Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

I have been working on a revised version of the Inbetween paper (thanks to all who commented) and attach the latest working version here Inbetween 080826 FP.doc. Harry and I submitted it to Family Process who have made many helpful comments (and some others too) - we are just addressing these now.

In this week's New Scientist magazine I came across a great comment piece by the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe. I had not come across her before, but she seems to be writing in rather the same spirit as I was intending for the Inbetween article. Here is her column. I have bolded the parts which particularly reflect the ideas I am working on.

Why psychologists need to ask better questions
· 29 October 2008
· Dorothy Rowe

IS PSYCHOLOGY a science? This was the big theme in the fourth year of my undergraduate psychology degree at the University of Sydney, Australia, in the late 1940s. Our professor, Bill O'Neill, devoted many lectures to this question.

The subject matter of research in psychology might not fit easily into experimental designs, he argued, but that should not prevent us from holding fast to scientific principles to define our terms and refine our hypotheses. The purpose of science, he said, was not to discover facts but to ask better questions.
Today, psychologists - and the public - take it for granted that psychology is a science. I base my work on the developmental psychologists who study infants, and neuropsychologists who study how we make sense of our experiences. I know developmental and neuropsychologists follow O'Neill's principles.
However, many psychologists prefer to try to show that the world is what they want it to be, while others fear venturing into any area where they might have to confront the questions of how our brain creates meaning, and how, out of this meaning, comes what the neuropsychologist Chris Frith calls the "illusion" of being a person.

The subjects of research in the physical sciences adamantly remain themselves, refusing to disclose their nature until researchers ask them the right questions. In psychological research, things are different. Research subject and researcher can assess each other. Astute researchers can choose their subjects carefully, then frame their questions to guide subjects' answers and, by playing on the subjects' desire to please, produce the results the researcher wants.

This process has important consequences when it comes to "belief". Researchers who are advocates for religion are more likely to find that people with religious beliefs are happier than those with none, even though depressed people often report that their religious beliefs, rather than supporting them, actually create intense fear and guilt.

Our religious or philosophical beliefs about the nature of death and the purpose of life are central to how we live and, as such, are appropriate subjects of psychological study - provided researchers can set aside their own fantasies about life and death. Undeterred by such a notion, one branch of the field known as "transpersonal psychology" is based on the assumption of the existence of spirituality. On the website of the British Psychological Society, the transpersonal psychology section states that it "might loosely be called the psychology of spirituality and of those areas of the human mind which search for higher meanings in life, and which move beyond the limited boundaries of the ego to access an enhanced capacity for wisdom, creativity, unconditional love and compassion". I don't think my old professor would regard this as an operational definition.
But consider, too, what happens at the other end of the "belief" spectrum. Here, instead of trying to understand how we use religious or spiritual beliefs to overcome our greatest fear - that of ceasing to be a person - or trying to understand why we do what we do, some psychologists rely on an equally unscientific model of humans as puppets driven by genes, or by bits of the brain, as if our brain is separate from who we are. Such psychologists are always surprised to discover that we know more than we are consciously aware of, when to be conscious of everything we know would be to be overwhelmed by information.

Alongside all this, a vast amount of psychological research is into the trivial and the obvious (just look at the papers every day). This can occasionally be interesting or even useful but, like the psychologists who believe that we are all spiritual or all puppets, those who engage in such research are running away from what human beings really do. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all engaged in creating meaning: that is, interpreting what is happening around us.

Our interpretations determine what we do. Some of them we reveal to other people, but we do not pass on information, ideas or memes in a kind of "pass the parcel". Someone speaks to us and we create a personal version of what was said.

These interpretations can come from only one place: past experience. Since everyone's past experience is different, no two people can ever interpret anything in exactly the same way. There will be as many interpretations of this Comment and Analysis as there are readers of it.
“There will be as many interpretations of this article as there are readers of it”

The wealth and complexity of the scientific study of meaning, via the discipline of psychology, is immense. It should be relished, not run from. As yet we do not know how brain activity becomes meaning, how the firings of neurons translate into subjective experience. So the only fantasies we need right now are the kind that turn into testable hypotheses.

"Ask better questions," as my mentor O'Neill would still say.

Dorothy Rowe is a psychologist and author of What Should I Believe? (Routledge)
From issue 2680 of New Scientist magazine, 29 October 2008, page 18

Pasted from

I take the final bolded paragraph above in the same spirit as Wittgenstein's 'no complete understanding is possible'...interesting to see it coming from such a reputable scientific source.

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Comment by Michael Hjerth on November 6, 2008 at 12:46
I sort of agree, Mark. But I'm trying to work something out: would you say that the "agent" is a metaphor, or a description or something "real"? I would think the former. Is "the agent" what the brain looks like to us. Or, since we think or ourselves as "agents" - whether we really are or not - is it simple more pragmatic to concieve of the other as an "agent". Or, are we obligeged, by the way our mind works, to think of ourselves and the other as an agent. If so, is this what makes some people cartesian dualists? Talk of brain, neurons, genes, etc is perhaps hard to grasp, in the same way as quantum physics or string theory is hard to grasp.

In monism, minds, brains, are descriptions of the same thing: and of course two descriptions of the same thing cannot affect each other in any way. So the "entity" described as patterns of neural firing cannot cause anything (or be caused by) in the "entity" described as an agent, and vice versa.

The more I study brain science, the more confused i become. (but confusion, of course, is a good thing)
Comment by Mark McKergow on November 4, 2008 at 21:31
Hi Michael and Paolo

I know the work of Ralph Stacey quite well, and it is exactly this kind of inbetween that i am talking about. Agents are not, of course, independent of their brains. But neither is the brain independent of the agent. And it's the agent we're working with.
Comment by Michael Hjerth on November 4, 2008 at 14:13
I know all about those "skeptic sensors", a curse and a blessing. I tend to think that the larger the system, the more ideas of inbetween (like swarm intelligence) is relevant. The smaller the system (like and individual or a family), the more ideas from neuroscience is relevant. (Though I'm really curious about how social neuroscience will develop in the future).

BTW, I'm gettin skeptical about the idea of "change is constant", the important thing is is RELEVANT change happening. Change is constant in the sense: You can never step into the same river twice (or same pond, as Mark says). But stepping into the pond it will get you wet everytime. That change doesn't happen all the time. So, I think SF needs a bit more sofistication in this respect. Some things change all the time, some remain the same. You utilize the changes, AND you influence the non-changes (that is, introduce change)
Comment by Paolo Terni on November 3, 2008 at 21:24
Hi Mark!

If I understand correctly the ideas you are working on, maybe you can find some additional inspiration in the book "complexity and management" by Ralph Stacey. Not the easiest book to read, and it is about organization, but he articulates a good critique of complexity theory applied to management, and the final 2 chapters are all about meaning (in the organization) being generated "in-between", in the daily conversations of the people working in the organization, vs. the idea of the company as a "system" on one hand and the individual as a totally independent agent on the other.
Some good references too.
It is in a way liberating: no need for "big change", change happens all the time, it is in the daily conversation of all the people working in the company... and it is generated by the differences in interpretation, just like the part you highlighted says.

Just a thought, I hope it might be of some use to you. (and of course this is my interpretation of Stacey's words: " no one steps outside it to arrange it, operate on it, or use it, for there is no simply objectified "it". There is only the responsive process of relating itself. Instead of understanding "the organization" as a tool humans design and use, we seek to understand organizing, that is, experience as the living present.")

BTW, reading the article by Dorothy Rowe you posted, my "skeptic sensors" lit up like crazy: I am not sure there is anybody actually claiming that humans are "puppets driven by genes" (straw man argument), and I think I remember that the researchers that found positive correlations between being religious and life satisfaction are not religious (at least, the studies I am aware of); correlation between depression and religious beliefs is valid only under very specific circumstances (I seem to remember).
Anyway, I know this is not relevant to your point, I just can't help it! (and yes, it is because of my genes :)))))

Looking forward to reading your "in-between' article,
Comment by Michael Hjerth on November 3, 2008 at 15:59
I think that the puppet/agent concept is still dependent on the cartesian model: the split between mind/brain and soul/body. If we adopt the modern neuroscientific monism - brain and mind are one and the same - the very idea of a puppet is incomprehensible. If I am a puppet, who is the puppeteer?

But neuroscience also casts doubts of the "agent" as something independent of the brain. Have anyone seen a tennisball hit the line our hitting outside the line? Not really, we haven't seen the actual hitting of the ground. The ball is to fast, we only see it approaching and leaving the ground. Our brain "fools" us to think we have seen it. The brain has all sorts of quirks and kluges. Did I decide to write the letter "A" just now, well in fact the signals going to my hands are sent before I'm aware of any decision. We probably have to rethink the concept of agent too, in the light of neuroscience.

"Agent" is still a much better concept, since it fits with human experience. (or most of it, in some neurological conditions you can experience yourself as moved by something else, or even experience yourself as dead.)

So, what is "an agent"? Can it be defined in such away as to take all aspects: brain, evolution, environment, and social interaction into account? Or is "agent" as muddled a concept as "puppet"

Comment by Mark McKergow on November 3, 2008 at 10:17
Here is a further previous article, also by Dorothy Rowe, called Humans beings are actors, not puppets. She is again writing against the idea of people being controlled from within, from 2005. Very readable and relevant IMHO. The idea of people being active agents rather than passive puppets (or 'patients' as they are sometimes called in the medical world - people who patiently wait for the doctor to cure them) seems to me to be at the heart of SF practice.

Humans beings are actors, not puppets
· 05 February 2005
· Dorothy Rowe

THE Bible says you have free will and you can choose to do whatever you like, but if you make a choice God doesn't approve of, He'll clobber you. Most scientists, on the other hand, argue that what you do is nothing but the end result of a long chain of causes over which you have no control worth talking about. Who is right? Are we agents capable of acting on the world any way we choose or puppets dangling off biochemistry's strings?
Actually neither really fits our daily experience. In my work as a psychologist one of the big questions I ask people is: "How do you operate as a person?" I also listen to people talking to each other about how they operate. The vast majority describe themselves as engaged in making sense of a situation, deciding what to do and acting on those decisions. A few insist that they are being controlled by extraterrestrial powers or voices emanating from their television. Not surprisingly, these people don't manage their lives very well. Sometimes people who see themselves as agents will claim that some aspect of their behaviour is not under their control - "I inherited my bad temper from my father" - but these are merely agents ducking responsibility. The bottom line is that we all know we are agents making choices, but those choices are based on very limited knowledge.
Many psychiatrists and psychologists prefer not to see people as agents. They don't want to recognise that, while objects don't assess an experimenter, people do, and this assessment affects the outcome of the experiment. They prefer to think of themselves as experts who know more about the person as a puppet than the person can ever know about him or herself. So if, when you consult a psychiatrist about your intense sadness, you say: "I feel terribly guilty because I didn't look after my parents properly before they died," you're likely to be told: "That's your illness speaking." To the psychiatrist what you have said is not a statement about how you interpret your situation, but irrational guilt, a symptom of major depressive disorder.
Forty years ago there were only a handful of mental illnesses, and relatively few people were seen as being manipulated by a mental "illness". Now there are innumerable mental disorders, created by psychiatrists. In fact the most recent edition of the bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), covers everyone. If every other diagnosis fails, you've always got "personality disorder not otherwise specified".
Psychologists use the DSM to label people, but they also like to pop people into boxes called traits - sociability, curiosity, extroversion and the like. Do you do what you do because you have x amount of sociability, y amount of curiosity and z amount of extroversion?
Unfortunately most popular magazines and national newspapers, New Scientist included, help perpetuate this puppet/agent mistake. So a story about technology presents humans as agents making decisions and acting on them, while one about mental health downgrades humans to puppets. People suffering from mental illness are described as manipulated by something acting in or on their bodies. And out in the world, depressed people are likely to be told by doctors that they have a chemical "imbalance" in the brain caused by a lack of serotonin, despite the fact that no abnormality in serotonin levels has ever been demonstrated to cause depression.
“What you call 'me' is a complex system in which conciousness is powered by your meaning structure”
It is clearly all much more complex than they would have us believe. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said: "It is not things in themselves which trouble us, but our opinions of things." In other words what determines our behaviour is not what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us. The human brain does not show us what is actually going on. What neuroscientists like V. S. Ramachandran and Richard Gregory have demonstrated is that our brain creates pictures of what is going on around us, and these pictures depend on what our body is equipped to learn and on what situations we find ourselves in. So if your eye lacks the receptors required to pick up certain wavelengths of light, you will live in a colourless world, and if you are a nomad child living in a yurt, you'll learn to see depth and distance differently from a child brought up in a rectangular rooms.
Everything you learn goes into your mind/brain, this ever-changing, interconnected structure of meaning made up of ideas, images and memories. What you call I, me, myself is a complex system in which consciousness is a small, moving torchlight powered by the contents of your meaning structure. You interpret what goes on and make choices, usually without becoming fully conscious, just by putting your interpretation into action.
And the interpretations we choose are always aimed, at least in part, at holding ourselves/our meaning structure together. Of course, this complexity and the individuality of our choices make studying people very difficult. But surely from here on in, research (and treatment) not based on this understanding of ourselves as agent is a complete and utter waste of time.
Dorothy Rowe is a psychologist and writer
From issue 2485 of New Scientist magazine, 05 February 2005, page 21
Comment by Michael Hjerth on November 1, 2008 at 16:53
I'd like to comment a couple of things. First, I don't think that psychology is "the scientific study of meaning", even though it is part of it. Second, it is important not to fall into the black/white fallacy with a statement like "no complete understanding is possible". (The fallacy: since no complete understaning is possible, it must mean that no understanding is possible. Or, the SF variant of this: only misunderstaning is possible. On of the things I like least about SF) It could simply mean that understanding is always the best we got, right now, and we need to challenge it. This is the scientific view. The writer clearly comes to that conclusion by saing "the only fantasies we need right now are the kind that turn into testable hypotheses" I couldn't agree more.




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