Finding Myself Coming Back Again
Dr Andrew Reeves, Associate Professor in the Counselling Professions and Mental Health, University of Chester
Do you find pluralism, or does it find you? Or, can you be pluralistic all along without really realising it? I ask because I have had several conversations recently with people who have approached me to ask what is meant by pluralistic practice and, in offering my best answer, they smile and say, ‘Oh, I have been doing that all along ’. It is satisfying for me because it is a similar response I experienced when I first read John and Mick’s book on pluralism; that sense that what I had been doing for many years actually made some sense – both philosophically and practically – and that my practice as a therapist was perhaps more coherent than I feared it was.
To give a little background by way of explanation: my work as a therapist, like many, is not simply defined by my therapy training. Indeed, I began my work as a ‘helper’ when I was 18 and trained as a Samaritans volunteer. Let it be said, their training is outstanding, even though it is delivered over a few evenings. Then I trained and qualified as a social worker (and continue to be a Registered Social Worker – although see my ‘social work’ more within a counselling frame; I will return to that point later). My social work training drew on several key models and theories: psychodynamic casework; systemic approaches and family therapy; as well as the core principles of what was then referred to as Rogerian therapy. In the mix was social policy, psychology, sociology, politics amongst other key teaching. I was not trained as a ‘Rogerian Social Worker’, or a ‘Psychodynamic Social Worker’, but rather a social worker that might specialise through experience and opportunity.
As a counsellor my core training was person centred, but I have since done trainings in psychodynamic and cognitive behavioural. All in all, rather than seeing my practice as seamlessly drawing on a beautifully crafted integration of models, fitting together nicely like a pieced-together jigsaw revealing an image of my work, I considered my work as client-led, in so far as I naturally encourage the client to bring together their own pieces, to reveal their own image. I must confess that I didn’t do that with a knowing intention, but rather it seemed the right way forward. At some level it was easier for me to make the client responsible for what felt like a mixed-bag of skills and experience I brought to the table.
Then John and Mick wrote a book and suddenly I had a framework through which to make sense of my approach, as well as a capacity to move to a more intentional position in it too. So, to answer my question, I think pluralism had naturally found me, but then I found it once I had a language through which to make sense of it. From that point on, my intentional and informed collaborative approach with clients has been central to my therapeutic being.
It’s an important question to ask, though: if we are doing something anyway, do we need to call it something at all? That is, if my instinctive drive was always to work pluralistically, but didn’t call it that at the time, is there anything to be gained in giving it a label now? A worthy question because that seems to be one of the criticisms levelled at pluralistic practice: ‘money for old rope’ or ‘old wine in new bottles’. I can only answer from my perspective of course, but that answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’: naming it is very important. Why, because rather than me having a sense of a way of working, I can begin to create theoretical and philosophical structures around it. I can present it to my clients in a more collaborative and transparent way. I can use the ideas as a vehicle through which I can question the institution of therapy (which I am doing a little here). I can think about ways of building research strategies to test it out. And I can pull it apart, critique it and, in doing so, make some contribution to making it better.
It does also raise bigger questions for me though, some of which I hope to explore in my talk at the forthcoming pluralistic 2020 conference. A proportion of my therapy work is informed by my social work training, particularly around systemic perspectives and seeing my client in the context of their real-world living: social justice and injustice; the politics of our work; sociological contexts; as well as how social policy shapes and informs a great deal of the problems encountered in our therapy rooms. It seems to me that counselling training, in general terms, does not equip our counsellors to think beyond the individual, nor the therapy room, nor to see therapy as a political activity that might include activism (in its broadest sense), or advocacy. It is hard to work with individual distress without contextualising it in the trauma that can be carried and enacted by society in the everyday.
For me, pluralism not only provides me with a powerful vehicle through which I can work alongside my client, but also is potentially the catalyst through which the institution of therapy might begin to look beyond itself – to work alongside other helping institutions too – to create meaningful change. It is almost like pluralism could be our version of Esperanto, where we can learn to talk a language that is inclusive and not embedded in schoolism and introspection; where we can truly begin to reach out to others to teach them of our world, and learn from theirs, in a very real pluralistic way.