Why reflect? Managing without foundations

There is a struggle going on in the UK at the moment between the talking therapies, counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and the government. The government would like to regulate those offering therapy and get them to become members of the Health Professions Council, the main regulatory body of all health professionals except doctors and nurses, who have regulatory bodies of their own. The government’s preferred intervention for the public’s mental health is cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, which as the name suggests is based in behaviourist theories of human action. The effectiveness of CBT is more demonstrable and therefore more scientific, the government would claim, because changes in behaviour are observable, and therefore measurable. In order to regulate the talking therapies the governement has produced draft legislation which describes some hundreds of rules which an encounter between those seeking therapy and those offering it would be required to meet. Without such explicit rules and standards, the government would argue, there is no way of objectively regulating what is going on.

Supporters of the talking therapies have responded with indignation. Their arguments are that the encounter between therapist and those seeking therapy is an improvisational and exploratory conversation, the outcome of which is not specifiable in advance. The therapeutic relationship is not necessarily a problem-solving relationship: it may not primarily be about trying to stop smoking, or having panic attacks in public, but it is a relational journey of joint discovery, although ‘problems’ might be ‘solved’ along the way. Exploration may simply lead to more exploration, questioning to more questioning. The ‘outcome’ will arise out of the quality of the relationship of those embarking together on the conversation.

The arguments for  talking therapies and what they might mean for human development and learning are similar to some of the arguments for reflective and reflexive practice that I have been setting out in this blog, arguments which can sometimes be reduced and made simplistic. For example, recently the Broker online magazine summed up a paper I had written by putting forward the idea that my conclusion was simply to recommend reflection, reflection, reflection. But why reflect, and what kind of working method does it imply? To make sense, reflection requires a little more reflection itself.

Reflection in the professional domain is not directly intended to give rise to therapeutic outcomes, although this is not to say that these do not sometimes happen. The case for it is similar to that being made by supporters of the talking therapies in the UK, however, that is intended to be open ended, improvisational and undertaken with no particular end in view. In this sense, unlike most management methods which are taken up in organisations, it does not aim for optimisation: there is no abstract quest for the ideal system, or ways of working based in ‘best practice’. There is no ‘broken society’ waiting to be fixed, as the leader of the opposition in the UK would have it. Reflection dwells upon lived experience with the intention of intensifying it, and in doing so the reflector can sometimes come to understand themselves and their relationships anew: they become reflexive. The kind of knowledge that is most likely to arise from reflective practice, both individual and collective, is self-knowledge, rather than the instrumentalised understanding that one can sometimes derive from knowledge-oriented writing that somehow all knowledge is action or problem-oriented.

Reflection is not necessarily inclined towards answers, solutions and conclusions, but rather to doubt, questioning and uncertainty. This is in no way a despairing uncertainty however, simply one which implies further openness to experience. It assumes that things are mutable, ever-changing, without permanent foundations. In this sense there is a profound discipline here, and a dialectical method of never being satisfied with answers that would close off further questioning. Being open to new collective meaning-making  is a recognition of our inter-dependence and the otherness of others. In reflecting with others we are using our conscious and self-conscious capacity which is what most distinguishes us as being human, our ability as GH Mead said, to take ourselves as an object to ourselves.

Reflective and reflexive practice will incline us towards doubting the very instruments of management that have become so ubiquitous in organisations that we have come to take them for granted. In order to respond to the new and the unexpected, our inevitably changing circumstances, we may want to explore instead managing without foundations.

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