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


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Journal of Systemic Therapies. Vol 23, no. 2, 2004

The Wisdom of Not-Knowing - A Conversation with Harlene Anderson

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 Therapy.

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 very different.

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 uncertainly.

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, in life.

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 or outcome.

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 invited.

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 and openness.
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 (accessed 15.9.2003)

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.



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