The Paradoxes of Good Therapy
A therapeutic talk about talk therapy
Posted Jul 16, 2019
By Jared French, Ph.D.
I recently listened to a webinar with the intriguing title, “Can Conversation Cure? Developing the Practice of Talk Therapy.” It was the first in a series of conversations with therapists and counselors hosted by Lois Holzman, director of the East Side Institute in NYC. Lois’ guests were Tom Strong, a psychologist, professor, and counselor educator from Canada, and Murray Dabby, a social worker, social therapist, and consultant from the United States. Acquainted with both Tom and Murray as practitioners whose work is collaborative, improvisational, and focused on helping people make meaning and develop their relationships, I was hoping to learn more about their approaches and gain some practical tips for my own work. I wasn’t disappointed.
Tom and Murray started off agreeing on the shortfalls of the overly individualistic and medicalized approach to therapy that dominates in both Canada and the U.S. They both are unhappy with how it privileges “inner experiences” at the expense of peoples’ cultural histories and current contexts which, for them, are vital to explore with clients. The two of them moved on to discuss what it means to “co-create” therapy with clients, what it looks like to be curious as a therapist about how clients talk, and ways they work together with clients to move beyond the overdetermined ways we often make attributions about ourselves and others (“I’m worthless/etc.”; “I’m this kind of person”). At one point, playing devil’s advocate as moderator, Lois asked, “Does this mean people are repressing what they’re really feeling in order to engage in creative ways of talking with you and one another?” Tom’s response was that good therapeutic work honors peoples’ current experience of emotion but doesn’t privilege that experience or treat it as fixed. Adding to this, Murray spoke about his performance approach, for example, his work with couples in which he helps them to perform their anger differently, and how doing so often leads to more useful ways of relating to one another.
Taken together, Murray and Tom gave a rich description of what I think it means to do good therapeutic work—being responsive to clients’ circumstances and at the same time focusing on their growth and development. We all know that listening to clients in caring ways is fundamental to therapy, but some therapies do that and only that. Then there are approaches that move clients too quickly toward change with little regard to what they’re actually saying. They do therapy without what psychologist John Shotter calls ‘With-nessing.’ I like that word and use it to remember how to be a good therapist.
The talk about growth and development got me thinking about the paradox of what it means to be human. Because among the wonders of being human is that we not only are who we are, but we are also creating who we are becoming. We are not fixed. When applied to therapy, I think this means simultaneously relating to clients’ talk in responsive ways, while joining them in developing new potentialities, opportunities, and performances in their everyday lives.
Another highlight of the webinar for me was responses to the practical and philosophical question, “Is therapy about helping clients transcend their subjectivity and its limitations?” Tom responded, “Rather than two subjectivities in the room trying to relate to each other, there is a collective subjectivity that we are attuned to.” For him, “The therapist’s job, in part, is not to bring anything fixed into the relationship, but to be responsive to the collaborative project of therapy.” I can hear the voices of some of my fellow psychologists who might worry that this kind of approach is too vague or ambiguous but, in my opinion, it takes a lot of focus and concentration to acknowledge and relate to the collaborative projects that are co-created between therapists and clients.
Murray related the question to his group work and how he experiences the relationship between the subjectivity of the group and the individuals in the group. He shared how helping people create a collective subjectivity through building and giving to the group can—in a seeming paradox—result in the social and emotional growth of each member. As someone who has begun to practice the social therapy group approach, I’ve seen this happen and have come to greatly appreciate the complexity, creativity, and ethics involved in co-creating the contexts for groups to grow.
These ideas and principles of collaboration, collective meaning-making, and subjectivity, helping groups grow, etc., are by no means limited to the world of therapy. Tom and Murray readily shared their knowledge of and experience with other contexts in which they are being applied, such as improv training, classrooms, action research, youth performance programs, appreciative inquiry, and doctor-patient relationships, to name a few. Applied to each of these arenas, Murray’s concluding statement rings very true for me, “People see and relate to each other in new ways when they have a chance to create new performances together.”
That’s the kind of experience I want to join with others in building and developing in as many contexts as I can. I look forward to more of these webinars for the issues they raise and the insights they offer to anyone interested in relating to themselves and others in novel ways.
Jared French, Ph.D., is a psychologist in London, Ontario, Canada, who works with students and interns at a university counseling center, with a discursive and performative approach. Jared is a graduate of the East Side Institute’s International Class, and an Institute Associate.
Shotter, J. (2011). Getting it: With-ness thinking and the dialogical…in practice. New York, NY: Hampton Press.