Arguing the Difference While Rome Burns: Perhaps Pluralism Can Help?
Andrew Reeves, Associate Professor in the Counselling Professions and Mental Health, University of Chester
Like many others working in the psychological therapies I have, over my 30-plus years of being a practitioner, been immersed in the diversity of therapeutic approaches. Humanistic, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural – to name the loose umbrella headings for a variety of ways through which we can understand human experience. For many of those years I have considered this breadth of theoretical orientation as one of our strengths: a fluidity in thinking and innovation in practice and research. How many other disciplines, certainly in our broad area of practice, can boast such a range of fascinating ways through which people, experiencing distress, can be helped?
Once my early enthusiasm and embrace-it-all attitude began to settle in to a longer-term way of being, I became less enthralled by this status quo; not because of the diversity of practice it represented, but more by the positions people took in relation to that diversity. As that early mist lifted, the picture that was revealed was more of a battlefield, with people taking their particular positions and viewing, it seems, anything different from their own core training, or way of working, with suspicion, weariness or, in some instances, derision. Yes, the psychological therapies, it seemed, were populated with many who – despite years of their own personal therapy and self-reflection – were so entrenched in their own philosophical and theoretical position that attack was their best position of defence; the perception that things needed defending, rather than collaborating with.
We slipped into decades of competitive research, fuelled in part by the embracing of research paradigms that were not, in many ways, an ideal fit for the psychological therapies: being squeezed into epistemological and ontological boxes that didn’t quite fit. The ‘my approach is better than yours’ mentality, evolved into ‘not only is my approach is better than yours, but your approach is rubbish’ position. We can easily place this at the door of professional associations and blame them for all that is wrong in our field (and some blame does indeed sit at their doors); but our own profession has, for too long, quibbled and quarrelled over the efficacy and status of each orientation, while everything else has gone to pot. While Rome has burned, we have spent our time shouting at each other rather than attending to the real structural, theoretical, practice, and philosophical ruptures that have held back what we try to offer our clients. Rome burning – really? Well, counselling continues to be under threat in NICE guidelines; many therapists working unpaid; counselling being squeezed, not only out of the NHS, but also education, third sector; and so on. I could go on. Yes, the fire has been burning brightly while we have sat indoors quarrelling over the colour of the wallpaper.
I genuinely cannot fathom why people seem to get their knickers (or whatever underwear of choice) in a twist over pluralism – and yet they do. Still, there are too many who are bogged down in old and, frankly, dead-end arguments about which model is better than which. That is why pluralism speaks to me so loudly: it does not take an evangelical position around any one particular approach, but rather sees the value in all. It genuinely applies the principle that different people need different things at different times; and that, with the right support, people can be helped to find their own way through to identify that ‘right thing’ for them. While I do not hold a particular faith position, it does remind me of the Douglas Adams line in Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, when he wrote that, ’…one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…’. Frankly, pluralism: what’s not to like? There is room for everyone and, rather than looking at the psychological therapies as a mechanism of reinforcing our own positions, pluralism is an excellent structure through which we can offer our clients a range of support, as well as offering practitioners the mechanism through which we can critically reflect on pluralism itself.
As someone with a psychodynamic and person-centred training, and with additional cognitive-behavioural experience, that does not undermine the position of any of these approaches. I bring a humanistic/relational-informed approach to my pluralistic practice, but am delighted that other pluralistic practitioners might position themselves differently.
We can talk the talk of respecting difference and diversity, but it seems to me that walking the walk is often much more challenging. For me, pluralism celebrates everything we have as psychological therapists and privileges the voice of the client too, inclusive of all the theoretical and philosophical diversity and difference that inform it. It is not a threat to the status quo, but rather a way in which we can begin to work collaboratively, rather than apart.
4 thoughts on “Arguing the Difference While Rome Burns: Perhaps Pluralism Can Help?”
Great post! I want to be careful with this analogy because I do not feel we are in a race with different approaches to therapy. Yet with some of the criticism levelled at pluralistic practice, or the sometime intellectually lazy brush off “yes, yes, people have been practicing this way for ever” reminds me of the American sprinter for the 400m and 200m races Michael Johnson. After like a few Olympic gold medals and a bag of other gold medals he was still receiving such criticism for the upright position he ran that went at odds with the “traditional” approach. I remember he once finally commented after again being “slated” on his duck like running style that if it’s so bad “why am I so far ahead of everyone else”. I am not saying as a pluralist practitioner I’m better or my approach is, as I agree with your watching Rome burn analogy, but in terms of my experiences with clients, their changes, and coupled with feedback makes me wonder why are style is being picked apart….seems to be carrying me/client down the track just fine. Furthermore, and sorry one more sports analogy, is a lot of the “critique”, for instance like one by Ong, Murphy, and Joseph’s (2020), seems to make a fatal mistake. An author of what is like a bible to strength training criticised a study proposing squats were bad for the knees. The exercise in the study was definitely bad for the knees however also not really a squat at all. The author says of this, “you don’t get to redefine the exercise and then claim that it’s dangerous. Driving a car is dangerous if you drive it into a great big rock”. I feel that of much of the criticism of pluralism…the “definition” is redefined and then argued against and I feel like…….okay…🤷🏻♂️🤷🏻♂️🤷🏻♂️but let’s talk about pluralism. Sorry that was long and I should have done a blog about it…but obviously this has been on my chest.
Andrew, I wholeheartedly agree. I work ‘pluralistically’ now ~ whatever that means. Hey! I’m even qualified to do so (BA Hons 1st).
I am a firm believer in one size most definitely does not fit all.
As a therapist, the greatest depth of learning comes from sitting with the self ~ regardless of approach. Before we can help others, we must help ourselves in letting go of our egos and judgements.
To be frank, if it benefited the client, I’d swing from a bloody ceiling light with my (spare!) knickers on my head.
An absolutely brilliant piece. Thank you for restoring some of my faith in ‘established’ practitioners and experts.
I am (at 51) a trainee just about to qualify and an educator by background registered with the NCS (seems I am already on the ‘wrong side’!
Academic infighting is something I hoped was only an educational issue but sadly paid bodies who fight over membership and registration are as much to blame as theoretical differences.
I wonder what happened to non-judgementalism and diversity let alone client-led practice.
Hopefully we can all help model something better in the world after Covid-19!
Andrew having briefly met you at the recent online pluralistic conference.. I must say how touched I was by your candid and passionate defence of working with a client to benefit their outcomes (pluralism) 🙂 As you know by my impassioned response to the way things are heading in our profession its apparent that to hold an opinion that doesn’t resonanate with the various forms of therapy modalities and agree with the fact that being person centred is being relational and pluralistic.. Therefore we are being caring, open to changing patterns in a session and client feedback. To be asked what we would like as an individual is a basic human right I’m also wanting to express my sorrow as you so poignantly shared your experience with BACP as a member I am shocked beyond words with what happened to you.. Its quite shameful and heinous to bully someone for having their own opinions. This is all so scary as I arrive at the finish line on my journey into this profession. I was bullied for sharing a post on a very popular tutoring fb page about the fact my client was overjoyed to be feeling positive after a recent session.. No names were mentioned or words used by the client.. I recieved a barrage of abuse and underhanded comments telling me I shouldn’t be upset.. Its all about the client and I should learn about confidentiality.. I was deeply shocked. I expressed my apologies for the misunderstandings.. Yet they still are posting very negative posts and claiming I don’t understand the breach I made on a site meant to nurture counsellors and support them. I spotted bulling over typos and very petty stuff. My hope is that the future of pluralism will make for a better space for us guys that want to take our practices to another level by applying a more client led type of session involving them in the desicion making.. Thats what I signed up for… I am passionate and care deeply for those experiencing pain.. I am so sorry you have been attacked for being you and holding the beliefs you have. I am like you.. In the sense that more I’m bullied the more I smile and respond with eloquence and you have in this much needed piece. Love and light.. Thank you for being you. Warmest wishes Debby kirby. Xx the futures bright the future will be evolving xxx