Non verbal communication

Whilst I have not confined myself strictly to the learning of early years in the profession, the themes I have outlined did emerge at that time. I should say a bit more about one other feature of this early period of discovery. I have alluded to it already in writing about silence as communication. Although the first steps in the profession involve worries about things like what one should say to a client, what questions to ask, how to deal with clients’ questions and challenges, I was at the same time having to think about non verbal communication.

This could easily acquire a kind of mystique or sense of superiority about it and I did find that people’s guard would go up if you played into that mystique by trying to point out some unconscious behaviour. I have been managed by some who felt ‘analysed’ if interpretations of their behaviour were proffered, and resentment could soon grow. However, first of all I am talking about something more simple and obvious.

It is very easy in the helping professions for people to be approached as if they are either cooperative seekers of help, responding to the wisdom and good sense of the helper, or as if resistant, defensive, hostile people in distress and unable to change. This is a very unhelpful way of understanding what is going on. We can be confident that those receiving a service have their own active agenda for the relationship with the worker as for the life that surrounds that relationship. What is more, that agenda is very unlikely to be a consistent and wholly conscious one. In referring to the agenda as unconscious, I am not talking about some deep seated Freudian neurosis. For example, someone may miss an appointment. They may know how that happened – perhaps they forgot. They may even know something about why they forgot – perhaps they had an argument with their son at the wrong moment. It is fairly likely however that their grasp of why they forgot only refers to part of the explanation. They might feel uneasy that it suited them to forget – they may have been reluctant to keep the appointment in the first place. Or it might not occur to them that a distressing event could be a reason to remember the appointment, if their investment in the value of the appointment were substantial.

Whatever the layers of reasons there might be, they reflect this active agenda that all service users have in relation to the service and its provider.

Node link mapping

In the latter few years of my career, however, ‘pictures’ cropped up again and in a way that seems to make a much more successful bridge between people’s expectations of work with people in trouble. This development is known as ‘node link mapping’ and has been developed for work with drug users and applied and evaluated through the work of Texas Christian University in the States. I suppose in fairness that it would be more accurate to describe this approach as one that uses diagrams or maps rather than pictures, but the visual nature of the approach is key. It allows users to visualise the issues in their lives, rather than requiring them to rationalise and give a word based structured account.

This is not the place to go into the details of node link mapping. TCU have been entirely open about this work and anyone can find materials and the supporting evidence on their website . Anyone working in treatment settings should in my view be both aware of this approach and confident in its application. Not only does the visual depiction of problems, assets and treatment plans make them more accessible to all sorts of service users, but the process of using mapping techniques is necessarily more collaborative. It forces a different kind of dynamic between worker and service user in which each has a positive contribution to make, rather than one in which the user submits their life to the expert for them to weave their ‘magic’.


Dr Sacks work suggests another dimension to this. Readers will recall the case of Mrs O’C who achieved a sense of serenity and completeness by accessing previously hidden memories of her childhood. He is interested that the form taken by Mrs O’C’s recovered memory was music. Melodies and scenes are a common characteristic of temporal lobe disturbances, Sacks says – they can be generated by stimulation of a point in the cortex. Our inner life is in some ways essentially ‘melodic’ or scenic’. Indeed, it seems to be this sense of scene or melody that gives experience its personal vividness, its meaning. This draws attention to the structure of memory in our brains. There is on the one hand, a computational organisation of schemata, programmes akin to the pattern of computers. On the other, there are personal reminiscing structures that take the form of scripts or scores, of stories or music. Sacks suggests that there is evidence from music therapy that there is a separate, though of course connected, structure for musical memory.

If it is the case then that we derive a sense of meaning and completeness from the ‘true past’ captures as stories or music, rather than as computational entities, the range of mental processes involved in personal change can be seen to be far wider than some of the cognitive behavioural manualised programmes often use. Programmes that address the computational part of the brain are still worth doing, but it seems unlikely that such approaches on their own will make a significant impact on offenders whose behaviour is connected with a ‘different kind of music’, and interventions that engage with the reminiscing brain structures as well as with computational cognitive deficits would seem potentially important.

Addictions work has long been aware of this, although ambivalent about the extent to which non computational interventions can be recognised as treatment. AA and Narcotics anonymous are both structured around a discipline of storytelling for example. Some of the ideas around ‘recovery communities’ allow for what can be understood as ‘reminiscing’ activity – shared storytelling amongst peers, positive social activity etc. It would be interesting to see if music could be used more substantively in such settings.

The Arts and work with offenders

The use of pictures in my working life then took something of a down turn. For a time, I was the manager with strategic oversight of the Handsworth Cultural Centre in Birmingham. I think in part the impulse that created the Centre was similar to that which involved me in storytelling and finger painting – that use of imaginative and creative arts could help people discover positive attributes and resources in themselves that could turn them away from the more destructive imaginative life associated with criminality. Whilst music was a key feature of the Centre’s work, it is the art and photography exhibitions that I remember most vividly. They celebrated a positive cultural self image for a rather battered black community and were a source of pride for those involved.

However, I proved completely unable to help the Centre become a substantive part of the Probation Service that had invented it. There seemed to be something in the experience of probation work that was unsympathetic to the creative and remained sourly preoccupied with a more puritan focus on ‘tackling offending behaviour’. This was a pragmatic and materialistic culture, and one preoccupied with power and victimhood, such that officers could not see the relevance of creative expression other than as a decorative sideline. Oddly, it was not just that probation officers rarely referred clients to the Centre. A good number were somehow hostile to its existence – its playful and imaginative side seemed to be a threat and was resented by staff who remained locked in a more depressive complaining world. Better it seemed to ensure that the Cultural Centre was a waste of resource, an indulgence, than to ask different questions about how they engaged with the worlds that their clients occupied. It was as if to allow oneself to engage with the Centre would be to open up floodgates of unmanageable distress about the sad lives of many offenders and the sadder realities of the impact of their crimes on themselves and their victims. Traditional probation relationships were a great help in preventing such distress to come to the fore – the client was kept in a subordinate role, morally on the defensive, with worker and client playing into a fantasy that treated the gains from material wealth as the only significant driver of behaviour and pursued a grim struggle with all that was unfair and impossible.

And so the Cultural Centre declined and closed as Probation moved into the much safer world of ‘accredited programmes’ and their word based manuals.

Using pictures

And then there are pictures, a less obvious approach for someone brought up in a household of words, or sermons and theology and of music. I didn’t think about pictures in relation to therapeutic or helping work for some years, until I moved from probation practice to the voluntary sector. Pictures were also, and in some ways remain, something of a struggle. Art at school was one of those things that I was not good at and prompted little more reflection. In adulthood, I look at pictures with a sense of struggling to find out what I should be seeing.

It was obvious however that to be someone steeped in words was to be a minority – and so it did occur to me eventually that pictures would be a more accessible communication for many people than were words. I started by using finger paints in training. For me as for many people, pictures were a problem because of a sense of failure at art at school. It must take a special kind of art teacher to remain enthusiastic about teaching the less gifted child, and it was a very common experience for people to shy away from drawing or painting because of this sense of being useless at art. Finger paints were a way around this because it removed much of the anxiety about technical skill or lack of it. Largely I think in a training environment, it gave people the chance to express some emotional truth without having to find words, and in a way that put a bit of distance between the person and their feelings. It may seem odd that this kind of psychological trick works, but for many people it seemed to.

Feelings and emotions often don’t suit the logical nature of sentence construction and syntax – a more apparently incoherent jumble of shape and colour can conjure up a more realistic picture of the confusion that is part of being in distress. It also gives a kind of recognition to the saying that feelings can be “too deep for words”. A different technique Alida and I used on the bereavement course mentioned earlier – and this was a bridge between the visual and the verbal – was the use of cartoons.  Again this freed people up from the need to display technical skills; matchstick men were often used. It did help people describe their feelings through a combination of picture and story.

Stories and Rigour

Stories are of course a difficult concept for a world that wants to know clear evidence, cause and effect. They are at a different end of a spectrum, one end of which reduces complexity to isolate the drivers of and evidence of change. The other end of the spectrum is the story which aims to bring complexity into some sort of order, a narrative, prioritising intelligibility and meaning above clarity over cause and effect. I suppose each of us starts with a bias and have to deal with the problems that arise from that. For me, I chose to study the arts, history; straight lines, cause and effect, they did not really interest me. For others, isolating cause and effect was the fascination and storytelling seemed a sentimentality for those without intellectual rigour. Wherever we start in helping work we have to deal with our weaknesses. I have had to bring the love of the story and its music into a more disciplined environment of evidence. Others will have to give up certainties to engage with a more uncertain and complex reality that makes up people’s lives if they are to develop in the helping professions.

More stories

I also had a fascinating experience of the application of stories when I applied for a post at the Tavistock Institute. Part of the selection process was to look at shadowy pictures and create brief stories from what we thought we saw in those pictures – a sort of adaptation of Rorschach tests. Of course as a candidate, you imagined all sorts of personal intimacies would be given away to the trained psychologists who interpreted our outpourings.

In fact the results were much simpler and the more interesting for it. The first question was to what extent the content of the stories we wrote could be seen as prompted by the reality of what was in the shadowy pictures – e.g. if the drawing contained three figures, did our stories include three people, or if there was an object clearly delineated amongst the shadows, did our stories acknowledge it? It seems that some people’s stories could be so preoccupied with their own inner world, that the connection with the actuality of the drawing would be lost.

I am probably oversimplifying this test process, but I write from memory of 30 years ago! However, there was a second finding from my story telling in the test. I was applying for this job when my twin daughters were about 2 years old. The previous two years had been at that time, the most physically and emotionally demanding time of my life. When the babies were tiny, my wife was hospitalized twice with appendicitis. From the age of 9 or 10 months, the twins would wake up virtually every night – a pattern that continued until they started school. By the time I was applying for this job therefore I was exhausted. To my surprise, in writing my stories, this was the actual revelation – in every story I had written something about sitting down, going to bed, or sleeping. The psychologist who was interpreting my writing, not knowing my personal circumstances, surmised that I was tired, the simplicity of this result making me recognise its truth in a way I had not previously.