Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Change and Responsibility - a conversation with Tapio Malinen

Krisse Lipponen


Tapio Malinen has worked 15 years as a school psychologist. He is also a brief therapist, freelancer trainer and supervisor. During the last years he has presented both internationally and in Finland on collaborative and nonstructurally based practices. He has been four years as an editor-in-chief of Ratkes, the Finnish Journal for Solution Focused and Resource Oriented Practices. Recently he is exploring Narrative Practices together with an International Training Group led by the faculty of Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, South Australia.


Lipponen: Let’s get straight to the point: why solution-focused therapy (SFT)?

Malinen: What a difficult question! Yes, why not something else? But I do practice all kinds of other models. The resource oriented approach is only a basic idea in my way of working, and then there is a lot of other things.

Lipponen: What other aspects of your thinking matches well with the SFT?

Malinen: On the one hand, there were a lot of things that fit well with the new ideas I found in SFT. On the other hand, the world that the SFT has opened for me has modified my old way of thinking and acting. I have experienced a reciprocal process: something existed before SFT and affected it, and something new came into the light along with it. The thoughts I had before resonate with the new ideas.

In the 1970’s, I studied therapies that pointed out the idea of releasing emotional expression. They included cathartic methods in gestalt therapy, psychodrama and transpersonal psychotherapy. According to the concept all these methods hold regarding the human being and the world, all that is needed for change already exists in human beings. These ideas are due to our way of perceiving and thinking about the traumatic experiences in childhood, that our real essence or potential is – should I say – forgotten or locked. The goal of these emansipatory therapies is to release emotions and remove obstacles for more fullfilling existence.

In SFT, change is considered as natural and stability as an illusion. The suffering that human beings experience derives from identifying with stability, that the nature of reality is stable and rarely changing. In SFT, there are a lot of assumptions stressing change as the essence of the world and the human being, and the resources for change – even if we have forgotten them for many different reasons – exist in every person. As I became familiar with SFT in the late 1980s, it resonated in my mind with other methods I was involved in.


Everything is flowing

Lipponen: So, the change is in the view of one´s human essence. It sounds great. Is this something that is important to you? Does it play your strings?

Malinen: If one thinks of change in its material form, the cells of our bodies die all the time and new ones are created. There is a constant process of death and rebirth going on in our physical existence. And as one grows old, this essential fact of life becomes easier to realize. A small child doesn’t perceive this process like an older person, in thought or in existence. Change also manifests itself in the constant birth and death of ideas and thoughts. Similarly, my emotions and thoughts appear and then they disappear. In our essence, change is always there in many simultaneous levels and in different ways.

Taken from the classic philosophies, the idea that everything is flowing has always fascinated me.
It is a very old idea that the basic essence of the universe and the human being is change. SFT by no means invented this idea.

In working with clients, one notices that as people identify themselves with the illusion of constancy, their lives become dominated by suffering. Clinging to the old points of views instead of giving them up is like acting against the principles of the universe, and it causes suffering.

Lipponen: How does the idea of change as the essence of the universe and the human being manifest itself practically in your work?

Malinen: Perhaps in my way of constantly questioning my thinking and acting.
What worked in one situation may not work in another. My experience is that when
I try to follow some predetermined aspect that does not match the situation, it may prevent change and progress. I am not a master of changing my thinking and acting, but I have become a little more flexible. And I trust the temporal nature of suffering, because it is temporary. Stated another way, that deep state of happiness is not everlasting, because it is not. Both deep joy and suffering are changing all the time. In practical work, this generates the desire (or at least the attempt) to follow the client’s individual pace of change. As one admits that there is nothing unchanging, the dimension of respect becomes an integral part of the work. Patience and forbearance appear along with spontaneous desire to experiment and play, because the idea and reality of constant change gives full possibility to play and to construct new patterns.

Lipponen: How do people react to this idea of impermanence and change? How does it manifest itself in your communication with others?

Malinen: In my opinion, in the practice of therapy it manifests itself , that is, when a person wants to talk about his or her problems or express the sorrow generated by loss. My own experiences as a client in therapy have affected me so that today, even when focusing on solutions, I don’t want to set up a schedule for people’s experiences. By this I am speaking of the kind of thinking that says, “ If after three session, there are no results, one must call for the supervisor or the team.” In communication, it calls for tolerance and allowing for what is actual or needed. In addition, there I always the knowledge that comes from experience-- what ever is in front of you is always somehow deeply impermanent.

Lipponen: How do people react to this idea of change? What kinds of communication do your thinking and values lead you to?

Malinen: On my side, it leads to the desire to adapt to the client’s timetable or map of change. A single experience by itself never composes the whole truth; there is always
something else connected to an experience, emotion or thought. This is an idea that arouses my interest to explore different experiences. It also provides the serenity to let them be, and the desire to ask about the different aspects they include in making sense of their experience.

Lipponen: So you mean that the thought of change precedes SFT?

Malinen: In Western philosophy, one of the supporters of this thought was Herakleitos. In Buddhism it showed up 2500 years ago, and in Chinese thinking it appeared even earlier.


Many Roads come from Rome

Lipponen: Has SFT brought something new to you, or did it reform something about your idea of constant change?

Malinen: It both brought something new and changed some old things. Along with SFT came a perception that we are in language. Different kinds of language games can act as a catalyst for change, depending on how we use language-- what kind of communication, experience and reality we construct or are generating out of our dialogues. With SFT, I became aware of the amazing possibilities of language in this new way.

Of course, language has to be used also in therapies concentrating on emotions, but the experience and expression of emotion play a more crucial role in those models. As I became interested in school work, where there are no possibilities for long and intensive therapies, I had to find some tools or ways of using language that could work in a school setting. One of these tools was SFT.

Another new thing was the orientation toward goals that is emphasized greatly in school world. Being goal-oriented can be compared to a building project. Although the house would not be built in a day, the image of the complete house gives motivation to the construction. Even small pupils enjoy a tool like a scaling question, if it is seen through their world of experience. I think the scaling question is a good instrument to stress the goal-directedness. I am also very fascinated with the idea of simply creating an open space for dialogue and wonder, where preferences and possibilities can emerge and generate. This way of work comes mainly from the contributions of Harry Goolishian, Helene Anderson, Tom Andersen, and, most recently from John Walter and Jane Peller.

Lipponen: What kind of thoughts have you had recently as you have gone a little further in SFT?

Malinen: The basics have remained the same, or grown even deeper. I have ever more respect for the unavoidability of change. In my professional development, it has occurred to me that after a new approach has been explored and personally adapted, one begins to integrate other methods into it. Perhaps I am currently in a phase where I am pleased to experiment with many things within the frame of the resource oriented approach, so to speak.

Lipponen: Please tell more about this.

Malinen: For example, I have not rejected methods that focus on strong expression of emotions. Lately, I have been especially interested in EMDR ( Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). It is an approach in which the idea of change is given slightly different form from SFT, but the basic assumptions are the same. I like to use it in debriefing and when working with traumatic experiences. By applying it in these situations, I feel I am acting in a resource oriented way. Since I have also studied psychodrama for a long time, uniting action methods with the basic SFT model feels natural, especially when working with groups. I also have some plans in starting to study narrative practices. These days, people are interested in integrating different methods, and there is a lot of experimenting and research going on in the field. I have found Michael Hoyt´s integrative approach especially interesting, in this respect.

Lipponen: I have noticed that in this respect common sense I currently emphasized a great deal.

Malinen: Yes. I think it was interesting when Steve de Shazer explained that, in fact, there is no comprehensive theory in SFT at all. Since the mid-1970s, the developers of the SFT approach have studied certain kind of questions and clients’ reactions to them. SFT developed out of practice, from watching what worked and repeating it. What worked continues to be used. In addition, discussion concerning clinical situations where these questions would be best suited has been going on continuously. Some years ago, Steve and Gale Miller published an article considering SFT as a ”rumour”. A “rumour” was a description of whatever the client and the therapist found to work. The authors claimed that SFT is a mere rumour. In my opinion, this is a fascinating idea put forth by these pioneers. It is as if they were giving permission for different kinds of experiments to take place, since there is no definite model to be followed. These innovators have constructed a model based on questions that work and then let the rumour spread. People have modified and developed questions according to what they have found works. Of course, for the beginners, it is quite natural to look for a coherent theory. In the beginning I often also felt lost, and had there been an accepted, accurate model, these situations could have been easier for me.

Lipponen: Is the change an issue in your work? Did you know that you were going to talk about it in this interview?

Malinen: No, I did not know that, but it is an issue for me. It gives me a feeling of lightness, and it includes a great respect. One day, I may die or change my methods, get caught in an earthquake or fall in love, question everything or continue sticking to what works. This idea is something I have a deep respect for.


Buddha, Wittgenstein and Solution-Focused Therapy

Lipponen: I know that Tai Chi is your passion and I hear a strong Eastern theme in what you say. Would I hear it if I did not know about your hobby?

Malinen: I don’t know.

Lipponen: Is the Eastern philosophy somehow connected to your world?

Malinen: During the last years, I have studied a lot of Buddhism and SFT side by side. I have also read Wittgenstein – within the limits of my ability to understand, because reading his work is a hell of an undertaking. There are a lot of similarities between these three worlds of thought, and that interests me.

Lipponen: Buddhism, Wittgenstein and SFT--Could you tell me what kind of things you have connected?

Malinen: One thing that has already arisen in our conversation is the connection to change. According to Buddhism, one of the basic characters of the conditional world is anicca, impermanence. Everything is in a constant state of flow, but we often act and feel as if it was not. Sticking to the idea of constancy and permanence causes conflict and suffering.

Post-structuralist opinions about the meaning of language also connect. Buddhism, and especially later Wittgenstein include similar thoughts I have heard when studying SFT. Briefly, everything that exists in a human being is already within us every moment. We have a kind of a Buddha nature all the time. That means that we already have the resources and solutions needed in ourselves each second. Also, Wittgenstein states that things which are obvious and constantly before our eyes are difficult to notice. And, if one creates hypotheses, they can prevent the seeing of reality. For example, the question ”why” may be an obstacle for the exploration that otherwise could lead the person to see the facts of reality. Descriptions of phenomena help us in reaching the facts better than being theoretical and answering the ”why” question.

For Buddhists, the world is samsara, an illusion, or, in Western terms, an image of the reality made of concepts and pre-knowledge. If we want to perceive and analyse this illusion our mind has created, it is important to realize that this illusion only exists in our minds. If we manage to see samsara as it is, per se, in its such-ness or is-ness, we see the ”pure” reality, nirvana. Even SFT talks about how there is depth in the apparent superficiality. Instead of asking ”why”, seeking causes and explanations (e.g. in the early childhood), SFT focuses on the possibilities of current solutions by exploring what the client is doing that works at the moment. Wittgenstein and Buddhists both talk about this, and I think this is interesting.

Lipponen: I know little about Buddhism and very little Wittgenstein, but the way you talk about these things doesn´t correspond to my preconceptions of them. I wonder, have I read the wrong texts, or are you just emphasizing some different (and delicious) points? What does my confusion reflect to you?

Malinen: I don’t know. It might of course reflect your current way of thinking or stage of development. I believe that every philosophical approach or world view can be read in hundreds of thousands of different ways. These worldviews can manifest themselves in many ways for people in different stages of development. I think any philosophical construction can be productive as this happens, as it can be interpreted in many different ways.

Lipponen: I am respectful of someone who can find such great thoughts out of Wittgenstein.

Malinen: Well, thank you. There they are. One of the thoughts that also fascinates me is combined with what we discussed earlier concerning change. Buddhists also think that there are three marks of existence. The first one is that everything is suffering, or that we are never permanently satisfied. The second one is that what we in Western psychology call ”ego” does not exist at all. This is the doctrine of no-ego, anatta. ”An”means no and ”atta” means self. This is combined with change. Whereas structuralists search for deeper meanings beneath the words or behind them, Buddhists think that the question of ego and meaning is about the identification process to the phenomena the man consists of : our body, perceptions, feelings, formations and consciousness. For them, the ego is a process, not a creature or an entity that exists inside the human being. A Buddhist method in exploring this process is called meditation. It is a method that meets the essential aspects of scientific inquiry: instrumental injunction, direct apprehension and communal confirmation. Meditation is a method that usually opens to us the process nature of the ego. The idea of constant change is well expressed here. Even the ego is a process that is changing all the time. States of joy and suffering are always temporary.

Lipponen: To my ears, the process nature of self sounds like a social constructionist thought.

Malinen: Exactly! And that’s why these thoughts are so interesting. They can be found in a philosophy generated thousands of years ago and in the theory associated with SFT.

Lipponen: You have created quite a project in exploring and combining all these thoughts.

Malinen: Recently transpersonal psychology – a modern science – has brought up these old sources.

Lipponen: I didn’t know you have that kind of a hobby.

Malinen: It really is a hobby. And quite an interesting one. Naturally, it is linked to Tai Chi, where the movement meditation works as an instrument for exploring change.

Lipponen: Do these thoughts manifest themselves in your client work? Do they bring some special features or labels into it?

Malinen: As I label a method and start working according to it, becoming aware of the fact that it really is a label becomes important, because this label or pre-knowledge can prevent us from being in the process of reality. This is something I may have learnt to be conscious of. It is also called ”working with an empty head”. Working from a position free from pre-knowledge offers a real possibility for appreciation and respect. However, this is extremely and painfully difficult. I always find myself caught up in my own ego, and then the work becomes hard. It is good to became aware of the fact that it is me labelling things and often my motives to do so are quite selfish. They are linked to safety, selfishness, polishing the ego, self importance.



Lipponen: Change is one main word. Others are appreciation, respect and language.
Are these important things in your work?

Malinen: Yes, they are. And for me, it is important to become aware of these thing or the meanings linked to them. In SFT, the more awareness and apprehension one develops regarding the meaning of language, the more each word becomes an ethical choice. What one decides to perceive in the client or in the environment is always an ethical choice. In my opinion, this is very important, too.

Appreciation doesn’t come from outside, but we as human beings have this dimension by nature. I am also very curious, which increases my apprehension. I often become speechless as I see my clients gone through a really tough things, allowing them to tell me how they succeeded.

Of course, I respect heroes. There is no need to say to yourself “I must have respect” when you meet the client. As you are willing to participate in the process, the appreciation and respect follow naturally. It would be interesting to study the process to see if appreciation exists in advance or if it is generated in the therapy work. Somehow I believe we are collaboratively generating it together with our clients.

Lipponen: Having that attitude, you certainly must meet heroes quite often..

Malinen: I think that the way we perceive is very important, and it is possible to train one´s way of perceiving. Meditation is an instrument used in training one to be in the process, supporting it and being aware of it. It’s easy and pleasant to get out from the process when it becomes unpleasant or causes suffering, but it is also possible to learn how to stay in the process in spite of the discomfort. Alternately, it may help to see that this situation was generated not only by me but also by everybody else involved and everything that we bring to it from the past.

Lipponen: That is quite a daring way to think, that we do not cling to things but let everything flow and change.

Malinen: But if I were to get outside and see an accident on the street and I do nothing to help, just thinking ”this won’t last, it goes away”, it would of course be against my morals. There are also situations where taking action is important. I think that no-clinging – in the form represented in Buddhism - is often misunderstood. It is not as if it was equal to indifference or passive selfishness. For example, if I think that my love for my wife is only temporary (which in a certain sense, it is) without expressing it in any way, if I did not do acts of love, our relationship would soon wither away. This is true even though I know that one day both of us are going to disappear from this world.

Lipponen: That has something to do with responsibility.

Malinen: Yes! And now I hear it myself, too. The idea of everything changing all the time opens the responsibility in a very deep way. In English, the word responsibility contains the word response. If the opposite of conscious and goal-orientated action would be emotional reactivity, understanding the process nature of life gives possibility to response when it is appropriate and important. And there is the response-ability, the ability to response, becomes vital.

Lipponen: I have never thought of this concept using those words. You mean the process nature of reality stresses our responsibility, because there are no permanent things.

Malinen: This even manifests itself in current ecological philosophy. Everything is connected to everything else every second. In therapy, the actions of both the therapist and the client affect each other all the time. This is the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. Through this, we also face responsibility. When you think of something or do something, it always has an influence on everything. The responsibility opens itself to becoming a meaningful thing through the consciousness of impermanence and change, and so-called superficial things become deep. Similarly, having all these dimensions, the SFT method is not superficial in any way.

Lipponen: How could the idea of the process nature of existence and the idea of responsibility be promoted in your work?

Malinen: I think that, at best, the process nature may be promoted in one´s attitudes as well as in communicating to people that many ways come from Rome. I have started to think that it may as well be true, that there is a Rome where there are many ways to come from, that your way of living this situation or solving this problem – even if it is different from your neighbour´s – is ok. It may even work better for you than for your neighbour.

Lipponen: But then sometimes it obviously doesn’t work, or is not good. I am thinking of violent situations for example.

Malinen: Yes. And speaking of resolutions, there may even be simpler situations.
For example, the attempt to reframe can feel like a circus trick to some, and it may feel very superficial. For someone else, the new point of view is a great thing and completely sufficient.

Lipponen: What if a person does not consider his or her actions as violent and the professional has to take a stand on it?

Malinen: For example, in the situations of child protection or school bullying,
I have noticed that as time goes by – it may be connected to getting older – I have started to take a stand on ethical things more often than before. In school work, the adult’s taking a stance and responsibility is very important. It is important to show that this is not right, that this will not be allowed. I am happy I read the book >From Injustice to Responsibility, written by Harri Hirvihuhta and Tapani Ahola. It represents the kind of teaching responsibility that is positively linked to SFT. As I read the book, I immediately liked it.

On the other hand, perhaps due to my earlier experiences in therapy, I also have the strong belief in that if bullying or some other injustice occur in the school, the ethically thinking and feeling sides of the bullying young person are also there all the time, even if hidden behind his or her obstacles or contexts. I have this in my mind while working. I believe that there is always a feeling person in every violent youngster. If the situations are analysed and discussed in an empowering way that stresses responsibility, it emerges or is re-created. This assumption may also direct perceptions that enable one to find what one believes in.

Lipponen: What else feels important?


The Safety of Change

Malinen: Well, perhaps my trust in doing things together with other people is stronger than before. This is somehow linked to realizing the process nature of reality. More than ever, I like to be in situations where I have no idea what’s going on. I only believe that this will be ok, as we share this common trust in the process we’re sharing. Even the client is a supervisor, if you just want to perceive him or her that way. This idea often leads to collaboration in which I simply use my expertice to “tune up”. I simply work what I would call, as a sound-elicit-er, listening to the tunes people are creating. It is good for me to see that this has become a part of my professional skills. I used to use the metaphor of therapist as midwife, but nowadays it feels too bloody. This ”sound opener” or “elicit-er” is more suitable. In addition, it contains the idea of polyphony, that there are both instrumentalists and singers with different kinds of expression to create the whole. Today, this is a central thought for me. Also I try to create the permission for or feeling of safety that I can do what I am doing in this role.

Lipponen: How is that feeling of safety generated?

Malinen: Maybe it comes from the good experiences I have had when taking this attitude. As one learns to trust that everything is going to be ok, it is easier to enter new situations. To me, giving permission and creating the feeling of safety are often linked to each other. As I give the permission to myself to increase my possibilities in a situation, I can permit others to do the same thing. Then it is safe and I won’t do anything wrong. I think the feeling of safety also generates from awareness of the impermanence and uncertainty. In the impermanent nature of things, in change, there is some deep wisdom, even if one might think otherwise. That somehow feels very safe.

Lipponen: Change is safe.

Malinen: Yes, indeed, change is safe.

Lipponen: I want to ask you one more question. What comes after SFT?

Malinen: What comes after anything? After this moment? I heard recently that the thought of psychoanalysis vanishing totally one day has been found in a posthumous text written by Freud. Perhaps he thought that it may as well be just a phase in the larger development of society; people may learn to resolve their problems in another way which makes it fade away. This was interesting to hear from Freud. I have even started to think myself that perhaps certain psychological terms – such as self-esteem or identity – won’t be used a hundred years from now, just as we don’t talk about ”hysteria” anymore. Maybe one day we won’t talk about solution-focused therapy. When that day arrives, we may have learned to perceive, conceptualize and realize these things at another level of consciousness, in totally different way.

Lipponen: I´ve had a delightful time!

Malinen: As have I – thank you for hosting our conversation.Krisse Lipponen is a social psychologist working in private practice in Eeri Partners, Helsinki, Finland.


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