Becoming Clear 1

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

D H Pennington on Hobbes:

Commentators on the whole agree in praising the logical and uncompromising clarity of his argument and go on to differ fundamentally about what he meant.


I sat down to write this after receiving a copy of a book about work in the probation service. It was written by three managers each of whom I have previously supervised. It is well written and from most points of view rather more practical and down to earth than the prelude with which I am presenting you. It tries to describe the world as it is, for a probation officer setting out on his or her career – to bring probation work into a clear framework.

In a sense therefore it is a good book, trying to give people information that they can understand and translate into what they do in their work. This is fundamentally a common sense approach that runs all through the work of helping agencies. Everyone looks for ‘clarity’  in the belief that once such clarity is provided, the way to act, the things that can then usefully be done, will then be obvious and possible to deliver. This ‘clarity’ is essentially an intellectual and word based phenomenon – to be found in ‘vision statements’, strategic policy documents and university text books.

I think at one stage in my career, I dismissed too lightly this kind of approach to learning about work with people in trouble. I was not alone – in my social work training, we endured some social psychology ‘lectures’ in which no clarity of this intellectual kind was provided – intentionally. It was all about discovery through experience, an approach that left the whole year group bewildered and completely unable to pass the exam paper at the end of the year.

Hopefully, what I have to say now has a better balance, and welcomes intellectual clarity where it can be unearthed. Nonetheless I am not satisfied with the ‘manual of explanation’ approach to learning about work with troubled people, despite the contribution that it undoubtedly makes.

The difficulty is that what helps people is not just ‘what you know’ but ‘what you are’, and I don’t think it is sentimental to believe that ‘what you are’ is if anything more important than what you know, when dealing with emotional distress, changing behaviour and tackling disorder.



Technicality and the Personal

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

In setting the scene, I have been seeking to convey a belief that engaging with people in trouble or distress has to involve a personal journey, rather than just the application of sets of learned techniques; this however remains just an ‘insipid’ idea until seasoned with a lived context. It is striking to me how this notion has recurred in my life from the following two early influences. My social work tutor, Bill Jordan, spoke of a wish to publish a book that would comprise only case examples, without any of the theorising that seemed to be the only passport to publication. At the same time, John Berger in ‘A Fortunate Man’ was writing about the meaning to be derived from the life of a general practitioner in a rural practice, aiming to express his ideas in a life story and through photographs.

This belief is a vulnerable one however, easily becoming sentimental, self indulgent, effete. It can provoke hostility or incomprehension. There is an essential ‘tenderness’ about the approach. It is earnest, and therefore easier for me to hide behind a more cynical or drily humorous veneer. It is an approach that many would set in conflict with ‘hard headed’ ideas such as punishment, cognitive behavioural programmes, measurable outcomes……….. I have been slow to come to a recognition of the value of such dry technicalities as essential if uncomfortable bedfellows to the humanistic, holistic and emotional vision that has driven me. However, real change for the better needs both the warmth of emotional engagement and the food of outcome driven, evidence based ‘technique’.


An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

I became aware then from teenage years, that ‘ideas’ were not quite ’the point’. For all his academic theological study, my father’s religion pointed me to the stories, the parables, not the morals or the rules. Marx was exciting because he wanted to change the world, not just to describe it more elegantly. I knew that my career choice could not be academic but had to engage in some way with the messiness of life, of human exchange with which I have so much discomfort.

It is the question that we carry with us, not the solution however. The conflict that I am describing remains with me, no easier to handle in my 60’s than at 18, encountered again and again in newly painful forms. A discovery rediscovered again and again is that, it is what we know that we don’t know. (This is not some obscure Ronnie Laing type ‘knot’, but I think a commonplace experience. I will write later about bereavement and loss. I was strongly convinced in my 30s that the way we handled loss in life is vital to our successful ageing. Now I can see that I was right, but was right because this was such a difficult emotional problem for me that I did not then understand.)

I am however not able I think, to communicate what I want to say through story telling. I would love to be able to do that but I suspect I lack the talent. What I want to do is to locate some ideas within a personal experience, hinting at stories. If this can help you to unearth your own stories, the ideas providing a ‘frame’ to give stories more colour or a different impact, my efforts will have served a purpose. Better still would be to bring some ‘music’! – when I went through a phase of reading Samuel Becket, it came to me that the music of his writing was what was transcendent, meaningful, not so much the meaning of his words. I hope for that, even if only in an occasional snatch of melody in the journey that follows.

Ideas and Action

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

‘ideas are well enough until you are twenty; afterwards only words are bearable – a new idea, what can be more insipid – fit for Members of Parliament’ (Huysman)

I loved ‘ideas’ in my student years. What stirring excitement there was to encounter the articulateness of Marxism in 1960s student life? ‘Political thought’ became one of my favourite options within my degree course. I attended lectures on Marxist political thought with a real sense of thrill, just as I loved Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor’s arguments, these intellectualisms seeming to bring me close to truths about the world I was just getting to know. Yet, whilst I love this taste of intellectual life, I felt it was not good enough – it was important to do something practical in the world.

There is no doubt then that I am an ‘intellectual’, more at ease with ideas and reflection than in the muddles and ‘noise’ of social groups, or in physical or practical activity. Ideas have always been very seductive.

Being brought up as the ‘son of the manse’, with a father for whom intellectual pursuits had been the route of escape from a background of poverty and from the limited options in a mining and railway town in the north of England,  pointed me to a love of, but also a scepticism about ideas. What was wonderful as an undergraduate was to discover attempts to reconcile this love and scepticism – whether in D H Lawrence’s Paul Morel, or in Karl Marx’s ideas of the ‘man in the world’, of ‘praxis’ etc.

The struggle between these two sides of our nature was as evident in family life. My father, the oldest of nine children, and the only one to reach university, was hugely respected by but separated from the home based warmth and intimacy of his brothers and sisters. As a minister of religion, he could be a teacher in a Sunday morning sermon – quite academic in style – but on another day be a part of a church community in a youth club, or with the men of the church ‘rolling his sleeves up’ and being a practical manager, or again being a pastoral carer for the sick and lonely.  He carried both an academic and a down to earth ‘social’ persona, but they seemed to me like two separate buttresses on a bridge without a connecting arch. Both these presentations of himself were public – there seemed to be no private presentation that I was aware of. I never recall seeing him upset or depressed in a way I could recognise. I knew nothing of what he thought about his life though he was a thinker, and I saw no clue of an internal emotional world though he was warm and often fun. Thoughts were about external objective things; emotions were wordless – they just were.

Becoming useful

I’m going to write about how people in helping professions can learn to be useful to those they help. I want to see if it’s possible to do this by telling the story of  my own learning and development. I also want to find out if telling this story in blocks of 300 words or so can enable people to engage through this blog.

Clearly, a number of people who have experienced professional help, use blogging as part of their recovery, so there should be plenty of expertise around that can guide me if my own perspective is deluded! I hope there are also people who inhabit helping roles who might come across this and find it useful.

I like the word ‘useful’ for its modesty. When we set out on our careers our hopes for the future can be ambitious. It is probably a universal task as we grow older to reconcile youthful ambition with the disappointments of reality and to avoid jaded cynicism. ‘Being useful’ is to me then a noble aim.

Perhaps a bit of a map of what I shall be writing would be helpful. The material roughly follows my career from emerging as an individual, through student days and into my years as a practitioner in helping professions. My introductory sections deal with some of my underlying beliefs and their origins. They will elaborate themes to which I have already referred. Then I explore a range of ideas and experiences more or less as I came up against them whilst I was learning my craft. My experience gradually expanded from one to one work with people in difficulty, to family work and then as I moved toward management to issues about organisations. I know some of this will be quite academic and theoretical – I am no J.K.Rowling!



My second introductory thought is about arguments.

All relationships of importance involve arguments. More than that, it seems to me that it is often the arguments that are some of the most important elements in any healthy relationship. What is more, I think any learning of value involves arguments.

It is worth trying to say something about what I mean by ‘arguments’:

  • We sometimes speak as if arguments were the same as ‘debates’ – the putting up against each other of two different ideas or sets of ideas / beliefs that are in conflict with each other, with the assumption that one will ‘win’ over the other.
  • We sometimes speak as if arguments are ‘tiffs’ in which one person/group is trying to deal with some negative emotion about another.
  • We sometimes speak as if arguments are ‘fights’ in which two or more people compete for control, or dominance.

I am using the term ‘argument’ to refer to a human encounter in which there is some kind of emotional, physical and intellectual transaction between two (or more) people – this often involves elements of the above but is not satisfactorily understood as the above. A good argument is a multi layered experience which involves the intellect, the emotions and the belief systems in intermingled relationship with each other. Michael Billig for example said, ‘Thought is a kind of argument with oneself’ emphasising the complex interplay of elements even within an apparently simple intellectual process.

Two quotes might help – from to my mind great writers. George Eliot expressed the point beautifully:

An argument is – the “Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another! Not calculable by algebra, not deducible by logic, but mysterious, effectual, mighty as the hidden process by which the tiny seed is quickened and bursts forth into tall stem and broad leaf, and glowing tasseled flower. Ideas are often poor ghosts; our sun-filled eyes cannot discern them; they pass athwart us in thin vapour, and cannot make themselves felt. But sometimes they are made flesh; they breathe upon us with warm breath, they touch us with soft responsive hands, they look at us with sad sincere eyes, and speak to us in appealing tones; they are clothed in a living human soul with all its conflicts, its faith and its love. Then their presence is a power, then they shake us like a passion, and we are drawn after them with gentle compulsion, as flame is drawn to flame.” 

Waterland by Graham Swift is for me one of the great books of the 20th century – he understood how we learn:

” ‘Look, I’m sorry I messed up your classes, sir. I’m sorry I cocked things up for you.’

‘But that’s what education is about, Price. It’s not about empty minds waiting to be filled, nor about flatulent teachers discharging hot air. It’s about the opposition of teacher and student. It’s about what gets rubbed off between the persistence of the one and the resistance of the other. It’s a long hard struggle against a natural resistance.. a slow unending process. Needs a lot of phlegm.’ ” 

No doubt, I will return to arguments – the notion is core to any helping service which is seeking to bring about change.

I suppose then that a successful blog is one that leads to ‘arguments’ – in the context of a blog this is in part a plea for feedback and discussion, but I guess I would hope that what I have to say might have some influence through ‘arguments’ that take place elsewhere of which I will know nothing!

Can a blog be useful?

Amazingly, it is nearly a month since I finished posting Miss Marple’s recovery, sustained by the support of a loyal few! Of course, it is problematic to post a story over a number of episodes since few people are likely to come in at the start, and fewer keen to get involved in the middle! I have not been clear in my mind how to address this problem and have therefore hesitated before adding new posts.

The problem is a serious one I think when trying to communicate something about the process of trying to help people in various kinds of trouble. I am sitting on a document of 38,000 words that I complied over a couple of years post retirement and I wrote it in reaction to what seemed to me the conventional and unsatisfactory approach to writing about helping people. This was one in which the topic was broken down into subjects – a chapter on mental illness here, on domestic violence there, on addiction there.

This is not to say that these writings are wrong or unnecessary. From the point of view of people getting professional help, the least they can expect is that the professional has some knowledge of the academic basis for their work, the intellectual evidence. But it is my experience that on the whole, the ‘helpers’ don’t learn to become helpful by ‘knowing things’, by acquiring what might be termed ‘intellectual capital’ and then applying it. This is only part of becoming useful.

Instead, it seemed to me that people become helpful by a process of personal development into which intellectual capital is integrated, and that this is best understood as a ‘story’. (This is of course why Miss Marple occurred to me since recovery is also a ‘personal story’.) I thought therefore that it should be possible to write an account of learning to be useful as a story of personal discovery, not as a list of topics and bullet points.

Can this though be communicated through a blog? Blogs tend to capture people for little nuggets of insight, but can they engage people in a developing story when most people will only discover the blog part way through a story?

10 people ‘followed’ Miss Marple which is a start though it does not look as though many followed the story from beginning to end. Maybe this was the writer’s problem, but he is reluctant to give up on exploring the possibilities of the blog idea. I’ll keep going for a bit therefore and see if what I have to say strikes any kind of chord.

There is a second idea by way of introduction which is probably worth pursuing in my next entry before I get into my ‘story’…….