Amy-VaughanAmy: January 6, 2012 I have worked with First Nations families on reserve for 4 years now. When I first started, my love of other cultures made me excited about the possibility of learning about a completely separate people group right here in “Canada”, and a group that has called this country home for so long, it makes my ancestors look like entrants in the last 5 minutes of a full length play. After 4 years I can say that what makes this people group unique is nothing but a gift for me. Who doesn’t want a living reminder to slow down, not be so self-important, value family, and be humble? I am priveleged to have those reminders in the communities I visit. Through many mistakes I have learned that all the ways I have been formally taught to do therapy, from analyzing to ‘good’ question asking, do not adequately meet the needs of people from this culture when they are looking for healing. Instead, what is important is being a witness to daily life events and common occurrences, like the showing of a new baby or the return of someone who’s been away. It is important to leave room for silence and simple questions. Maps are vital – maps of a person’s extended family. We called them genograms in grad school, but these maps are different. The purpose of them is to show to what degree of separation people are from each other, and to learn especially about the few people at the top of the tree (the elders). Their decisions in their lifetime are considered to be relevant to people living now. I call it ‘just being’ because the most important part of the healing relationship is a stillness that comes from mutual understanding and respect. Does anyone else have experiences with different people groups that are similar? As there is so little ‘training’ on respectfully working with this people group I’d love some new ideas.

Peggy-Sax 2Peggy: January 7, 2012 Amy, this is really beautiful. Your post has been with me all day. I believe I have similar experiences in my daily life – I’m often in a state of awe and wonderment that transcends words, so inspired by people who trust me to enter their lives and to share their hearts with me. We are very fortunate! I also can hear Michael or David asking those delightful questions – wondering what you might contribute, Amy, to making these just being relationships happen, and thrive? Do you think it is a common occurrence for such precious experiences to be shared with outsiders? What do you think the First Nations families might say about your contribution? Or is your presence truly invisible? How is it that they can allow themselves to just be in the presence of someone in a job that traditionally has disrespected them and their ways? It’s really good to be back in conversation …in 2012! Peggy

JeanJean: January 30, 2012 Hi Amy & Peggy, I love what you are saying, Amy. To my way of thinking, “just being,” is one of, perhaps the most, important quality of being a therapist or a citizen or a person. This conversation perhaps – or perhaps not – can help me understand how my approach to therapy diverges from strict narrative practice – if, in fact, it does. MY thoughts are as follows: We are all different from one another in various degrees on varying continuums. Even folks very similar to us have learned to define and use, even the most common words in different ways. Just being, just being authentically in-the-present is, to my way of thinking, the best way to attend to these differences, joining with one another, coming to common understandings: To do what Wittgenstein called, learning to play the “language game.” “Just being” is not easy.  For me, mindful meditation an important tool to relax the thinking mind and be able to settle into the mode of “just being. When I meditate I often attain the state of being you described so well, Peggy:” a state of awe and wonderment that transcends words.” Thank you for that wonderful post, Amy, and for your poetic rely, Peggy. Jean

Amy-VaughanAmy: February 1, 2012 Hi Jean, I’m not sure if this is what you were saying, but I also find that listening to words, watching for subtle clues in body language and very importantly, learning someone’s sense of humour, helps me learn their language. I find that using large words and long sentences often loses people. I vascillate between wanting to introduce new language and ideas, and keeping things simple, especially for people with little education. I don’t want therapy to be reminiscent of English class. I have not integrated meditation into therapy, although I know there is a lot of training in that area. Is it something you use? I love the analogy of a game to learn a client’s ‘language’. It is very much like that for me too – listening for clues, trying out words to see what sticks and what doesn’t. And Peggy, thank you for your post, although it has taken me awhile to reply! As to how these conversations happen, it has been a lot of trial and error in learning the differences in values and pace of life, and also giving it time. After awhile you prove yourself safe, and then it is indeed a privilege to get to know such heartfelt people. I also really love that I’m valued not for my education but for being welcoming and making people smile. One of the first clients I had at the Nation is someone I still talk with and has taught me the most. He said to me, Why do you always have to ask so many questions? Just listen to me. So now I listen more and let pauses do the work that sometimes questions can’t, and I learn SO much.

JeanJean: February 2, 2012 Hi Amy, I am very impressed with your ability to join with clients and let the conversation unfold without trying to force it or lead it. That’s all I really wanted to say. My only point was that we  should enter into conversations with all our clients with that same attitude of “not knowing,” because they may be more different than we think. I love your wisdom story learned from one of your first clients, reminding you to ask less questions and, instead, just be there, just be there listening. It’s a lesson, I think, that we all need to constantly remind ourselves to follow. Thanks for writing, Jean

Peggy-Sax 2Peggy: February 3, 2012 Hi Amy, Jean and others, I’m really enjoying this conversation. Amy, your story reminds me of  how much context and culture matter – the same questions might work well for one person, might interrupt the flow in another. While I have been doing this work for many years, I still find myself reverting back to old habits, as I  strive to adapt to different conversational styles; remembering to pause is especially challenging if you grew up with a different rhythm (such as in some Jewish tradition) of high energy, articulate, sometimes even finishing each others’ sentences or interrupting, in spirit of inquiry and co-construction of ideas. And yet, no matter what, I believe in striving for a kind of relational attunement. It’s up to us to notice and adjust. I sometimes notice that I am literally sitting on my hands, focusing on my breathing, so I won’t interrupt and steer the conversation too much into my direction. I do love the beauty of a crisp question. I agree – Jean – this is a lesson that never goes aawy, and that we all need to constantly remind ourselves to follow t “enter into conversations with all our clients with that same attitude of “not knowing,” because they may be more different than we think.” I am grappling with another version of this question in my writing. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I recently received some feedback on my draft paper, “Neighborly ways of being.”  This comment is from the editors of  the Journal of Systemic Therapies special issue on “Community approaches to solving problems.”

We wonder whether you could “write yourself into” the text a bit more, as a practitioner.  We think that overall the paper reads more like a testament to these particular individuals’ resilencies and community engagements, than an account of practices of engaging “clients” to support such resiliances and engagements.  E.g. you refer to ways of working that incorporate an ethic of circulation/audiences, but there’s not much there in regards to “ways of working”, “therapeutically.”  Or is it your point that clients can engage in preferred/community practices without much specific help or “intervention” from a professional?  If so, it would be good to make that issue more explicit.

Over the last two evenings, I have had the incredible opportunity of going through the paper line-by-line with Lynn Hoffman (who at 86 is still an awesome editor – more about that elsewhere). At the end of our conversation last night, we talked about this comment. Like you, Amy, I want to honor the Just Being” ways of being. I also don’t want to center the therapist’s contribution in making things happen. At the same time, I think we sometimes can overlook our influence. I’d love to know your thoughts. Peggy

JeanJean: February 3, 2012 Greetings Amy, Peggy, and others, Amy, you have brought an important issue to the table and stimulated a wonderful discussion. And Peggy: Here’s my off-the-cuff response to your request for feedback on your draft paper, “Neighborly ways of being.”(incidentally, is that available for us to read): I don’t believe that the journal broached the question in a helpful way. For example, if one is having an empowering conversation with a friend, one does not take ownership of it. One simply says, we had a great conversation. Nowadays, groups like Occupy WallStreet and the Arab Spring movement are operating on that same principle. They don’t want someone, top-down, to preform an intervention and then take ownership of it.  No way! Instead, they want to participate in a conversation, contribute, and share ownership. So, one possible answer to the journal’s questions is: yes, there is an essential role to play, not “therapeutically,” but as a facilitator who is able to bring people together and encourage a certain kind of conversation – a conversation where I don’t empower them but instead we empower each other. Just a thought. Jean

sarahhughes2_profile 2Sarah: February 3, 2012 Hello all, First I want to say thank you to you Amy for sharing some of your work, ideas and stories here. very lovely and good reminders. And then I have to say I love this sentence!! Quote I do love the beauty of a crisp question. Me too!!  Thanks Peggy!  I am not sure how I define a crisp question but I know one when it happens – and it definitely does involve attunement.  I was listening to a radio show about cooking and they were talking about building flavours, layering, slowing down the process, allowing time for development and integration – not just throwing stuff in a pan.  That is how I think of therapy – always so dependent of so many factors but it is so tasty when it can all simmer together. Sorry I must be hungry! Peggy – I also want to say that I love that you highlight the stories of the individuals in your paper. I know this fits with your practices and ethics. But I am curious about what structures you put in place to help develop these conversations and possibilities.  I am guessing you used some outsider witness practices?  or was it some other structure? or scaffold? I know great conversations can just happen but I also know that developing a structure can allow them to build power and possibilites especially if it helps keep moving us towards resonance and possiblity rather than some other culturally developed habits of conversations like praise and other practices of judgement that can block further development. Michael often talked about the importnace of structuring listening and responding.  I am not sure if you include this in your paper or not??   But my guess is that you while not centreing yourself in this work, did play an importnat role in building a structure to allow this to happen. Sarah

Amy-VaughanAmy: February 3, 2012 Hi all, Peggy, I can’t help thinking that the editors’ comments to your paper reveal a limited understanding of ‘therapeutic’ work. When I think of neighborliness, it in itself is therapeutic. There is also a new trend towards cultural practice as therapy. Not that cultural practices are used in therapy, but that they are therapy. To participate in some of these practices is a privilege and has been therapeutic for me as well as the communities, as it provides healing for two peoples that have historically been divided. If we can’t take part in these practices, we can talk about them and make them ‘fuller’, and I guess that’s what Sarah’s talking about with asking about what approach was used. So, one way to answer the editor’s question would be to offer an approach to therapy that includes participating with clients in their lives, and another way would be to show how we are witnesses to neighbourly activities using questions that honour them. I would love to see more of clients and therapists experiencing life together, when it’s safe and desirable, but I also know that the profession as a whole loves its talk therapy.

TextEditScreenSnapz005Cate: February 3, 2012 Hi Amy, Peggy, Jean, Sarah and the group, Amy, I’ve really enjoyed reading this conversation that you started so beautifully, thank you. Reading your reflections on working with Canadian’s First Nations resonates with some of the family work and community work experiences I’ve had here in Australia working with young people and families from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities. I feel a connection to the concept of ‘just being’ as a way of getting to know each other, to build understanding of who we are as people and not just a collection of thin ideas that have been formed about the culture we’ve been born into or the formal or informal role we have when joining to work on something together. There has been so much damaged caused to the many Aboriginal Nations of Australia through the settlement/invasion in 1788 and we are still so early on in the healing journey that recognition of this damage is still denied by some and institutional racism, such as in schools, is something that still requires constant identification and change. I have spent so many hours ‘just being’ at community organisations, kitchen tables, festivals and gatherings…just waiting, drinking tea, helping photocopy things, listening to Elders and community members, making art, learning and laughing together. In this time we’ve been able to get to know each other better, build some trust, help each other reciprocally and find ways of being together that would form a common goal different to past interactions that stank more of domination and assimilation rather than collaboration, respect and comfort with difference. I smile at your comment able learning through mistakes – I have so many stories of unintentionally making mistakes but by holding on to the essence of ‘just being’ I came to realise these mistakes were learnings 1st and foremost because we can’t know what we don’t know. In Australia, there are hundreds of different Aboriginal groups, all this their own language (or what has survived the terrible policy of past white generations), land, traditions and customs. There are similarities between them and at the same time they are unique and on top of this are the uniqueness of Elders, families and people’s personal history so inevitably, I have found that i have to practice with ‘just being’ to learn about this person’s and families connection to Aboriginally and the other elements to their cultural background and personal histories. Every day I learn so much and am thankful that I have so many people in my community willing to teach me what I don’t know. I love what Jean is saying about the ‘language game’ we play and it also has me thinking of the work I do with people with diverse cultural backgrounds and may have come to Australia to seek refuge. I think I take the same approach to ‘just being’ with them to understand their ways of parenting, learning, celebrating, and also to hear and support their goals, hopes, relationships and dreams. I am sadly often shocked how poorly the systems we butt into in our work are equipped and/or open to understanding the huge amount of knowledge the people I work with could share with them and how thinly the systems describe and therefore estimate their ability, potential and capacity to teach us about families/community/life etc. I hope i’m making sense. An example of this was at the end of last year when in a meeting with a child protection work, a young mum and the various support agencies working with her to build safety in the home for her children, the child protection worker said there was no way for the system to incorporate cultural knowledge and skills related to parenting in their assessment of harm, even though, the issue that was being raised has come about through differences in understanding the values and practices of raising children across cultures. We even have 2 cross-cultural workers highlighting the ‘concerns’ as cultural misunderstandings, however, once again it feels like the system holds firm to thin, single stories of how to be. Amy in your work, do you have similar challenges in difference between work and understanding that can be created in the space of ‘just being’ in the community and what happens in systems/institutions? If so, what sustains you to keep going? Peggy, I also think the others comments about the editors question on your paper are really valid and hope you could find some ways of helping those with less narrative knowledge understand the power of people coming together in the community with the support of quality facilitation. Is there a connection between the healing(?) strength(?) connection(?) that comes from audience & neighbourliness that might link with the themes of ‘therapy’ that  the editors are thinking about? Hope you are all well Cate

Peggy-Sax 2Peggy: February 4, 2012 Welcome back, Cate! I have missed you, and am truly happy to read your words. I’m yearning to respond – both here and to your post on “families with young children.” Yesterday, I took a train down to New York City. It’s so much fun being here, and I am about to head out on a meandering walk through the city, and then a matinee of the play “Other Deserts Cities” that stars the much esteemed favorite Australian actress, Rachel Griffiths (I was/am a “Six Feet Under” fan). Will write as soon as I can. So many thoughts evoked in response to the posts by you, Amy, Jean and Sarah. Thanks so much to all of you for this rich conversation… “See” you soon, Peggy

sarahhughes2_profile 2 Sarah: February 4, 2012 Hello, I just wanted to chime in again as I was just having a conversation via Skype with my lovely supervisor. She is in Ontario and I love that we can meet up and see each other from across the continent.  Anyway, our discussion was so beautifully helpful to me but one idea that came up connects to this conversation.  We were talking about decentring the therapy in terms of “talk” “conversations in my office”  to other ways of doing this – she used the term ACTS.  and “actions of acknowledgment” This was so freeing!!  But the piece she reminded me of was being influential. And needing to reflect on our influence or becoming in danger of replicating acts of power. Hmmmm…. influence maybe that was the word I was looking for rather than structure. So Peggy – does that resonant at all with you?  What are the ways you were influential?  How did you use your influence?  What were you acts of acknowledgment? How are you Amy using “just being” as an action?  What kind of action might it be?  I see so many deliberate acts of acknowledgement in your stories and in Jeans and Cate’s too. Thanks again for this conversation. Sarah

Cate-Ryan 2Cate: February 4. 2012 Hi everyone, it feels great to be back too so thanks for the welcome Sarah, I can really hold on to the concept of ‘acts of acknowledgement’ and it also has me thinking of what I learnt from Rob Hall last year in relation to ‘accountability’. This came up in Rob’s teaching of working in the area responding to abuse and ensuring that in the counselling process, the person who has previously wronged the other is held accountable to the person wronged. That the description & impact of abusive actions must acknowledge the point of view of the survivor rather than the need of the person who abused to feel relief. The element that I took from this that relates to this area of work with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Australians is the steps I took to be accountable to their experience, stories, hopes and cultural values in a landscape where Euro-Australian cultures continue to dominate. This wasn’t the usually accountability held in orgs or professions where it is accountability ‘up’ to policies, procedures, management, funding bodies or government objectives, rather actions I took to be accountable to holding culture central and attempting to balance some of the historically charged power imbalances that can occur between cultures. It had me thinking of some of the steps I took to consult Elders or direction of group work, collaborate with members of the local Aboriginal cultural group as well as other including Torres Strait Island community members and maintain these relationships throughout the year with lots of ‘just being’ so it wasn’t just transactional – me going in looking for knowledge – but working together. I found this concept of accountability really helped open up the actions I took that could be repeatable, and thus, learnings to share with others in my organisation to the value to relationships and ‘just being’ can begin to transfer from me as an individual worker to a wider group of people working together. Does this way of accountability resonate for other in this conversation? Sarah do you think there are links to the conversation you had about ‘actions of acknowledgement’? Cate

Bonnie-Miller 2Bonnie: February 4, 2012 I love the word ‘influential’; and also ‘intentional’. and I appreciate your comment Sarah, about minding our influence- reflecting in practice and on practice, so that we don’t stay unaware of how power operates through us… Even the practices of ‘just being’ are intentional and influential- as you say, Jean, not easy practices- they require awareness and a kind of management (sitting on one’s hands!) Can we make these practices more visible? Can they be contrasted with the ‘centering’ practices of active ‘intervention’? And how can we talk about ‘intention’ without getting muddled in ‘directiveness’ and ideas about ‘goal setting’? what would the people we work with have to say about the effects of ‘just being’; about the effects of a mindful presence and an influential question?

Peggy-Sax 2Peggy: February 5. 2012 (Believe it or not, I am writing this response on my laptop, while gazing at the Hudson River, in an Amtrak train from New York City to Albany, New York. I even saved my words as a word document in case it doesn’t work!) GREAT conversation. Are we redefining what we mean by therapeutic practices? I don’t want to sound too lofty but I believe we are in the process of theory building. How can we further render  visible – and hence legitimize-  specific ways we use our influence to build possibilities that intentionally move toward resonance, acts of acknowledgement and a sense of solidarity in contrast to more recognized practices – and other culturally developed habits of conversation –  like praise, judgment and professional intervention? I’d like to take a moment to highlight what is emerging that shows an approach to therapy that is congruent with the cherished “decentered-influential” therapeutic posture and participating with clients in their lives, while identifying specific practices (acts of acknowledgement, witnessing, and…). I’m listing these with the particular intention of addressing my editors’ question about writing myself more into the  text of a specific piece of writing. I have been reflecting on the question is “neighborliness,” in itself therapeutic, and if so, can we identify specific practices? Amy wrote, “So, one way to answer the editor’s question would be to offer an approach to therapy that includes participating with clients in their lives, and another way would be to show how we are witnesses to neighbourly activities using questions that honour them.” I’d like to do both – to bring together what Bonnie calls “the effects of a mindful presence and an influential question.” I would like your help in identifying specific practices that are thoughtfully considered, intentional and based on the following ideas. We are identifying an approach that draws from –   The decentered-influential therapeutic posture where the therapist/practitioner hones an awareness of intentions, influence, power relations – and learns to continually  manage one’s own actions from this position. This kind of positioning (an important legacy of Michael White)  enacts a commitment to stay aware of how power operates through us, and to render “decenterd-influential” practices more visible. This approach is different from the centering practices of intervention, directiveness, and goal setting. For example, we strive to render visible ‘acts of acknowledgement’ (ACTS) that show the ways we are influential, and how we use our influence. –   Cultural practice as therapy – learning to resist imposing our ways, while at the same time offering our collaborative inquiry skills (from a decentered-influential posture) to draw forth local knowledge and strengthen personal  agency. Often cultural practice strengthens solidarity – collective agency;  decenters talk therapy, and recognizes the healing power of people coming together in the community with the support of quality facilitation. Participating in some of these practices – and bearing witness – is a privilege with therapeutic effects for all involved (including us). –   Witnessing practices: Michael stressed the importance of separating listening and responding. How do outsider witness practices extend beyond reflecting teamwork to include practices such as letter-writing, peer-to-peer support, participation in virtual communities? Do these witnessing practices also include acts of acknowledgement? –   Accountability to the people with whom we are working –  to remember to continually ask, and to take seriously the effects of our actions  including the effects of mindful presence and influential questions. –   Reflecting in practice and on practice: I am reminded of Donald Schon’s “The reflective practitioner” and his innovative thinking around the notions of ‘double-loop learning’ and ‘reflection-in-action.” Schon often used the metaphor of improvisation in jazz  in exploring the professional’s ability to ‘think on their feet.’  Is reflection-on-action a highly regarded yet often overlooked specific skill set for the reflective practitioner? This reminds me of the distinction between traditional  research design (experimental, scientific method) and action research (cycles of action, reflection, and redesign). Aren’t each valid but in different contexts? – “Withness Practices: is this another set of skills based on relational ethics and what Lynn Hoffman calls “web-building? It is really the crux of my paper, “Communal practices that Build on Naturally Sustaining Webs.” How does that sound? Please let me know what I’m leaving out, and feel free to add. Now here is my request: Can you help me make these practices more visible in writing about my work with Suzanne and Joan? Do you see places where I might bring in contrast with the ‘centering’ practices of active ‘intervention’? Can you see ways to further talk about my influence without getting drawn into descriptions that draw from a more interventionist approach? How might I highlight how I situation myself in the decentered-influential therapeutic posture? Do you see places where I demonstrate specific acts of acknowledgment? What about web-building through speciific communal practices? This post is long enough! I will start a new topic for those of you who would like to join me in applying what we are saying to revising my paper, Reclaiming Community Out of Catastrophe: Communal practices that Build on Naturally Sustaining Webs, and telling the story of my work with Joan and Suzanne. You can check it out here:;topicseen#msg5182 Thank you all for the very energizing conversation- see what you started Amy? Peggy