Being Okay With Not Knowing – Coming To Grips With A Poststructuralist Framework
by Adrian Holmes /5 min read
I feel like I have to admit that the word ‘poststructuralism’ was in no way part of my vocabulary before I began working at SKATTLE. ‘Postmodern’ had brushed my awareness.
‘Posttraumatic’ has shown up in a few textbooks. ‘Post office’ I know well. But poststructuralism really rang no bells. Not as a word, not as a concept and definitely not as a way of working that I would need to fully immerse myself into.
My time working in a postructuralist way has been a wild ride – a very steep learning curve with many moments of complete exhilaration and just as many that have completely stumped me.
Every now and then I’d hear “We’re very poststructuralist” or “That’s so poststructuralist” being uttered with a wry smile. My response would often be, “Where? Where was the poststructuralism? I want to see what it looks like!”
This is not because the practice is not steeped in philosophy. It is. It is also not because there hasn’t been much information available to me. There has been. A lot.
But as far as I could tell in those early days, working from a poststructuralist framework meant doing a little bit of several types of therapy. I just couldn’t always tell which bits from which approach. I have had moments of feeling profoundly inadequate and at those time wondered “what are the concrete ideas and tools of poststructuralism that I can hang on to?”
Following the new year, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my learnings and to consolidate them into some sort of order. As I filter through the many many thoughts, this is what lingers…
The poststructuralist approach to therapy was developed as a collective effort by a number of practitioners and theorists. The poststructuralist movement of therapies is variously called postmodern, narrative, collaborative, social-constructionist and discursive and has been developing since the mid-1970s (Tarragona, 2008).
Where structuralism emphasises that elements of culture should be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure, poststructuralism questions these assumptions.
The leading thinkers in the poststructuralist movement were French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. While therapeutic practitioners today engage in poststructuralism in a variety of ways, Foucault’s (1988) question, “what is the truth of who we are?” encapsulates the investigation that underpins their work (as cited in White, 1997, p. 220). Poststructuralist thought and practice directly questions many taken-for-granted and cherished notions about life and about identity.
At SKATTLE, the workers use a unique practice that draws on principles from narrative therapy, solution focused therapy and the strengths based approach.
Current research into these theories and approaches confirms their place among the assortment those that make up poststructuralism. This is because these approaches question what is taken for granted and work to assist people to stop measuring their lives according to what certain social norms say life should be about (Thomas, 2004).
All of the writing has been clear about the basic philosophies underpinning poststructuralist thought – that there are multiple realities and multiple truths.
The goal of the poststructuralist approach to therapy is to work collaboratively with clients to change the way they view their problems and the way they view their role in acting on their concerns. The therapeutic relationship is a crucial determinant to this goal. The therapist works from a place of not-knowing in order to genuinely position the client as expert in their own life.
As I reflect on the information available on the solution focused, narrative and strength based approaches, I am reminded of how much there actually is to hold on to. There are common, tangible, learnable skills – questioning, externalising conversations, listening, and exploring the exceptions foremost among them.
The critical values to be embodied by the practitioner resonate very deeply with me – I have always been an advocate of the view that people are essentially competent and resourceful. I also appreciate the curious and transparent conversations that are encouraged within this framework. So where was I getting lost? What was making it slippery for me to get grounded?
I remember being introduced to White’s therapeutic posture map and immediately felt a sense of relief, relief that it existed and that it directly addressed one of my biggest fears as a counsellor – having to have all the answers. When considering how we position ourselves as workers in a poststructuralist framework, workers engage from a position of not-knowing and therefore valuing the individuals own perspective of their experience.
Workers who position themselves in this way can be viewed as co-researchers through asking questions which influence change by centring the clients own knowledge and skills rather than their own (Epston, 2008). I remember feeling as though a weight had lifted off my shoulders when I learned about this model. The idea that I could be a worker who was de-centred (client’s expertise is centred) yet influential was very meaningful to me. Yet, paradoxically, it is this not knowing that has threatened to overwhelm me.
So, what is the “good” kind of not-knowing?
I am clearer now that, although the poststructuralist way of working is comprised of various schools of therapy, there are strong principles that bind them. Solution focused therapy, narrative therapy and the strengths based approach each have unique characteristics and specific ways of working. But while there are important differences between them, they share certain basic premises about language, knowledge, interpersonal relationships and identity (Tarragona, 2008).
It is these shared ways of being and working with clients that I can hold on to, where I can have the potential to be influential and facilitate change in their life. Respecting the poststructuralist tenet that it is not possible to know “the truth” about other people’s identities means that I will position myself in a way that my client’s expertise is centred.
This is where it is okay not to know. I cannot know. What I have learned, however, is that this does not mean I will be clueless or dithering in my work. I can be directive and active while still respecting the client as expert in his or her own life.
A final note from De Jong and Berg (2008) who summed it much better than I:
We do not view ourselves as expert at scientifically assessing client problems and then intervening. Instead, we strive to be expert at exploring clients’ frames of reference and identifying those perceptions that clients can use to create more satisfying lives (p. 19).
Edited image by Davide Restivo on Flickr.
Written by Peta Ward, SKATTLE Counsellor & Trainer