As is often the case when faced with someone in distress seeking help, there was much pressure to ‘do something’ and the first task was often to create the space in which it was possible to understand. This is such a fundamental skill that, whilst as I look back at these early years of work I can see the potentially self indulgent nature of an approach in which ‘building an understanding’ took precedence over ‘doing things to make a difference’, I also think there was sense in paying so much attention to it.
There are of course risks to both approaches but it is too often the case that people in distress find themselves given a pill or referred on or indeed told they can’t be helped. In the work with marriages, it was not uncommon for usually a woman, to be told that they could not be helped simply because a letter had been sent to their partner and he had not responded. A wish for reconciliation had been presented; something had been done about it; no-one was helped. Of course, everyone cannot be helped all the time just because they are upset, but if a different approach was taken, it was very often the case that the person presenting the problem knew rather more about what was possible than first may have appeared. It was also the case that some help could be provided because the problem had been reframed away from ‘get my husband to come back to me’ towards ‘can I do anything differently to move the relationship with my husband forward?’
Spending time on ‘understanding’ rather than ‘doing’ was therefore crucial. It was in working to do this that it became clearer that being helpful may not always be a warm nurturing experience, and was often better understood as an ‘argument’. ’Developing good arguments’ could well have been the appropriate title of this whole account rather than ‘becoming useful’ and as an idea it recurs throughout my professional development. Not everyone, for example was patient about spending time as I tried to understand what was being presented! Creating the time for this purpose would sometimes mean having to argue quite strongly with the client, and this argument would then sometimes turn out to be an important diagnostic experience for me as the worker and for the client who would find themselves forced to think differently.