were bits of paper everywhere…she said she couldn’t stop, the words were pouring out…[she] was worried I wouldn’t be able to make sense of this…she wanted help with how to make sense of that…[she] gave me permission to have a go at condensing it…she didn’t want to add to or take away from this version.”
Nicky was interested to see if this one page of someone else’s experience would have an effect on another of her clients. So she read the story to a woman who had acquired a brain injury as a result of a bookshelf falling on her when she was eight years old, Nicky said the woman wept as she kept saying “yes, yes”. As a result of hearing this Wisdom, the woman 44 was inspired to write her own story and brought childhood memorabilia to the next session in order to begin the process.
Catherine understood that case study research raised more questions than it answered so she was not surprised that this experience provoked some questions. Does it matter if the Wisdom contains a whole life story? Perhaps just relating some significant insights might be enough to inspire another and help oneself. Could the effect of just writing about the trauma be more therapeutic than hours of dialogue in therapy with the therapist, or is that needed in order to prepare for the writing?
In listening and reflecting on Nicky’s experience, Catherine remembered Pennebaker’s research (see literature review) and the claim that writing one’s inner thoughts, just as they come, can produce positive effects on the immune system because the unspoken aspect of the trauma is brought into language. Perhaps the writing had enabled Nicky’s client to overcome the silencing effects of shame and so come to a realisation for herself, of what had really occurred. In effect, the writing may have created a distance that enabled her to see herself in context. This might have been why she was able to confront her family and reconnect with her strength. Pennebaker (1993) himself claims that the writer of past trauma experiences both relief and a sense of a future. These ideas spurred Catherine on to continue researching with her own clients.
Catherine remembered what one client had said to her when she and Nicky were collecting Wisdoms in phase one of the project, “It was hard to write, bizarre going through it again. I thought, oh my god, I can’t believe what was going on in my life, look where I am and I am the one who got me there. My god, I couldn’t handle people I was a mess… It has helped me to be able to write something down, to remember”. In a related manner, a mother who contributed to the project, said to Catherine, “Trying to tell someone else helped me think things through. It helped reaffirm those steps, it did bring back the memory…It helped me remember where I have come and I feel instant relief when I think back, a huge relief”.
From Misery to Self Respect
Catherine decided to invite a mother, Barbara, to write her story. Barbara had come to family therapy because she was feeling very challenged by her 13 year old daughter who was wanting to go to nightclubs and ride on trains by herself and claimed this is what all 13 year olds do. After what was to be a single session with the parents and daughter, Catherine asked if the family wanted another meeting. Barbara said she felt like she needed to come on her own. At this first meeting she disclosed childhood sexual abuse. She had only told her sister as an adult, and had never been to counselling. At the next meeting, Barbara then disclosed past domestic violence by her husband and also the story of how she had, over time, stood up to this abuse. Catherine wondered if, going by Nicky’s experience with Margaret, Barbara would benefit from putting her experience down in writing, not only for other women who were feeling disempowered, but also for herself. She did not feel able to write it herself, but preferred that Catherine write it for her. So Catherine, using a narrative therapy technique of externalising misery (she kept saying her life was a misery) asked Barbara if she would be comfortable with being interviewed about her past relationship with misery and how she had transformed this. The mother agreed and so Catherine took away the handwritten notes she made in the interview and came back the following session with a story written in the third person, two and a half type written pages long, and which consisted mainly of her client’s words and phrases. Catherine read the story aloud back to her and was overcome with her client’s response. She told the group,
“As I started reading, I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable speaking out loud to her what was a very painful story. And then I heard her begin to cry softly, and then more and more loudly as I continued. This compounded the discomfort I was feeling. At the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I have to trust this process of discovery to unfold and allow for whatever happens’. I had to ride my own discomfort and desire to stop. I also didn’t want to break what was happening for her. Before I started the reading, Barbara was talking in her usual hard, cut off sort of way about her two daughters’ behaviours and her concerns, but once I started to read, the atmosphere completely changed. It was like she was initially awe struck and then the tears started to flow. At the end she said, ‘that really hit a couple of spots’ and after a long pause she said, “I have always been looking for an explanation, always asked why am I like this?”
She was referring to feeling anxious, annoyed a lot of the time and making the same parenting mistakes over and over again. She said she was “…looking for a reason why I haven’t been myself. I always thought there is something”. Then she talked more about the high expectations she had always had of herself and the shame she felt of needing to go to counselling because she believed she should be able to deal with her past by herself. She struggled with the guilt of not being a ‘good parent’ and feeling a failure”. Catherine said to them that she felt that Barbara was able, through this story, to put her high expectations of herself in the context of a whole lifetime of being devalued and she wondered if this made for her realisation.
After reading the story to the group, Catherine noticed how they, too, appeared momentarily awestruck. She had been concerned that two pages could not possibly capture this woman’s life, but she was surprised that the group thought differently, C. commented,
“a beautiful story. I think it is deep. ..it is an outline… the outline can speak to the internal… it is like a hyku … it can say a lot”. And P.,”It is quite a literary skill. You feel that sense of responsibility…” This experience moved Catherine to read to the group something a client of A’s had written to her therapist after an interview for the project. It spoke to Catherine so eloquently of what might also be happening with her client in this instance,
“I actually think you have to stay with the pain and the hurt and the horrible sense of loss and confusion and let it be part of who you are. I think that if you move too far away from the pain then you stay afraid of pain always and you also stay not knowing what the pain is really like. This kind of conversation we are having now is good to do but it is hard work. But I guess for me there was a lot of times I didn’t have these conversations and I didn’t acknowledge where I was in the world”.
Catherine said she felt these words had encouraged her to persevere with the process. C. and A. then commented on their understanding of the effects of childhood abuse,
C: “It is interesting that self-doubt and abuse inspire high standards…better and better and better than best… because the high standards are brittle and fragile and not very helpful and drive people into perfectionism…perfectionism is a very common response to abuse (emotional, physical, sexual) but it is not something we talk about, it is not very common…
A: “Isn’t it just a relabelling of externalised negative criticism…perfectionism- internalised negative criticism… I am never good enough… The link between fear and hate…. That self-loathing can be so easily turned into self-hatred and externalised hatred, but it is about fear of…[like my client wrote] about getting in touch with pain and embracing it is dealing with fear…”
And then there followed a very important discussion about the writing in the third person. Catherine told them she had written this piece, as a story in the third person, inspired by a positive experience she had had with a family she was working with. She told the group she had wanted to take this family to supervision and,
“I really struggled with how to describe the Smith family in a coherent way because there were so many issues. My colleague and I had been working with the family for nine months. There were four kids, a sole mum and a past history of horrendous violence perpetrated by their father. So I thought the best way to do this would be to tell their story as a narrative in the third person, you know, ‘once upon a time…'”.
This helped me plough through all the notes I had about the family and create an interesting narrative gestalt with plot, characters, crisis and denouement etc… I got the Mother to read it and she only made some minor changes. When I read it to the supervision group, it had such a powerful effect … and then later when I took it back to the kids to hear I was amazed at how the story had the effect of uniting these previously very angry and hostile kids. It also helped each remember more and more things that they could add to the narrative. The mother, herself, said, when all the family were sitting around adding to the story, “every time I tell this story I remember something new”.
Questions were asked by the kids of the 48 mother that had never been asked before such as “why did you marry him; why didn’t you leave; why didn’t you get help…?” A joining occurred around an experience that each had participated in but had never been spoken about coherently. It was almost as if they were hearing the story for the first time. I think it was something about it being a story in writing about them but not about them…they wanted pseudonyms so that their father or anyone else wouldn’t recognise them.. that enabled them to stand back and hear and understand what had happened to them. I saw their eyes widen with the outrage of the treatment they had endured”. The group members reflected more on the first story,
C: “I think it is very powerful in the third person… I think having a story in the third person in this way creates a sense of yourself that has the validity and solidity that you connect with, that is out there.”
A.: I think it could have the opposite impact because once you depersonalise it, you dissociate from it if you make it in the third person.
C: “My intuition tells me part of the experience of people like Barbara is a sense of incoherence. There isn’t a sense of there being a relationship between things. It is like the only thing that draws it all together is the negative, the misery. All the other parts aren’t coherent but when you develop it into this form it develops a coherence. Form creates a sense of coherence. The third person form and the narrative go together…”
A: “The issue of first and third is not only important in relation to reading back but it is critical to feeding back to new clients. For example it might be easier to take the story on board if it is in the third person or the first”.
C: “It comes out of my work with kids now that I think about it because when you are working with kids a lot of the projective tests you do in the third person: this is a little girl and she is blah, blah, blah, what might she be thinking? That allows them to connect. The same kind of dynamic might be occurring with this woman where, because if you have a real difficulty with the sense of who you are, then I think that could get in the way of using ‘you’ as a character…”
The group now had the notion to investigate further the idea of first and third person narratives with their clients.
Back at the typewriter, in transcribing mode, Catherine wondered if a story (third or first person) might serve as a container of emotional intensity in such a way that it might bring both clarity, and freedom from stuckness and fear, to the author. It appeared to her that, both the Smith family and Barbara, through the process of hearing their story back, were able to acknowledge the hurt, fear, and shame of the past experience, as well as separate from it so that they could get on with their lives in the present. Catherine wondered if this wasn’t an interesting parallel with what happened to Nicky’s client when she wrote her story. This made her wonder if it mattered who wrote the story, i.e. did the client themselves have to write it or might a ‘ghost written’ story have the same effect?
In addition, it occurred to Catherine that, in hearing her story in the third person, Barbara was able to look at her life as if she was looking at someone else’s, and therefore she allowed herself to be compassionate towards her self in the same way as she would towards another person in her position. Perhaps having her story ‘externalised’ in the third person gave her a sense of that ‘poor child’, rather than this ‘terrible me’. She took this idea to the next group meeting and they all reflected on this.
C. felt that this was a possibility,
“These people are incredibly compassionate towards other people. They have a huge capacity to be caring. I say to them “if someone went through what you went through, how would you feel towards them?” “How come you don’t feel this?” It is like they can’t see themselves as worthy, so I think when you describe someone from the outside looking in, it does give you a different orientation…”
HIDDEN POSSIBILITIES OF NARRATIVES IN THE THIRD PERSON ENGENDERING SELF- COMPASSION
A. and C. then made some notable comments on their understanding of the effects of putting a person’s experience into a coherent whole,
A: “It is like you are acting in a reflective capacity about it, it is like a reflection or a therapeutic letter or a summary”.
C: “There is a slightly different distinction I am thinking of now, which is turning a messy, fragmented or multi-channeled story into a coherent story, in a sense…. In a small way, a reflection or a methaphor does this: helps contain or tie things, give coherence. But this is more totalising, which is quite different at a theoretical level to the traditional Narrative Therapy context. It is actually using the idea of story, plot, line, a complete story, to actually create a joint meaning system. It gives a value and a culture to things that are hard to talk about. To things that we don’t traditionally have good language or good story for. Very interesting and different”.
A: “I think narratives are quite incoherent, you have to acknowledge that people don’t always give coherent narratives and that is how people are.”
C: “There are paradoxes too. When faced with incoherence as an audience…. You can be incoherent…when you say something in an incoherent way and you get it back incoherently, ..If you get back in a slightly less incoherent way it can actually create a news of difference. It creates a vantage point to look at the incoherence, a sense of the things that fit and don’t fit. Whereas if you just play it back exactly as you got it, I think it actually isn’t as useful. That is why I think this is more productive … I think that is the way therapy works too..
A: “Because you never play it back quite the same way…you play it back in a strategically, thoughtful, interventive, positively framing therapeutic way…you manipulate it”!
The idea of how narratives are different to therapy was a theme that recurred at different times in the life of the group and following another case description:
N: “I wonder if the difference is an opportunity to punctuate the story somehow…to have a point from which you can reflect”.
C: “There is something about the process of the grammar and geography of a story. It is like the distinction between something framed and the something out there that you look at. There is the view there, but if you take that and put a frame around it there is something different about that. Part of the narrative thing is about the framing of it, the distinguishing of it. There is something about how things are framed and packaged that communicates something different. For instance, the idea that, this is a little slice of their life that is retold, in the shape of a story, with a beginning, middle and end at this point has a different kind of resonance than for instance a report, which could be another form of narrative: he did this, this is my assessment…”
G: “There is something about the process of writing that does put it out there in reality. It is like another way things get known in a sort of fixed, concrete, certain way we talk. Maybe the thing about narratives is what is included and what isn’t. When you talk, things disappear, when you write it becomes a bit more concrete. The other thing I was thinking is that writing a letter is like a reflecting team. It is a pause and there is some consideration and then there is another contact and then there is another consideration of the situation. Maybe this parallels the process of sending a letter, or reflecting back.. ”
J: “There is something parsimonious about writing things down. I know that if I am writing it down I can go back and think in a much more clear way what word I want to use. Whereas the process of the reflecting team … end up with all sorts of things. They would all write it differently”.
A: “I think writing is interesting because I think it is about a commitment to a position whereas speaking …you can always change it…the shifting sands of the actual conversations… It is like layers in a way, because a reflecting team is more focused than a session and a therapeutic letter is more focused than a reflecting team and the narrative is more focused than the therapeutic letter in some ways”.
Catherine again wondered if the definitiveness of writing a person/family’s story might also have its drawbacks. After all, the story as told only captures the past from the present moment. Which threads one pulls together to weave a story, will depend on one’s vantage point at that given moment. How can these stories reflect the ever changing, dynamic nature of a life. Perhaps if the story is about the person or family’s relationship with a particular problem at a particular moment in a person’s life, perhaps this would be easier to document as just a slice of life and not the ‘truth’ about…?
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
It was becoming obvious to Nicky and Catherine, as the weeks progressed, that still, for the others, the gathering was not easy nor self evident. Indeed, Nicky and Catherine were the only participants who had managed to get complete stories from their own clients. Others made attempts but had had difficulty bringing the exercise to completion. P. wondered if there was anything that could make the gathering simpler and easier than interviewing clients, transcribing, editing etc., “How might it work within the therapy so that it is not just to produce a product”? she asked. Catherine thought this would be a good opportunity to share with P. and the others a recent experience she had of an integrated way of gathering a wisdom with one of her clients, “We got to a stage where Jane, who had attempted to stab herself in the context of grieving the death of her mother, was beginning to feel like she was moving in her preferred direction and I asked her if she would write down her experience for the Wisdoms project. I offered to give her my notes of our sessions to stimulate her memory and she liked that idea. She did write it and sent it back to me and I wanted to know more, so I interspersed her text with questions that I hoped would ‘thicken’ her experience for the reader, and sent that off to her. She then sent me what ended up being the final version, of two type written pages. I asked her if I could video an interview with her and her father about the process”.
One of the important things that Jane told Catherine in the interview was,
“When you first asked me to write the story my main purpose was at least if it can be of help to someone else. That was my main thing. Everyone said to me, “there is a light at the end of the tunnel” and I couldn’t see it and now having worked through and writing that letter helped me more to a degree because I had to think about what I was feeling and putting it down on paper…it was good because it brings you back and you have to think about how you were thinking at that time and not just now. As you are writing it makes you think about what happened and see it as a past experience and helps move on. I felt as if I was drowning in it. Now it feels like I have it out in the open…I actually feel better writing about all of that because I probably didn’t get it half as much off my chest as what I thought and writing it down makes me think about everything and all the feelings that went along with it.”
Reflection Catherine then listened as the group commented on the interview,
C: “It is an amazing kind of narrative itself. .. about the experience of change. This process facilitated a real change for her. It distinguished something for her, starting by her own wish to be helpful to other people. So before she was really ready (or better) to acknowledge her changes, she was kind of out there writing the story for other people and that led her to reflect on her own experience. It facilitated her stepping back and I think the two things: allowing her to take a step back and bringing things out in the open are two externalising processes… changing the relationship with the material somehow”.
J: “Isn’t that like being an audience to yourself in a different way? I have read things that I have written during stressful times, some time ago, and think haven’t I come a long way from there. It is about being audience to yourself in a different way”.
A: “You do have the sense that she had moved on”.
C: “In a way it was a ritual of separating and saying goodbye to this previous state as she was writing this story about what it was like back then she was leaving it behind”.
A: “Part of the writing was the labelling of shame. It is not just a document of pride, it is an acknowledgement of shame as well, which helps you move on. It is two kinds of coming out: it is coming out with the shame and it is coming out in a sense of what had trapped her”. C:”There must be a word for this- when you use a process that in itself engenders another process”.
A: “It is the opposite to iatrogenic”.
C: “It is a virtuous cycle. It is powerful because the action that you are facilitating [asking for the story to give to others] promotes the thing that it is desired to achieve. There is something about the process that is happening again in the interview. ..The process just keeps going on. It is like every time you ask her a question about the writing, she is doing it again, and then again and again…she is separating herself more each time”.
Catherine was very interested in the notion of the generating of Wisdoms being a process opposite to an iatrogenic assault (a medical treatment or procedure that creates more problems over and above the original injury). William Hudson O’Hanlon (1993) had coined the term ‘Iatrogenic Healing’ to describe, “those methods, techniques, assessment procedures, explanations, or interventions that encourage, are respectful, and open up the possibilities for change” (4). Perhaps the Wisdoms project had found an ‘intervention’ that could be ‘Iatrogenic Healing’.
Catherine, was beginning to feel that the generation of Wisdoms with clients was a very effective therapeutic intervention. Certainly, in this case, integrating this into the theapy had proved to be effective and efficient.
Altogether Catherine had six sessions with Jane, including two with her father and the final interview that included her father as witness.
More experiences about hearing stories in the third person.
Nicky and Catherine continued to experiment with gathering narratives and finding out from the client the effects of hearing these in the third person with a pseudonym. Nicky experimented with one of her private clients while on maternity leave and e-mailed to the group what she discovered. The parents of the younger sister of a brain injured daughter wanted Nicky to counsel her on her own. After a couple of sessions with her Nicky decided to try with the girl’s permission, to get her story down in writing. She then read it back at a family session,
“When I read it to her and her parents at the next session the impact was quite different. The girl and her mother wept. The girl said it was such a sad story, even though she knew it was about herself she felt so very sad that these things had happened in this girl’s life. She said that she thought she was being just a whinger about her problems and that is why she wouldn’t talk but now she saw how sad the situation was for her. I read the story using pseudonyms and had given the family the option of me changing the names back to the original names (when reading back) but they were happy for me to read it out using pseudonyms. The girl said that in some ways it was better. She said that though she knew it was about her, it was better to have a different name. It helped her to see how sad the story was for that girl and it seemed to also make it more possible to hear the story. The parents were also much more able to acknowledge the pain that their daughter had experienced, though she was not the one directly experiencing ABI… They could see the vicarious trauma of her situation. By hearing the story all together they could give her permission to have her painful experiences. Previously they had been trying to protect her and in so doing were dismissive of her experiences. What I was reminded of was the powerful way in which a narrative, about that person, read to the person … can harness ‘self-compassion’ that they previously have not felt entitled to because their pain is not as legitimate”.
Nicky reported that she observed the process enabled, not only the client herself to stand back with a different softer view of her self but, family members, too, to hear and understand their daughter more empathically.
This experience gave Nicky the impetus to try something similar with a new private client. Her client had posted her story before the first session. Riding on the previous experience Nicky decided to read the posted story back to her in their first session together, just as she had sent it. Nicky then wrote to the group that her client felt this was a “very powerful thing to do”. That even though it was her story, hearing it back highlighted just how much she had been through. It had given her permission, from a witness position, to have empathy and compassion for her own experience. Her client then moved very quickly to inviting the whole family to attend therapy sessions and to work through a series of grief issues. Nicky said, “she made swift changes acknowledging and relinquishing her position as parentified child”. This process, Nicky reflected, had been invaluable in supporting the family to deal 5566 with important relationship issues, and Nicky felt she had discovered an important therapeutic tool for her repertoire.
Catherine had feedback, too, from a mother who agreed to spend, what ended up being, four sessions writing her story. She wanted something to give her child to explain why she had separated from his father. Catherine and she wrote it together in the third person using a pseudonym and this is what Catherine’s client said to her,
“Having the story in another name puts it in a whole different perspective. Because it is a different person you can develop compassion and understanding. It frees people to feel compassion for themselves. You are thinking about yourself the way you want to be thinking not how you have been conditioned. You have all these limits about you that you are taught and you feel like you don’t deserve to feel compassion for yourself”.
Catherine hypothesised that if this is a ‘true’ discovery for therapists, having their story in writing might just allow for both a distancing and a sense of self compassion that is very empowering for the client(s). She noted that in each case where the client had had their story written and read back, they were either able to act from a preferred position in their lives (i.e. not constrained by guilt and self criticism), or they felt heard by family members. Surely this finding in itself was worthy of further, more rigorous research!
GIVING OF WISDOMS
(Introducing/Circulating) “The experiences counselors come across, in their diversity, enables them to get a handle on wisdom and experience that is outside the experience of most people. In times where families break down, very few of us have any experience to go on. There aren’t many ‘role models’ or something…Stories you have told me about other clients have been useful to me. They were very useful stories. No amount of theory has the power of a ‘true story’. (client to her therapist) It felt hard to get started.
Catherine asked the group, (it was already April and she was wondering why no one else had yet shared a wisdom with their client): “At the end of each meeting people say they are going to go away and use the stories we have talked about in these meetings with their own clients. What is stopping this from happening?” They had to explore this important phenomenon together. It had not been enough, she was beginning to understand, that she herself had shared with the group some important, for her, experiences of sharing a Wisdom with one client.
The case of a mother who could barely speak Catherine told the group she had been seeing this family for nine months in various combinations: couple and family. The thirteen year old daughter had been refusing to go to any school as a result of a traumatic bullying incident she had experienced in one particular school. The mother, Shirley, was becoming more and more deeply distressed to the point of being virtually unable to have a voice in sessions. So, as Catherine explained to the group, she offered individual sessions to Shirley, in addition to the other sessions because,
“… it was very difficult for her to articulate anything at the beginning, she would scrunch herself up in a semi-foetal position not able to say anything about even her family of origin. Either she didn’t want to say or she couldn’t remember. . . In the early sessions of seeing her individually she would say, “I don’t think I deserve these sessions – I don’t really have a reason to feel like this”.
Catherine said she had wondered out loud with her client if this would get in the way of their work together and if there was a way the mother could give herself permission to have therapy too. She continued to come, though, and to voice that she wanted help. Catherine continued to inform the group,
“So we moved on but I found that it was really hard for her to name things- she couldn’t give a name for what was happening for her and two weeks ago I said to her, some people call this ‘depression’ and she said ‘yes, I think it is’. Because her sister is on anti-depressants, her mother was on anti-depressants and it has been suggested that her daughter, too, go on anti-depressants. I decided to read her a story by a man who describes his externalised relationship with Depression. I started this by saying that this man talks about Depression and because I know you believe you don’t have a reason to feel depressed maybe hearing what he says about Depression will be helpful to you. She gave her consent and I read the story. After the reading she appeared to me to have a look that she has when she is thinking self-critically. Knowing how hard it is for her to find words I asked her if she wanted to talk then or take the story away and write down her impressions for me. She chose the latter. She went away and came back having written her thoughts.
She wrote, “I don’t have a problem. I have no reason to feel the way I do. But why do I feel I need counselling? When you said I could have counselling I was so happy. I danced around the room. Why do I need counselling so much, if nothing happened. There must be some reason, even if it is minor, that I need counselling. There must be something wrong. Maybe it was a combination of a whole lot of little things that just added up together that meant I have a problem. So that is valid for me. This is a big thing for me to admit. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly big thing, it can be a little thing. Both my sisters are on anti-depressants and that is significant. And a little thing can have a big bearing on my life. Maybe admitting this is the first step”. She appeared so happy with this. It was a breakthrough for her. And I think for me too it was a breakthrough because I felt her reluctance was getting in the way of the therapy”.
While Catherine had concentrated on the Depression side of the story, apparently her client had found significance in something else Rod had written. Catherine reflected on the meaning for her of this, in the group’s presence.
“I similarly tended to look for big things in the story that would touch her, and it was this small thing Rod said about ‘small things rolled into one that was adding up to big things’, that she picked up on. As a therapist I would never have thought that that would be what she would have taken from the narrative. She herself hasn’t told me directly that she got that from the reading, I have just realised the link. I realised it as I read it out now in front of you”.
Nicky reflected in a similar vein, adding an important discovery for herself,
“…we therapists can get it so wrong about what will impact in the end. I am more conscious about sharing others’ stories in my work. I used something one of my clients said about the consequences of living with ABI, “we used to look forward to going to restaurants but now we just go to a cafe”, with this other couple and the husband who had taken on the role of caring for his wife who had been very disabled after a lithium poisoning. ..the husband was delighted with that comment made by another carer and that began a dialogue about the project and he wants to tell his story…it feels that almost by accident we have gone in a different direction just because of this comment shared. I wouldn’t have thought of telling him that because I was so consumed by the story of the tragedy. I wouldn’t have thought to invite him to tell the story”.
The group then tried to understand what enabled this story to have such an impact on Catherine’s client. C. articulated a potentially important theme,
“I think part of this is about permission to talk about, articulate one’s own relationship with whatever. Here is somebody speaking about it. It is his experience and that is something we cannot underrate at all. It is the group dynamic of somebody else is feeling this, it is not just me”.
At the following meeting Catherine brought a quote from ‘The Heart’s Narrative’ (Bird, 2000) that reflected the benefits of self help/support groups which might parallel the effect of hearing Wisdoms. When asked about her experience of a support group, Leslie, Johnella Bird’s client, says,
” It helped a lot because every time someone told a story I would be able to relate to a part of it. I hadn’t really ever verbalised the idea that when I spent time with my family I felt crazy. But I sat in a group and someone said, ‘whenever I am around my family I just go crazy’…and then I could look at changing it… I think it’s really, really valuable because you think that you’re the only one. You think you’re unique”
(Bird, 2000: 334).
The idea that Wisdoms might lend hope, as well as reduce the shaming effects of isolation through connecting with others in a similar plight, interested Catherine. That circulating Wisdoms might work in a similar way to the Self Help or Support groups can do for people, was an interesting possibility to look at for future research.
Catherine recalled how a friend of hers, Andrew, who was recovering from the effects of childhood ritual sexual abuse, found comfort, in this way, from a Wisdom she had given him. He was inspired to write back to the author,
“I was very moved by the story as it reflects a great deal of my own life. Like you I have been labelled an alcoholic not only by others but by myself. I now believe, like you, that I can have a drink and prove to myself that the reasons for drinking were an extreme reaction to abuse trying to forget the pain that comes from betrayal.”
Catherine felt that this intervention had been so helpful to Shirley she was tempted in a subsequent session with her, to use another narrative that related to a concern she was having about her daughter. Catherine wanted to see, again, if she would be surprised by the effect of the story on Shirley. Would it open up possibility of a more helpful perspective?
The Case of Anorexia visiting three generations of women Catherine told the group that when Shirley described concerning behaviours that her daughter was manifesting (weighing self ten times a day, asking what the weights of her mother and sister are (both thin), riding the exercise bike many times a day) she remembered a story that she had read from the ‘anti-anorexia league’ archives. Catherine said,
“…one conversation I had had with Shirley where we were speaking about her family of origin and she just touched on that her own mother had been very thin, ate nothing, and was obsessed with her appearance. And on another occasion when we were speaking to the couple, Shirley’s husband mentioned that when she looked in the mirror she complained to him she was too fat. So when she talked about her daughter behaving in this way, possibly developing anorexia, I asked her about this link that I was forming in my mind and I had this story from the league in my folder (because when I read it I thought that perhaps Shirley would get something from this because it wasn’t just about Anorexia, it was about a young woman’s relationship with herself, a relationship of self criticism and self doubt).
I read the story and at the end of the reading there was a long pause. I asked her for her reaction. Slowly she said that she too had had a relationship with anorexia. When she was seventeen/eighteen she started exercising a lot, counting calories and losing weight. She then started talking about her mother and how her mother was often saying to her daughters, as they were growing up, they were overweight. That was when she decided at seventeen to lose weight. She had tried to lose weight at a younger age but hadn’t succeeded. Her daughter is in her early adolescence (13) and she said she felt jealous that her daughter had the will power that she didn’t have at that young age. She was feeling very angry with her daughter, she admitted, angry that her daughter was losing weight, counting calories and exercising. So angry she found she was not able to speak to her. She felt herself cutting off from her daughter.
The admission of jealousy was a huge admission. For someone who had been unable to articulate anything she perceived as shameful, to admit she was jealous, felt enormous. It was very difficult for her to do. She then was able to speak of her mother’s jealousy of her when she lost weight at seventeen. How her mother then turned around and said to her, ‘you are getting too thin’. We talked more and later she softened her attitude to her daughter and worked on being more of an ally to her and less of a critic. Interestingly her daughter subsequently ceased those concerning behaviours.”
Catherine noted that one reason for introducing a Wisdom in both these cases was that she was feeling stuck. Shirley was finding it so difficult to expand on anything and Catherine felt like she was running out of questions to ask. Having the Wisdom available in the session had stimulated her client to talk in a way she had not experienced in the six months she had already spent working with her. This certainly had taken Catherine aback.
It was after Catherine recounted this experience, that C. said he felt inspired to try reading the story to one of his clients. He, too, sounded inspired,
“I am interested in getting people’s responses to the narrative and it may be an easier way to get into the project. It might be easier… to get the response to these… than the generating. These could act as a model. To say, if you were to write a story what would it be like”.
However, it was his saying this and the lack of follow through that later triggered Catherine to ask the group that question, “What is stopping [introducing Wisdoms] from happening?” The group needed to research the impasse and perhaps plan ways to overcome it.
PLANNING AND REFLECTING
At the next meeting there were more reflections about the therapists’ tentativeness: C. said he was finding it difficult to integrate this process into his particular style,
” I think it is because it is still in the background and not the foreground, because when I go to a session what I am interested in, still, primarily, is what the people who come in bring. What they want to do and what they want to talk about. It is one of the tensions [for me when therapists bring] what they intend to do before a session. Whereas my main interest is still responding to what people come in with. I think that is the main reason I don’t use it and think about it afterwards. I think what is different is that I talk about the project and I bring in the idea but I don’t actually bring the artefact into the session. It is like a topic that I bring into the session”.
J. wondered about the possible unhelpful effects on the client,
“They might also be second guessing…why this story, why for me, why now? What is the message behind this particular story? What is this supposed to signify? What if these possible interpretations going on in the clients’ heads at the time of the reading, interfere with the process”?
Ethical concerns were raised at different times by C. and G. C. wondered whether the ‘opening up’ of the client hearing a story might be potentially risky. G. found himself dealing with a number of “concerns at the back of [his] mind”, when giving the teenager in one family a story of an adolescent’s move from alcohol abuse and despair back to school and responsibility.
“I was thinking (rational or not) what if this kid should up the anti, what if she would slash her wrists…should I give it to her or not. I felt more constrained by that than the thought, are they going to take offence, are they going to think that I think they are like this family so I said, “these experiences are very different to the ones you have told me or what I know of your family”.
A. felt differently about these ‘ethical’ concerns:
“As therapists there are always things we try for a while. With everybody, it works for a while and then it stops working. Carl Whittaker said that didn’t he, basically we spend six months feeding everybody with a bottle of milk and it is a fantastic intervention and then you get bored with it. Families get bored with it and you try a new thing”.
Nicky had an experience of telling a client how much her story of ‘being a mother’ had inspired her own story of ‘mother to be’, which stimulated group reflections on the context of the sharing of Wisdoms.
When Nicky shared with her client her story of inspiration, her client had cried and her daughter, who witnessed the tears, said it was the first time she had ever seen her mother cry. Nicky told the group that the context was important as this happened in a coffee shop as part of a ‘saying goodbye’ ritual.
G: “What I take from what Nicky is saying is that context is very important. You can’t predict for any family what the narrative/story is going to produce…there is something …about our choice to do that. It is not about finding a fit necessarily, because there will be other things going on.”
N: “So are we trying to match the context too much?”
C: “There are many levels of creativity of interaction…There is a whole lot going on about our choices, what prompts us about a particular narrative. So that these stories potentially they come along… using a photo analogy: you have a picture and different colours come out depending on what the border is. Or the other way around, say you bring a powerful narrative or context or metaphor to a new situation that in turn creates a context for the next conversation that happens. That conversation goes back and has an impact on the narrative itself. It is a backwards, forwards process/dialogue between the two situations…It is a consultative process. What I would be looking for is what is the consultative process when we introduce a narrative. In a sense if it is just a technique to say here I am giving you something. Me, the expert, gives you this. It has to have a different quality”.
On her own, Catherine pondered about this ‘consultative process’. What was she doing when she introduced a Wisdom in a therapy session? She had at the back of her mind the Hermeneutic ideas of Anderson and Goolishian (1992): that through expression meaning is not simply communicated but it is discovered and even created. In introducing a Wisdom she was intending to make another point of view available as a resource to the conversation. Consulting with her client meant taking an approach like, “this is one person’s point of view- I am seeing that it might be similar to what you are experiencing, what are your thoughts/feelings about this”? Catherine was more interested in the emotional and intellectual responses elicited, as potentially opening up hitherto unrealised possibilities, than in eliciting agreement or disagreement.
More Group Reflections on Reflecting Teams
On more than one occasion the idea of comparing the process with the workings of a reflective team arose. For example C. stimulated a thoughtful conversation when he said,
“It goes back to the broader question- will you look at these stories a bit like a reflecting team kind of approach where there are a multiplicity of interpretations or responses that people are encouraged to choose from and not a particular kind of version. It was really about what was pertinent to us in the moment… I am putting forward the idea that if we actually took more of a reflective team approach to it then you can’t be in charge of what they take from it. You can’t predict. It is like the history of reflections. Initially it was so important to get down the right reflections, the correct reflection, the apt reflection, not the wrong reflection. People’s responses to reflections really do vary from disinterest, really being put off, useful. We might judge them to be really good reflections but other people’s responses have been hard to predict. My guess is that this is going to be similar”.
P: “The difference is that in a reflection we had a number of different, opinions, angles and views to a story. I wonder then if maybe reading different stories might be better than just reading one”.
C: “Except when it is with a family. You have different family members’ points of view. If you read a story to a family, you might have four or five members hearing that story and having different interpretations”.
P: “I have a bit of an adverse reaction to therapists and myself going in and asking too much about the reflection. I can’t articulate too much what that is about except that whatever it is that they take is theirs…Part of me just wants to take it and they’ll do whatever they will with it- and I’ll catch up with it later.”
J:” It is almost like you want to represent it back in something like a drawing- that isn’t precarved up- not in a pre-categorised form”.
The backwards and forwards of the conversation about Reflecting Teams suddenly helped P. come up with a helpful, for her, attitudinal stance when speaking with clients post sharing a Wisdom,
“Okay- you know how I get around that with the reflecting team and maybe I need to adapt that here is that I am much happier when I am the therapist picking up a particular aspect of the conversation saying, ‘when they mentioned such and such that reminded me of such and such, what did you think about that idea? I am interested in your response…'”
And J. joined her, “Or ‘I was really moved when they said x, what was that about?”
Finally, P. found other issues that stood in the way for her and discussed what she would need to do to overcome these,
“I decided that the first thing I needed to do was acquaint myself with the narratives, because unless you know what is there you are not going to know what is appropriate. The next thing that gets in the way for me is that I am trying too hard to match the narrative to the particular situation. Rather than having faith in and experimenting with the process itself”.
P. decided to follow through with becoming familiar with stories already in the archive and when she did this it was not long before she found a client with whom she felt the urge to share a Wisdom,
“I used Greg’s story of the woman whose son had been kidnapped. It was the first session and I wouldn’t normally use one but Mark was a fellow I was struggling with a little bit in that he was involuntary and he is not even sure whether he does have to come here or not but he is very much wanting to do the right thing by DHS to get them off his back to get his son back. And the bit that suddenly echoed for me was his description of how he has had to not take it too personally when 667 his little boy has taken it out on him and pushed him away and how his little boy has been living with his older brother. I wasn’t trying to engage him. It was one of those vexed cases, there was a lot of push behind him for him to come but I didn’t think it was a very good agenda. So part of me felt it would have been easier to say this is not the right time. But as I listened and he talked I could see this other side. As he talked about this little boy you could see he was having a struggle, if he was in it there could be a role. It was just the parallels to this story. So I said, ‘how would it be like to hear somebody else’s story’?
And interestingly I was thinking that this would be about him … about trying to get close, having to not take it personally, having to see it from the kid’s point of view, having to understand anger and all that, letting go of the adult position…but because [the story] is [by] a [mother] he immediately got very very sad and tapped into the issues for his ex wife who is a heroin addict who has been pretty much written out of the picture and written herself out of the picture. It was hard [for me] to tap into what was happening. So I said to him I thought of this story because it had these parallels for me and I was actually thinking of you and your son, not your wife but it sounds as though it’s made you think of his relationship with his mum’.
So it actually opened up that conversation of what would he want and he said that is a long way off. He just looked really sad and said that is a long way off. It looked as though it brought up a whole lot of things which he couldn’t really articulate. He was teary as he was saying goodbye”.
Isn’t this interesting, thought Catherine, yet again the person who introduces the narrative is surprised that the client takes something completely different to what was expected. How little we know of the real effects of our conversation on our clients!
What P. then came to realise was that once she had read the story she was finding it difficult to know where to take the conversation,
“It brings back lots, they sit there with it. I ask a couple of questions but then I feel like I am prying into something that is quite deep as though it is more for my needs than theirs. How I get stuck with the co-researching idea, because I get so far with how did that happen, how did you 668 manage to do that, what happened next? An active process of keeping that conversation going. Being curious broadly, not just curious toward a therapeutic end. There is something about needing a framework.”
J: “That is what we gain that the research allows as opposed to therapy. When you put on the hat of the researcher you give yourself permission to be curious about the material that you don’t when you are the therapist…This isn’t just about narrative, in my own research, you need particular skills…”
G: “I know that experience of asking questions where you try to make it clear that you don’t have anything invested in the outcome- I don’t think it is easy”.
Catherine recalled the meeting with David Epston and how he had said that the sharing of another’s story can open up possibilities but may not necessarily go anywhere. In following up it is important to take on an attitude of researcher rather than clinician. He suggested that the clinician tends to get worried about the outcomes of the questions and “about making things better”. Catherine told the group that,
“As a clinician I juggle all sorts of past experiences and theories about therapy in my mind, it is hard to suspend these. As I reflect on this, now, I am thinking, when I am consulting with my client: “how can I with you, the client, using this story, understand more about what is happening for you in relation to the problem? I am wondering with the client if we can create an opportunity to make a discovery or bring up something you already know but don’t know that you know. Can we use the story to help you go in a more helpful direction or indeed understand the effects of the problem etc.”?
Co-research meant for Catherine that the relationship between ‘observed’ and ‘observer’ , between client and therapist, is interactive, rather than objective, and includes emotional reactions and ongoing evaluations of the conversation. The subjective ways in which each is influenced by the other is an important part of the research. It was nevertheless an apparently difficult idea to grasp, this notion of co-research, as G. highlighted for all,
“While I am thinking of how am I going to do this, a whole lot of anxieties come up: what if this happens; what if they do that; what if they take it that I am suggesting this about them because it is in the story; are they trying to please me; and is the feedback for my own satisfaction? There is nothing wrong with wanting to get feedback for your work but are we putting them in a compromising situation where they need our help? They disclose all this stuff and then we start to look like we are wanting feedback and what pressure are we putting on them to be considerate of us”.
With G’s concerns in mind, Catherine thought she would be on the look out for an example that might demonstrate to G. and the others why, for her, the circulating of a Wisdom was much more than just trying to get ‘feedback’ after a reading.
The opportunity came when she was playing the ‘reflecting team’ (on her own) with a mother and son being interviewed by her colleague. On this one occasion after listening, behind a one way mirror, to the mother’s concerns about the effects on her child of the parents separating, Catherine decided to take in and read a Wisdom as a reflection. It spoke from the child’s point of view of the effects of separation and divorce. Catherine explained to the research group she had kept this story on her person because she had a feeling that it might be relevant to this family, sooner or later,
“I read it because Mary was saying ‘I don’t want my son to be responsible for me or for looking after me’ and she wanted him to know she could look after herself…she didn’t exactly talk about him feeling responsible but it felt like it was in the ball park of relevancy. I prefaced the reading of the story by saying to Mary, ‘you are saying you don’t want your son to take responsibility, this reminds me of what this young person in this story says about separation and how it affects young people and would you be interested in hearing his ideas about that, how kids get affected? I wasn’t able to see their faces, as I was reading, but my colleague noticed that the boy started laughing during the narration and Mary started crying. She cried quite deeply. Because it was the end of 70 the session we didn’t hear much of their response to the hearing except Mary said: ‘It is so sad for the child. We (husband and wife) should have taken more responsibility’.
My colleague was hearing the story for the first time, too, and her response to me after the session was that she didn’t see any connection between the story and the family’s situation and she couldn’t understand why Mary was crying so much. This really surprised her… that she was responding in a way separately from her child i.e. not thinking of him in relation to the story”.
Mary and her son came in three weeks later and Catherine asked her colleague if she wouldn’t mind following up with the reading. Catherine continued,
“There had been a big gap so I didn’t expect they would remember anything. I was really surprised how much both had remembered and taken in. My colleague asked if she might reflect with them about the previous session and said she had noticed the boy was laughing and the mother was crying. The boy responded with, ‘what made [me] laugh was people would think that I would be thinking it was my fault and that couldn’t be further from the truth’. My colleague then asked the mother why she cried”.
Catherine then told the group how much she learned from watching someone else doing the interviewing about the story. She observed Mary grapple with the meaning for her of all the tears she was shedding which at first, she said, was because she was taken by how articulate this young boy in the story was about his feelings. Then thinking about her own children she wondered if at some level they might blame themselves. Then as she reflected on this by saying, “You can know on an intellectual level it is not your fault I know that myself”, she began to cry describing the guilt she herself was living with. She finished this by saying, “I think in a lot of ways I haven’t come to terms with it”. Catherine observed that it was in the actual speaking that Mary was able to discover hidden feelings and resentments she hadn’t yet been able to articulate. Catherine believed the reading of the Wisdom, followed by persistent but gentle questioning by her colleague enabled this to happen. G. listened to this description and responded,
” The point I was thinking about too, in asking about the effects of the wisdom it is a bit like looking at a model of reality. Is there something out there that we are trying to find here in the 71 story or is it in the moment of telling that something becomes clearer? We believe that in talking about stuff that helps or we believe that something happens in the talking about which doesn’t just happen. There is no objective reality out there… it is in the talking about that something happens….maybe that encourages me to be a bit more persistent or a bit more determined to ask people what the benefits are of the wisdoms we have given them or read to them….”.
So maybe, Catherine concluded, when we read the story and we are wanting a response, people don’t necessarily immediately know what their response is till we can it explore together. She had noticed a parallel process happening whereby just as the telling of one of the research group participant’s experiences challenged and stimulated his or her colleagues to think about their own practice, their clients were stimulated in a similar way after hearing a Wisdom. She wondered then if the individual story can be assessed in terms of the thinking it stimulates in others rather than whether it is representative of the experiences of others. She was wondering, too, if it mattered how far off from the client’s own experience the narrative appears to be, as long as it has some relevance.
“Alice was very nearly getting up and saying, “Thank you, sir, for your interesting story,” but she could not help thinking there must be more to come, so she sat still and said nothing.”
(Carrol, 1866: 140)
THE GETTING AND GIVING OF ‘DISCUSSION
This group of seven co- action researchers explored together both the clients’ and the therapists’ experience of:
i) the recording in writing of Wisdoms (“Getting”)
ii) the listening (“Giving”), in the context of therapy, to another’s Wisdom.
THE GETTING OF WISDOMS A STORY* IN WRITING
What all the stories had in common was their intention. They were all written to help or benefit another who might be going through what they themselves had gone through. They were written to generate hope. Every therapist who was able to go through the process of writing a story in this way with her/his client, noted a significant impact on her/his client/s. Changes were able to occur that had previously not happened with the ‘talk’ therapy alone.
Margaret’s story allowed for further disclosures and an ability to act and react; Barbara was able to release pent up emotion and come to important realisations about past actions and reactions; Jane was freed from the negative effects of her grief in a way she had not experienced before, and the Smith family were able to articulate and discuss together the effects of the past abuse perpetrated on them by their father (and husband). Swift changes were made for all following the documentation of each story.
There were also important differences. Each story was not written in the same way, nor necessarily written by the client/s themselves. Two were “ghost written” by the therapist in concert with her clients. All the stories were read back to the clients by the therapist and while Jane found the writing on its own enabled her to change, the others changed after their story had been read back to them by their therapist.
* Story: a narrative form, whether brief, or middle length or a life rendition, that a person gives to her thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences.
EFFECTS ON INDIVIDUALS
The literature offers a number of related findings that might explain the positive effects of writing experienced by the clients of this research group.
Pennebaker’s (1989) studies have found that the freedom of expression coming through writing brings unspoken aspects of the trauma into language, thereby positively affecting the immune system of the person involved as well as reducing the effects of the trauma. He has also noted that writing may stimulate memory in such a way as to enable one to recall fragments of former traumatic achievements and thereby placing the current negative experiences in context.
Kaethe Weingarten (2000) quotes South African poet’s, Antjie Krog, realisation that capturing an experience in words (spoken or written) for the victim as well as the witness, means the memory can,
“no longer haunt you, push you around, bewilder you, because you have taken control of it- you can move it wherever you want to” (393).
Peggy Penn (2001) has found that a rewriting of a rape story, that now includes a protective figure, can change the client’s voice from the voice of being a victim, to one of being in control. Johnella Bird (2000) too, has anecdotal evidence that writing can provide a client with a “new vision and appreciation” (51) of self. She notes that while her client, Josie, had had no trouble talking about the effects of abuse in therapy, she found the writing process difficult. When she did pluck up the courage to write, Johnella believes “the writing process concretised the enormous obstacles she had overcome over the years. In her success, she had taken her tenacity, determination and courage for granted”. Coincidentally more than one client in the current study reported finding it difficult and painful to write their story. Nevertheless, once they managed to write, they found the process very worthwhile.
Audience to Self
It may be that because one has to write one’s story, one is compelled to reflect on one’s experience and it is in reflection that possibilities for changes of perception and recollections can be allowed. The reflexive process involved may allow one to have thoughts and feelings about one’s thoughts and feelings thus permitting one to become an audience to oneself. This in turn might enable one to act differently in relation to the issue that is presented in therapy.
Penn and Frankfurt (1994) theorise that writing can create a “dialogic” space between author as writer and author as listener to his/her own story. This “intrapersonal” discussion, they say, changes stuck monologues into evolving dialogues. They have found that when a person is struggling with a problem s/he will construct an internal monologue that is often experienced as negative and self-accusing. Having a story to, in a sense, “dialogue” with, provides a space to converse with another voice, a more positive, empowered voice. This enables one to change the conversations one has about oneself. The writing changes perception of self. Changes in self perception invite changes in behaviour.
Writing gives one an opportunity to externalise an internal experience, perhaps thus allowing one to take greater control over actions and feelings. We are so good at giving advice to others but cannot see ourselves. Writing may allow us to listen to our selves as well as broaden our choices for action.
The added dimension of having a story written with a pseudonym and in the third person, might further enable such a “dialogic” space to occur. I might hypothesise, thus, that this was the reason why four people (Barbara and others) were able to see themselves, after the reading back of their stories, with compassion rather than criticism. That said, Penn and Frankfurt (1994) have also found this effect happening when they invite clients to write letters to significant others they subsequently read back aloud in sessions. They say, “What results from the experience of reading aloud, of being witnessed, is a curious self-addressto- self that tends to be highly emotional, but with a nonjudgmental and accepting tone”(227). The reading out loud process, they notice, results in clients developing “empathy toward their various selves or voices” (ibid.). The third person effect, thus, needs further investigation to establish its real significance.
Another framework that would make sense of this for me would be the Buddhist one. In Buddhism the characters ji, meaning “benevolence” and hi, meaning “sad”, join together and translate into the word “compassion”. “To be benevolent in times of sadness” means firstly to be able to embrace one’s self with a warm heart when at our lowest point, in the midst of the worst suffering, in the depths of existential despair. For those who are able to embrace themselves in the midst of suffering, the sadness, embraced by one’s own compassionate heart, becomes courage. Despair evolves into hope. Perhaps in the case of the people in this research project, because the process enabled them to experience self compassion, they were renewed in such a way that hope and courage were experienced.
Paradoxically, according to Buddhist theory, it is only when we have been able to embrace our own lives, can we truly cherish others in their suffering, embracing it as our own. This may be why Penn (1994, 2000) has found that writing changes perception of self and so perception of others. The writing by one changes relationships with significant others so that previously cut off relationships are restored to feelings of empathy.
The stories written for the current project differ from stories written as described in the literature above. Our stories were written with the aim of helping others. This angle may also be what is significantly contributing to the positive effects of the writing on clients in the study. Parry (1991) writes that the vantage point of taken for granted beliefs about self in relation,
“If she believes she has been one of life’s losers…she will, in all likelihood, have selected events that support that belief. If, on the other hand, she comes to believe she has become one of life’s winners, she is likely to have selected a new sequence of events, perhaps making a ‘come-from-behind-to- win- after-all’ story”(42).
Bearing this in mind, a consequence of setting the task of writing to help someone else and giving him/her the freedom to create this story, enables a person not only to have the therapeutic benefit of putting words to past trauma, problem, circumstances (as described by Pennebaker) but also the added change in self perception which comes from believing one has a ‘success’ story to offer. The benefit being perhaps that the client no longer sees self as one of life’s victims but starts to take charge of his/her story- to become the author of his/her life- and begins to play an active part in the shaping it.
The creative product is restorative. Perhaps healing is enhanced by a recognition that one’s story can be a gift to struggling others. These gifts potentially give voice to the creative selfto all aspects, the victorious, joyous, compassionate aspects rising like the phoenix out of the hurt, rejected, wounded, and sad. If this creativity is celebrated by others, then possibly this person’s selfhood feels acknowledged and even celebrated. It is a validation of a person’s life that their story speaks to and for others and a recognition of that person’s interconnected place in the world.
These Wisdoms are potential pride generators. The importance of pride in restoring one’s sense of hope for the future cannot be overestimated. Shame inhibits change and growth (Scheff & Retzinger, 1991) inviting problem exacerbation, whereas pride generates a sense of agency, a belief in self-determination that invites solutions, change and achievements (Scheff, 1998).
EFFECTS ON RELATIONSHIPS
Enabling people to hear each other- Bearing Witness Pennebaker (1997) has also found that listening to others’ distress produces such distress in the witness that they want to withdraw from the conversation or downplay the “sufferer’s” pain. This has significant repercussions for how a “sufferer” is allowed to be with their family. Sensing the family’s anxiety he or she stops talking. The family too is left helpless in the face of their loved one’s suffering. The Ackerman group (Penn, 2001) asks, “So how does this speaker/listener begin to speak”? (42). They say they do this through writing which is followed by speaking it out loud to others.
“It is a moving experience both for the family and for entire group to listen to a letter or any piece of writing from someone who has not been able to speak and is now expressing those unspoken feelings. I have often felt that our responsive listening was in itself, therapeutic” (ibid.).
“the writing is brought to sessions and read aloud clients’ feelings are expressed often in a new voice, about their illness and their relationships to each other” (34).
While these experiences have occurred particularly in the context of working with families where one or more is dealing with a chronic illness, it was interesting to find that a similar effect happened with the Smith family when they had their experience put into writing. They appeared to be moved out of their silence through having an amalgam of their stories written, read and edited by each other. This indicates that having a story in writing so that all family members can start speaking to each other, may be important whatever the cause of the silence- be it grief, trauma, violence or illness.
Having a document to pass around can also help to authenticate and validate a person’s change. Epston & White (1990) have, for many years, been using the practice of inviting their clients to identify and recruit audiences or witnesses to their change. Epston, White and Murray (1992) theorise that an audience is needed to authenticate change in the client. For example, in a seminal case study, they found that not only did having her own story help Rose, the client, find out her own “attitude and thoughts”, in addition having a document that could be circulated to a selected audience contributed to her preferred self description. Lobovits, Maisel and Freeman (1995) have also found that having one’s own news of change circulated to others has the added satisfaction of contributing to others in need.
The case example of Jane in this study has demonstrated the potential of a process of “Iatrogenic healing” (O’Hanlon, 1993) that a Getting of Wisdom can set in motion. What the literature tells us about the therapeutic effects of writing, together with the findings of this project, might mean that a narrative could be worked through in sessions as an integral part of the therapy. Change may be thus precipitated through the writing itself, and the writing would continue to be edited and worked on until a version is arrived at that the client feels is satisfactory enough to submit to the archives.
THE GIVING OF WISDOMS
One view of the world cannot confirm another but it can thicken it
SELF-HELP AND CONNECTING WITH EXPERIENTIAL KNOWLEDGE
By virtue of hearing another articulate feelings, fears and experiences they themselves might be feeling bad about, clients (Shirley, Mark, Mary) dared to speak themselves. The readings or tellings in sessions also had the added effect of providing alternative perspectives to problems (Nicky’s ABI client) and at times enabled the person to activate their own problem solving resources (Shirley, Mary).
As Johnella Bird’s client, Leslie (see The giving of Wisdoms findings) so aptly puts it, having someone articulate or name what one is feeling enables one to see it for what it is and then look at changing it. To feel one is not alone, is one effect of hearing a Wisdom. This can not only be very consoling but also hope giving and inspiring. One couple, for example, not included in the findings, had commented,
“when you gave us the Wisdom to read, it was real, practical, not theory. It was hard hitting, succinct. It clears your mind to write your own. It gets rid of the fuzz”.
The psychotherapy literature tells us that hope generates optimism. Optimism generates life force (empowerment); life force enables people to solve problems and being able to solve problems increases feelings of competence (Snyder, Cheavens & Michael, 1997). Kathy Weingarten (2000) has argued that hope is something people do together, in communitythat hope must be the responsibility of the community. An archive of Wisdoms in a family therapy agency, potentially has this hope giving effect, not only challenging isolation and privacy, but supporting the creation of a community, albeit virtual, of individuals who share an interest in overcoming similar problems.
Lobovits, Maisel, and Freeman (1995) theorise that the need for privacy increases when people, who experience problems, are viewed in terms of pathology. They become silenced, their voices distorted in relation to feeling “wrong” relative to what one believes how one should be, and so possibilities for change close down. Having another story available may enable a client to break through the silence and shame that problems invite, leaving them freer to resist.
David Epston’s work in setting up the anti-anorexia and anti-bulimia league and archives is pioneering in linking fellow sufferers to each other and to their knowledge of the effects of anorexia and bulimia on lives and relationships. He writes: “The ‘stories’ from the insiders are incomparable to the stories written about them by outsiders” (1999:149). The outsiders’ stories are the professional (psychological and psychiatric) constructions of anorexia and bulimia, or it might be the “theory” that the couple above cites. David Epston (1995) lets ‘Ben’, who has been overtaken with obsessive compulsive behaviours, describe what he feels are the effects on him of having others’ experiences as a resource. Ben says: “…they had been through it and they knew what to do and what not to do and they passed that knowledge on to me. And I am grateful to them for that” (Epston,White and Ben, 1995:299).
If it is true that “insider” or “local” knowledge, as David Epston has coined it, cannot compare to professional knowledge in aiding recovery, then an archive (for the purposes of consultation, information and mutual support) in any agency covering a wide range of problems and 81 difficulties which families face, might be vital. It might also aid clients when support groups are not available. However, the effectiveness on client families of having “insider” Wisdoms available to provide direction and mobilise action, needs further investigation, particularly in relation to so-called professional understanding available to them.
FROM MONOLOGUES TO DIALOGUE- THE POWER OF REFLECTIONS
Having another experience to “reflect” upon, may also allow for explorations of alternative ways of relating to the problem. In this way the possibility of responding differently is opened up. The group discovered a connection between how they saw the reflective team operating with families and the introduction of Wisdoms in sessions. What processes might be occurring when a Wisdom is introduced that relate to what is happening in a reflection with a family?
Peggy Penn and Marilyn Frankfurt (1994) suggest that when people are immersed in problematic stories about their lives they are engaged in “negative monologues”. These monologues are mostly fixed and constricting. In monologue the person becomes a listener to her/his own oppressive or overpowering story and this serves to entrench feelings of helplessness and this helplessness creates blindness to other possibilities. They hypothesise that when family therapists introduced the concept of “reframing” they were inviting a “person’s inner monologue, or single voice…into conversation with another, more positive voice view of one’s self…The former monologue experience becomes an internal dialogical experience- talking with ourselves- and produces a change in our conversations with others”(218). These therapists introduced the possibility of “dialogue” with their clients through having them write letters, journals, personal biographies, dreams, or poetry. Together with the speaking that occurs in therapy this, they found, sets up a reflective process whereby each influences the other.
Possibly when a Wisdom is introduced to a client who has a restricted view of self, a similar process is set in motion, enabling “dialogue” to occur with self and with therapist. Instead of being immersed in the stuck story, new ways of relating to problems and self can emerge. The reflective process invites a dialogue that counteracts the prevailing dominant monologue about one’s life and one’s relationship to the problem. Maybe it is about listening to other’s stories as a way of escaping domination by one’s own.
Tom Andersen (1992) believes that the reflecting team offers clients the possibility to shift back and forth between listening and talking. People benefit because hearing different perspectives about the same issues provides the potential to create new perspectives. He believes that there are a number of ways the shift back and forth between listening and talking can occur other than using a reflecting team. I would suggest that writing and hearing back one’s own story as well as hearing another’s are other ways- e.g the Giving and Getting of Wisdoms. Wisdoms (whether written for oneself or heard from another) might be creating a perturbation in the system that challenges it to generate a new, more helpful, meaning. Post modern therapies call on therapists and clients alike to challenge and deconstruct the foundations on which our beliefs rest. Lynn Hoffman (1992) suggests that such therapies need to be on the look out for methods that prevent clients from becoming married to any truths, which I would suggest perpetuate “negative monologues”. She says that “one way to build in the requisite doubt is to set up a situation where a plurality of stories is encouraged and associative formats keep meanings unfixed” (20). Might a Wisdom or two introduced in therapy, or a folder of Wisdoms available to clients, have the possibility to do this?
I made sense of the co-research process through David Epston’s description. He describes the co-research as one of “inter-viewing”, rather than interviewing. Professional interviewing, he believes, can produce “two unpleasant practices- it can turn into an ‘inquisition’ or ‘interrogation’, rendering a potential source of ‘alternative knowledge’ into merely an ‘informant’; or merely involve the collection of ‘views’ or ‘opinions’ of others’ (Epston, 2000b). Inter-views, on the other hand, are a conversation whereby therapist and client seek knowledge and understanding together- both thinking out loud, exchanging views. The role of the therapist is to have respectful curiosity, interested attention and to be responsible for the collating and archiving of the ‘documents’. These narratives, unlike logico-scientific documents, he argues, are the main bearers of human knowledge- they are the way humans understand and communicate to teach, learn, and interpret.
If some group members found it difficult to know why or how to introduce a Wisdom in therapy, others found it difficult knowing how to generate a conversation post the introduction. There were fears that the introduction of a narrative might be more for the therapist’s benefit than that of the client’s. They also wondered how they might stop the process from turning into an interrogation or prying, as one therapist (P) felt was happening with her.
It became apparent that for these therapists, at least, David Epston’s ideas of co-research were difficult to grasp. As systemic therapists, perhaps, they might need to find a way of introducing narratives that would fit with their practice. A willingness by therapists to don the ‘researcher’s’ hat in their clinical practice, may be the only way therapists can effectively introduce and gather Wisdoms with their clients, whatever their theoretical framework.
This project has undoubtedly raised more questions than it has answered, but such is the nature of Action Research. Without this process we would not have discovered what might be worthy of further research. For example, we still have no idea about what might be the most effective time, within a therapeutic relationship, to introduce the notion of penning a Wisdom; what the differences are between the effects on a client, of stories wholly written by them, and those “ghost written” by the therapist, or a combination of the two; what the most effective role of the therapist might be in facilitating this process; and if the reading back out loud is an important adjunct to the writing itself? There are many more possibilities that could be added: as family therapists we have yet to discover all the possible ways family members might write individual and shared narratives, and how these might be read out in creative and therapeutic ways; and we do not know the impact of writing (about trauma or other significant negative experiences) in their first language on people where English is a secondary language.
How does the therapist find the fit, i.e. the right story to introduce? Are there more effective times to introduce a Wisdom? Is introducing a Wisdom just about when a therapist is feeling stuck? These are questions this study raises.
In her study of using parental stories to aid inexperienced parents make the transition of their first born entering the community school system, Niska (2001) considered the possibility of subdividing stories into their effects: cognitive (giving useful information), emotional (those providing affective release) and behavioural (those inspiring concrete action). This might be an interesting way to further categorise Wisdoms so that these might be of use to therapists in choosing relevant stories to help their clients.
In addition, some group members expressed concerns about the possible risks and unhelpful effects of introducing Wisdoms in therapy with families. While this study found that there were no negative effects reported back by the client, except possibly with ‘Mark’ (who, after hearing one story, became very sad because it tapped into issues of his heroin addicted ex-wife), this area, too, needs further investigation. Perhaps there are more risks in the telling as evidenced by the experience of Catherine in the early stages of the project when she was interviewing other therapists’ clients. Also the possibility that clients might negatively compare themselves with the writer of the story cannot be ignored.
THE ACTION RESEARCH PROCESS
Even if some of the group participants had found it difficult to carry out some of the ‘action’ phases of the research, they said they benefited from hearing about the experiences of others in the group. It has to be acknowledged that as happens with group processes some people are quicker to warm to ideas than others or have more time to test ideas out in practice. Like the early days of single session work, as one therapist commented, many felt awkward and clumsy as doing things in one session felt foreign. Over time this changed. I found that the opportunity to discuss and reflect on my findings with the group, as well as having to transcribe the group conversations, enabled me to come to realisations I know I would not have otherwise. I was not alone in believing the process was an enriching one. These are some comments made by participant therapists:
“It [the benefit of Action Research] is partly due to this process where you have the space to think- a place where you can talk through something and develop it. It is also partly knowing others’ experiences of Giving and Getting Wisdoms”.
“This process has been so rewarding for me and I feel without the opportunity to reflect with the group I would not have come to realise the significance, for example, for our clients of hearing their story in the third person”.
“It is hard to make space [for these meetings] because of a busy schedule but certainly hearing these Wisdoms and hearing about the process energises me and moves me and I think I feel more connected to certain things that mean something to me in terms of my professional practice as well as other ways. Maybe this is something that benefits families too”.
I may be at the end of this writing but we, at this agency, are not at the end of the Wisdoms learnings. We are in fact in a new cycle of Wisdoms research!
A good number of Wisdoms have now been collated and a folder of stories is available for clients at reception to read at their leisure. Some are already requesting copies to take home. Nicky has gone on to use Wisdoms to inspire and teach participants at conferences and workshops. The feedback is impressive- the stories touch workers in moving and unforgettable ways that potentially will affect their day to day practice in family sensitive ways.
Some therapists are acknowledging that having family stories available in this way helps them hear and feel for their clients in a manner that may not happen in the routine sessions with clients.
J., P. and A., inspired by Nicky, are considering collating and using student stories of doing their family of origin as a way to better prepare new students for doing their own. Hearing Wisdoms might also help students develop empathy for clients’ experiences in a nondetached way. I myself am continuing to try different ways of generating Wisdoms. Recently I made the writing of her story integral to my work with a young mother. We spent the sessions writing a story she would tell her son about how he was born and why they did not live with his father. The result of this exercise was that this mother mustered the courage to confront her son’s father about his past treatment of her and she found he listened to her! She was also able to talk to her mother about a difficult issue in a way she had never done before. So…a new group has formed. We will continue to meet monthly to plan, act and reflect together on the use of client Wisdoms and wonder how we might
“…make [our] eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long-ago…”
“Thus grew the tale of Wonderland: Thus slowly, one by one, Its quaint events were hammered out- And now the tale is done, And home we steer, a merry crew, Beneath the setting sun.”
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