The value of slow thinking

The problem then is how to use assessment frameworks, not to give the worker the full picture of a client’s problems through which the worker’s superiority can be demonstrated, but to give the client a greater awareness of and control of what they need to do to progress. Actually, there are two issues here – an issue of pace and thinking speed, and an issue about the use of professional tools like assessment frameworks.

Thinking speed was an issue that was captured for me by a comment by Janet Mattinson when she was director of the Institute of Marital Studies. She said that she had always had a considerable advantage in seeking to help people because she was such a slow thinker. This was an eye opening statement to someone like me who had been brought up in quite an academic household and with aspirations for Oxbridge and academic success. I had always assumed that to achieve success I needed to think faster. I had a brilliant history teacher at school who got excellent exam results from his pupils and who in many ways got me to Oxford University, but his technique was to make people think harder and faster. Exams set a premium on quick thinking. And yet it immediately was clear that Janet Mattinson was right. The old man who told me as a student that I would go far in my profession saw that I could think much quicker than he could, and that there was no point in him imagining I would help him. He was going nowhere and I was going far. It is a real problem when a worker can see the client’s problem before (s)he can. Then the worker’s attempts to get the client to see what the worker can see, merely confirms the client in a subordinate, weaker, less adequate position. It is much more productive if the worker can discover truths alongside the client at a shared pace, or if the client makes discoveries that (s)he can share with the worker.

It is fundamental to helping work that the worker’s job is not to discover the client’s problem and then point him/her towards the answers. Rather it is to help the client discover their problem and new ways of responding to it. This is not some kind of soft minded liberalism about helping the poor unfortunate victim of circumstance – it is for example why punishment is not something to be decried but included in the strategies for change. To imagine personal change can work in any other way is sentimentalism.


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