Journal of Systemic Therapies. Vol 23, no. 2, 2004
The Wisdom of Not-Knowing - A Conversation with Harlene
Tapio Malinen, M.A.
Harlene Anderson is a founding member of the Houston Galveston
Institute, Taos Institute, and Access Success- International.
She is recognized internationally as being at the leading edge
of postmodern collaborative practices as a thinker, consultant,
coach, and educator. She embodies her own belief in learning
as a lifelong process – inviting, encouraging and challenging
people to be inquisitive, creative, authentic, and open to ever-present
possibilities for newness in others – and in themselves.
This conversation took place in Tornio, Finland where Harlene
was presenting together with Tom Andersen, Jaakko Seikkula,
John Shotter, and others in the 8th International Meeting on
the Treatment of Psychosis.
Tapio Malinen: In your article Postmodern Social
Construction Therapies you are saying that a collaborative therapist
doesn´t move the conversation with his client in a particular
direction, instead his intention might be described as wandering
here and there. This would me a very good way to start this conversation,
from wandering together here and there. Could you me kind enough
to tell me something about the context in which you and Harry
Goolishian begun to develop what today is called Collaborative
Harlene Anderson: It´s a long story that
begins in 50s when Harry Goolishian joined the Psychiatric Department
of the Medical School in Galveston, Texas. There was a group who
formed a research project that developed into a way of working
with families called Multiple Impact Therapy. It was very similar
to what developed as traditional, classical family therapy. I
began studying family therapy with the group in 1970. At that
time they were, and had been, interested in the work coming out
of Palo Alto, California, the early communication theory of Jackson
and Bateson..Galveston Group was particularly intrigued with some
of the MRI`s colleagues interest in language: to the use language
in a strategic manner, that if you could place your therapist
ideas, comments, questions, interventions, homework assignments
within the client´s language - their beliefs, world view
as well as using their words and phrases - there would be less
resistance and the family would be more likely to move in the
direction that the therapist wished them to move. In trying to
do that – learn and use clients language – we found
ourselves immersed in trying to learn the client´s language
and soon some unexpected things begun to happen in our clinical
work. I talk about these changes as “shifts in our clinical
work” in my book. Most important, however, was that we began
to be curious about language in other ways.
About the same time we began experimenting with learning and
using the client´s language, we heard about the work of
the Chilean biologists, Humburto Maturana and Francesco Valera
and began to be very interested in their ideas of language and
coordinated behaviour, and of course their ideas of language is
more of a constructive perspective. We become interested in hermeneutics
and social constructionism. Each interest led us to another perspective.
All along it was a back and forth reflexive process between theory
and practice. We soon found ourselves reading mostly outside the
field of family therapy and psychotherapy, because that´s
where the language seem to be that helped us better understand
and describe our experiences and what clients were telling us
about their experiences in therapy. And of course what we read,
in turn, influenced our work. These are some of the steps we went
through over the years.
TM: I wonder might there be any major turning
points in your professional journey that have brought you to the
place were you are right now?
HA: Well, one turning point actually happened
in Norway. It was in Tom Andersen´s conference in Suletea
which he called the Creek Kitchen in the Artic. He had invited
a group of epistemologists and a group of clinicians, and the
conference started with the epistemologists talking about their
work and their theories. Then the clinicil teams of Tom and his
colleagues and Margaret Flam showing their work, as did Boscolo,
Cecchin, and Harry and me. That was near the time that we begun
to be interested in social constructionism and we had just written
the Human Systems as Linguistic Systems which later appeared in
Family Process. So what happened was that when the epistemologist
started talking about the clinicians work it was as if they had
forgotten everything they had just said and written about. Most
of them came from very knowing and very expertice positions. They
sounded like what in the States we call armchair psychologists.
Harry and I were amazed. Their language, as I remember, was deficit
language – ideas about the pathology in a person or the
family. One of them called the client that Harry and I were seeing
“boredom making machine.” He couldn´t imagine
how we could talk with the woman who was so boring. While Harry
and I thought she was one of the most interesting and engaging
clients we had ever talked with. The epietemologists couldn´t
understand why clients would even meet with us and what came out
of this talking. They really liked the work Boscolo and Cecchin
showed. So we stunned though we had met some of the epistemologist
before and had not this experience, on this occasion they were
As Harry and I talked about our experience at that conference
was that we were no longer in this systems camp so to speak, in
term of a second order cybernetics or constructivism theory. Neither
no longer fit. That was just a dramatic experience. We had already
written about the idea of langue systems and there was something
about that particular conference that made these ideas really,
really gel. So that was a major turning point in solidifying the
direction of our idea. So the ideas have a long, long history.
TM: Just got the funny idea. I know than you
had a very long professional relationship with Harry Goolishian.
If you could have the opportunity to ask him now what he would
think about how things are nowadays, what is your fantasy, what
would he answer?
HA: In terms of my own particular work or in
terms of the field?
TM: In terms of the field that is under the
so called postmodern umbrella.
HA: I think he would be very excited by the
direction that some of us had continued to take and even though
it is a marginalized or small part of the psychotherapy field
in general or family therapy in particular, there is a lot of
energy. I think he would also be pleased at the creative work
that people around the world are doing on the practice level and
how people are able to take some ideas about therapy that I think
is more of the philosophy of therapy than theory, and use these
in very creative, unique, and individually tailored ways. This
includes the movement away from across-the-board techniques and
generalizations about the categories of people. I think he also
would continue to resonate with John Shotter´s work and
asking very provocative questions of John.
TM: In collaborative therapy there seems not
to be so much talk about the theory of psychotherapy but instead
about the philosophy of life. And in some of your writings you
are mentioning that the personal and professional are having a
different kind of connection compared with the other approaches.
Could you say something more about how personal is professional
in this special context?
HA: Well, I think that the ideas that I talk
about, the premises or the concepts for me really are a philosophy
of life. And that if you sort of take on these ideas, that is
if they are meaningful to you and you begin to live these ideas,
then you cannot be one way in the therapy room and an other way
in your personal life whether that´s in your family or with
your colleagues. There is a natural coherence between the way
you are in the world and all of your life roles. This is something
that I´ve heard my students talk about. I was both surprised
and curious about their experiences. I´m always interested
in how the way I am as a teacher or as a supervisor will be parallel
to and fitting with my own philosophical views and values. One
of the things the students have often said is how they find that
they are able to kind of practice or play with the ideas in their
personal life. At first, they feel more successful in their personal
life with these ideas early on in their studying than they do
in their professional life. And that especially maintaining a
sense of respect for and not-knowing has helped them to deal with
TM: I started to think about how uncertainty
is always a primary part in our practice when we work with your
clients. And even more it is nowadays so outside the therapy room,
HA: Right! In life in general.
TM: Yes, and you have to face how that uncertainty
is growing all the time in our technological societies.
HA: Absolutely. One thing that several students
would say in terms of their personal life - and these are my words
– that once they found their voice and were able to express
their voice it made it easier to be able to invite in the client´s
voice. Somehow having the experience of having their own voice
present, gave them a different kind of understanding about voices
in the therapy room. And then another interesting thing - one
young psychiatrist from Nicaragua was talking about the difficult
time he was having dealing with uncertainty. He said that all
the sudden he just decided that there is a lot of certainty in
uncertainty. “In being uncertain,” he said, “I
don´t have to know the answer, I don´t have to have
the best question, I don´t have to be the expert doctor.
He said that he felt that perspective allowed him to relax and
to be much more natural, spontaneous, and present with his clients.
TM: It remains me of Alan Watts book called
The Wisdom of Insecurity. In that book he is saying how insecurity
is the result of trying to be secure. And how impermanence and
insecurity are inescapable and inseparable from life. I wonder
if you could talk a little bit more about the history of the development
of the not-knowing position in therapy, because that might be
the concept that first comes into students minds when they hear
about Harlene Anderson and the Collaborative Therapy.
HA: Yes. That is a very provocative concept.
Harry and I years back would hear people say: you should just
drop the idea of not-knowing, it´s too provocative. And
we said, well, it captures what we are really talking about.
The concept of not-knowing came out of our practice and teaching
experiences; when we found that when you are really interested
in and listening to a client´s voice, that you really do
see them as the experts of their lives. We began to let go of
our own professional descriptions or outside the room descriptions
of clients and paid more attention to theirs. We also found that
the questions we asked, the comments we made where more connected
to the client´s story or what´s is called the local
conversation that to to preconceptions that we brought with us
into the therapy room. Our colleagues would say, yes, but don´t
you really think so and so about this client. And we would simply
reply that we didn´t know. We often suggested that perhaps
the client is the person they should be asking that question,
not us. So, it was out of these kind of experiences, coupled with
our philosophical premises that led us to the consept of not-knowing.
Yes, you have all kinds of experiences and knowledge as a therapist,
but for us what was most important was to invite in the client´s
expertice. Our expertice was not in terms of what the better story
might or should look like, but that our expertice was/is in the
ability to create a space and invite others into what I call the
collaborative relationship in the dialogical conversation.
Colleagues would ask, and still do, then what do you do with
what you know? If someone asks you a question do you not answer?
Do you pretend that you don´t know? Oh, no, if someone asks
me a question I respond. But the word that I use to make a distinction
is intention or intentionality. So, for example we all carry around
with us all of this previous knowledge but if it comes into the
therapy conversation, is it invited in through the local conversation
or it is an idea that you bring in from outside with intention.
And the intention that I have in any offering, question or comment
is to participate in a dialogue. In my writing I call it “food
for thought and dialogue”. There are just many, many ways
to introduce your knowing and experiences. I always, however,
want to introduce them as an offering, and not something that
I am wedded to or trying to sell another person. Even if it is
something that I have a strong opinion about, I want always be
open to the other´s questioning or challenging it or to
their lack of interest or response to it. So, not-knowing has
to do with the way how you position yourself with what you know,
and how you offer what you know and with what intention. My intention
is towards particular process rather than towards particular content
TM: I started to think what you said in Jyväskylä
last June when you told about your students how they are quite
anxious when having their first live session with a family. You
have the manner to say to them: don´t try to do therapy,
just talk with them and get to know them. Could you say something
more about the not-knowing position and the structure in a therapy
session. Does a therapist need any structure when meeting with
people? Are you talking about the structure when you are talking
about the intention?
HA: Well, sometimes people say oh, your therapy
is unstructured or it is very non-directive. I don´t usually
use these words “structure” or “directive”
because like other consepts that we have inherited in the field
of psychotherapy they have meanings that are usually associated
with particular theoretical positions. I think everything has
a certain structure to it. Therapist have developed, or inherited,
ideas about what “structure” is or what “structure”
looks like. So, sometimes I might ask a group of students, ok,
if you were to describe what the structure of this piece of therapy
that I just did is, how would you describe it? What would you
say I did? What would you say happened? I focus more on the process
of therapy rather than the content. I want my students to learn
to focus more on the process of the therapy in terms of what´s
happening with the therapist and with the client and between the
two. What and how are you doing tohether?
TM: I kind of connect this with the real, real
old thoughts coming from the ancient wisdom tradition. In Buddhism
they have this concept called mindfulness or vipassana, meaning
that your mind is full with the present moment, not with your
pre-knowledge or your hypothesis. And that you are also all he
time ready to let it go. This is a very active state of mind and
in this position you are aware of that what is. You are knowing,
but in a kind of non-attached, not-knowing way.
HA: Yes, not-knowing is not to know anything
or to forget everything. Impossible. It would be very close to
that idea of mindfulness. To be present in the moment where you
are involved in this conversation in this room, and you are participating
in this conversation and not one you are bringing from outside.
TM: And not the one you are having in the back
of your head.
HA: Yes, what comes with me into the room, all
of my experiences, book knowledge, values are always there, but
I don´t want it to be in the forefront filtering or leading.
TM: Do you think there are some systemic or
narrative metaphors included in your work and do you see any differences
between, for example, the narrative metaphor Michael White is
using and your way to use it?
HA: Well, Harry and I begun using a narrative
metaphor a long time ago, but using narrative to refer to the
client´s story, the way a person organizes or puts together
or articulates their experiences. I think of therapy as a dialogic,
a narrative activity. I tend not to use any language that is using
words like “system” or “systemic” these
days. Again because those words are used in the field in certain
ways and I try to find other ways of talking about what I´m
trying to say, so that I can articulate it in a way that the person
I´m talking with has as close of understanding towards what
I´m saying as possible. When we use words like “structure”
or “systems” people´s thinking goes into particular
direction or now when you use the word “narrative”
people immediately think about the narrative therapy. We all bring
our meaning maps with us.
TM: So, in this sense Freud might have been
right when he said that words are magic.
HA: Yes, yes! The moment you hear the word it
brings so many things with it that s tell you
what the word is or what the other person is saying or intending.
TM: It kind of closes you thinking or guides
you to binary thinking, that is, black and white thinking which
is subtly coded in words. The words trap us in a way that “privileges”
one thing as “true” or “good” and the
other as “false” or “bad”. So, why do
you think dialogue is so important? What values does it express
in your work and in your life?
HA: Well, it´s a word or a concept that
I use to identify a particular kind of process in therapy that
in my experience is an inherently generative process. It is something
that client and therapist are doing and are engaged in together,
a possibility for something new is inherited in that mutual process.
It´s a way of talking with each other in which there is
more possibility that something will emerge from that conversation
that neither person could have brought in independently. It´s
the back and forth, the criss-crossing and the combining what
you are creating together. Moving in the direction of conversation
and dialogue originally came out of our readings and understandings
of language and hermeneutics.
TM: I am thinking about the work my colleague
is doing in Jerusalem as a Jewish school psychologist. He is working
in the environment that is completely different compared with
the one I am having in my peaceful “nest” in Southern
Finland. He is working in the setting with all these horrible
conflicts between Jews and Arabs, and yesterday I got an e-mail
from him where he was telling how he is starting a project where
he is trying to create care-full conversations between members
of conflicting groups, kind of constructing transformative listening
and conversations in a situation where an antagonistic conflict
has been going on for generations. What do you think about the
dialogue in this context?
HA: I think there is a lot of the possibility
for the idea of dialogue, and I think there are lot of people
around the world experimenting with it. I think, however, sometimes
when you have some groups that have been strange to each other
and in war with each other for a long, long periods of time, it´s
very, very difficult to start a dialogue. I like the use of the
word “care-ful” because I think that in any kind of
dialogue being careful and caring is very important. Where would
you even begin? Where would you start? Who would you invite into
dialogue? Would you invite the people you are having the most
difficulty, the most hatred, or would you invite someone else?
What would be sort of the entering point into even invading? And
the one thing that I think, in terms of dialogue, is important:
if I can offer my voice, there has to be room for yours, too.
So, I think each person has to feel like they have had all the
opportunity necessary to voice whatever it is they want to voice.
And that has to be responded to in someway. Most important, the
first step is sincerely trying to understand that which is different
– trying to understand the other person and their perspectives
or actions whether it is fanaticism, oppression or etc.
Harry Goolishian used to say that the thing you don´t want
to do, if you are trying to be a negotiator between two countries
in the war, is be neutral. Because if you try or appear to be
neutral, each party has ideas of suspicious about on whose side
you are really taking. So, how can you take both sides simultaneously?
And I think that like with the Public Conversation Project in
Boston, it is important to be very careful in the way you begin,
the way that you meet and begin to talk with people on each side,
the way that they bring them together and the way that they proceed
in conversation. People must feel like they have a voice, that
someone is interested in their voice - again the sense of the
participation or sense of belonging.
I am remainded of my work when I´m consulting with members
of organizations. Let´s say the director of the program
wants me to come and meet with the staff to address some conflict
that he or she sees within their staff. I will meet with the director
of the program and I will talk with him or her and learn as much
as I can about what they are concerned about and what they think
it the conflict is about. And I talk with them how to proceed.
One of the ways I have found usually helpful is asking the director´s
permission to contact the members of the staff. May I send a letter
by fax or e-mail and introduce myself and ask some questions that
I hope they would be willing to response to. I ask questions that
invite people to begin to participate in a process, and for example
to offer their description of the organization, their role what
they think they can contribute. So that I can begin to acknowkedge
their expertise and to develop a relationship with them before
I even meet them, rather than they meeting me through the introduction
by their director. Suspicious of whose side I am on or what my
hidden agenda might be begin to dissipate. I have received a lot
of positive feedback from peple like staff members in such a situation,
saying that they were surprised that I was interested in their
opinions, that that felt very respected when their voices were
TM: What are some of the areas of your work
which you are currently interested in, or where your passion is
right now. I wonder whether working with organizations might be
one of them?
HA: Yes, I´m interested to work with organizations,
working with business own by women. In the States, in some large
companies the idea of mentoring is important. So, for instance,
in a law firm, they will have senior members or partners mentor
some of the younger people or newer associates. I have noticed
with some people, like young lawyers, who came to my office for
individual consultation – would talk about having mentors
but they had no ideas about how to use them and they very seldom
even talked with them. So I became interested in how I could help
companies develop mentoring programs and helped executive mentors
to be more effective.
I continue to be very interested in the idea of the client´s
voice and what we can learn from clients. I have recently completed
a couple of research projects and I am in the middle of one just
now. One research project had to do with women who were homeless
and had the history of substance abuse. In this project we developed
a two-participant and small group format where we had them to
interview and discuss with each other about their histories, their
identities, and their previous counselling experiences. We asked
them if they were each to design a treatment program that was
individually tailored to fit each person´s need, what would
it look like? We wanted to tap into their experience.
An other has to do with organizations, a process of interviewing
women who are executive assistants to presidents and chiefs of
companies and organizations. I am interested in learning about
how they define their role, what do they think they bring to the
success of the company and their boss. What do they think some
of their undiscovered resources are? If they could give advice
to younger people coming in that particular career track, what
might that be? What ideas do they have to offer to bosses in terms
of how they can more effectively access the resources that they
accusative systems bring?
I´m also teaching in university psychology program that
is based in postmodernism and social construction ideas. From
the very beginning of the program, we try to create what we call
the collaborative learning communities and invite students into
that kind of collaborative learning.
TM: When you started to talk about how you are
creating a context for collaborative learning environments I begun
to think about the not-knowing position in terms of creativity
Might the not-knowing position be a kind of womb that generates
the space for collaborative learning experiences? What are your
thoughts about this?
HA: It´s amazing how creative students
can be. In terms of collaborative learning communities I have
been really interested in an idea that an American English professor
named Kenneth Bruffee talks about. He talks about bridges and
transitional learning communities. When group of learners wants
to learn or enter a particular discipline or profession, how do
they begin to learn the language of that discipline. It´s
very important that the person designated as a teacher allow the
learners to struggle with the new language themselves. They will
create and speak what´s called bridging or transition language.
It is important for the faculty to be able to step back and not
try to correct their mis-knowing or what might be thought of as
incorrect language or descriptions. Let the learners struggle
with the ideas, concepts, and questions and create something that
fits for them and learn from the students as they struggle with
the concepts. So, I have lot of excitement around how people learn.
TM: So if you think about the postmodern social
construction therapies what would be some of the current challenges
or dilemmas in the field?
HA: Well, I think the current challenge and
dilemma are living and working within a modernist cultures, whether
that´s the culture of the university or the culture of an
organization or a broader culture. The challenge is how to be
able to present, talk about and use the ideas in a way in which
other people do not feel that you are some kind of missionary
or elitist. I do not want others to feel that what I think or
how I act is the better way because I don´t believe that.
I don´t want to be disrespectful of other´s passions.
I find that these ideas allow a lot of possibilities, and seem
to have for me a lot of utility in terms to myself being very
flexible and professionals being able to do, what I was saying
about today, what the occasion calls for rather than cross the
board definitions, and cross the board diagnosis, cross the board
interventions. They allow me to really pay attention to the uniqueness
of each particular person and the circumstances or the situation.
And invite in the other´s expertise; they invite doing something
together. They invite a sense of belonging and participating that
encourages more uniquely tailored and sustainable results. I want
to share this with others, but I also want them to choose whether
is has relevancy for them and their work or not.
Postmodernism is very unsettling for many people, because if
you have build a whole career around the particular theoretical
perspective, it´s very unsettle if you think someone else
is telling you that what you are doing is useless and you have
wasted you time in the past. I don´t think that´s
what any one influenced by the postmodern social construction
umbrella wants to imply. Postmodern is simply an arbitrary concept
that is used to capture and convey a set of premises, values and
assumptions. It is not a meta-theory, but rather a philosophical
stance that invites critical other-and-self-reflection.
TM: Could it be that to face this challenge
the dialogue might be just the right tool to work with.
HA: Of course! The most important thing is to
invite your colleagues into a dialogue. But sometimes people enter
into something they hope to be a dialogue, but they still have
an agenda: they still have an intentionality of winning an other
person over to their side. I think to really enter to a true dialogue
you have to be willing to listen to and to try to understand the
other person´s perspective and to be able to let your perspective
to be challenged. But I also think that everything is dialogical
to some extent, because human exchange is dialogical. What I am
interested in is helping to invite and facilitate conversation
that is more dialogical rather than less.
For those interested in learning more about and immersing themselves
in a postmodern collaborative approach, I would like to invite
them to my International Summer Institute that I do each summer
in Mexico. The next one will be June 20-25, 2004 in Playa del
Carmen on the Mexican Mayan Riviera where the culture is intoxicating
and the beaches are beautiful.
TM: Harlene, earlier we were talking about the
professional and the personal. I just wonder what you are enjoying
most when you are not working.
HA: I guess I should first say that most people
think that I work a lot, because I really enjoy what I do in all
of the circumstances within which I work. When I´m not working
I enjoy spending time with friends. My husband and I enjoy having
friends over and cooking. I enjoy working in my garden, even I
don´t have a big green thumb. Mine is kind of small and
yellow one. We have a hut on a river where we enjoy having no
phone or people nearby for a few days- having a hut was a dream
that began on our first trip to Norway when we visited Tom Andersen´s
hut and then other.
TM: Thank you for this interesting conversation.
I wish you all the best in your important work and
Anderson, H. Postmodern Social Construction Therapies. www.harlene.org/Pages/PostmodernTherapiesChapter.htm
Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1988) Human systems as linguistic
systems: Evolving ideas about the implications for theory and
practice. Family Process. 27:371-393.
Watts, A. (1951) The Wisdom of Insecurity. A Message for an Age
of Anxiety. Vintage Books, New York.
In: Hoyt, M.: The Present is a Gift. Mo´Better Stories from
the Word of Brief Therapy. iUniversity, Inc. NY, 2004.