The Need for a Creative Vision

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 remember being called back to these feelings when some 20 years later on a management conference with my team of senior probation officers I asked them what people had influenced them in becoming managers. I found that most of the group came into management because they were dissatisfied with the quality of management that they had received. Very few had been drawn in to emulate or take further what they had seen in positive models of management.

This I thought then and think now, was a significant problem for them and those that they managed. Just as I think that without some vision of health and value, we would be a problem to those we are trying to help. A colleague of mine once pointed out that we don’t improve people’s lives through the helping professions by doing things to people, but rather by offering something of ourselves. It is a great advantage therefore if what we can offer is some kind of truly creative vision of what people can be.

This idea is vulnerable to romantic sentimentality, but there have been some moving illustrations of it – Billy Elliott in fiction for example.  When I was a new senior manager, I inherited responsibility for a ‘Cultural Centre’ – an arts project funded by the Probation Service, so I had chance to explore this theme again. I will therefore come back to this experience, but whilst I was in the setting out phase of my life, the combination of a search for creativity and a profession that tackles the destructiveness of human kind was a compelling conjunction.


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 .

Winnicott’s account of the transitional object opened up for me an idea about creativity – located in the formulation of a space between the inner instinctual world and external reality. Artistic expression located only in the inner world is chaotic and disturbing, or drab, unable to communicate any kind of coherence that someone else could understand. If located only in the external world, a painting would become a diagram. I was again struck by the possibility of creativity as I set out, largely it seemed to me, because I lacked creativity. ‘Thorough but dull’ was my history teacher’s comment on one piece of work, and I always suspected he was right. From where then I wondered did creativity come? Hence Winnicott’s transitional object struck a chord.

This is perhaps the reason why my dissertation during social work training was entitled ‘A life of ease is a difficult pursuit’, and tried to explore in a post adolescent way, some feelings about creativity. I imagined I think that I faced a particularly male problem with this or at least a problem for a young man who never had much interest in practical ‘construction’. What I wondered was the nearest equivalent for men to child bearing? Could it be art, composition of music, writing etc.? Not that my dissertation could be allowed to be so rawly personal – it needed to address lives of people with whom I might be working as a probation officer.

I came across a book, rather of its age, which was about young delinquent gangs (‘The Paint House’ I believe it was called) and it made me think about what creativity might mean to less privileged people whose life options were decidedly limited. In a sense I think the question was, faced with the destructiveness of crime, mental disorder, poverty etc., what vision of health did I have? Health and creativity had to be part of each other.



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 .

The second concept was being explored by my tutor, Bill Jordan in a few books[1] where he concentrated on the inter action between offender and probation officer. Actually, the term he used was not ‘interaction’ or ‘relationship’, but ‘transaction’. I really liked this word. Transaction turned the client into more than a recipient of a service – he or she had their own agenda that was negotiating with the worker’s agenda. This is often a powerful and unspoken tussle, or sadly a tussle that is interpreted and articulated from the point of view of a worker who has certainty on their side. The client’s argument all too often becomes a ‘motivational problem’, or a defensive strategy designed to thwart or evade the well meaning intervention of the professional.

Bill had a much more respectful view of people in trouble – he saw them as people with their own legitimate and distinctive view of the world which needed respect and attention, even if it was a view that was leading them into destructive situations and behaviours. What the helper must do is to find out ‘what the deal is’, to see how the client is using and interpreting the worker, to work out what the transaction is. This would lead not to the worker observing, interpreting and explaining how the world is, but to the worker being in part taken over by the world that the client inhabits, to experience it, not just observe it. This has rarely been a popular way to look at the interaction with offenders. To some it seems indulgent, soft and collusive with people who need punishment if they are to reform.  Actually, since like it or not, the worker is taken over by the client’s world and turned, for the client, into someone they can understand on their own terms, the worker can only either pretend to remain detached and untouched, or face up to the facts of what is going on.

[1] ‘The Social Worker in Family Situations’ (1972), and ‘Client – worker transactions’ (1970) RKP

Becoming Clear 3

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 .

The integration of intellectual clarity and emotional subjectivity has been tackled in another way by the use of ‘competencies’. This was an intellectually attractive attempt to respond to the obvious problem that ‘knowing things’ does not make a person an effective worker with people. It was attractive in that it seemed to offer a way of bringing the messy subjective personal world into the world of ‘clarity’, of explicit intellectual categories. Interestingly, the movement towards defining competences has attracted some hostility and even dismissive contempt. More commonly, lip service was paid, but competence frameworks were unused, or for all their laboured attention to clarity of meaning, remained mystifying and tied to their own special language.

Competences do pose a problem – why is the idea so obviously attractive but the reality of their use so limited and unsatisfactory? They cause unease because I think they seem to drain the uniqueness out of the personal, which is seen in so many contexts as prejudicial subjectivity but which is really core to our sense of security about ourselves in the world. Rather oddly, in this respect they share a quality with psychoanalysis – the quality that attracts hostility and scorn. Whilst Freud seemed to threaten a sense of secure identity by adducing a disturbing and shocking unconscious, competences threaten that identity by reducing the personal to sets of words that divide it up into universally shared components.

Both competences and psychodynamics deserve more attention in the exploration, but I do not wish to divert the reader in this introduction into playing with these ideas . I started with poetry, a rhythm and music and this is what I want to be added to knowledge, intellectual categories, ideas, competences as I explore what it is to be effective in working with people in trouble.

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’.