Category Archives: Workshops

Online workshop: The Responsiveness Ladder – Mon 10 May 2021

I’m delighted to be part of a the Link Centre‘s ongoing series of CPD workshops organised cooperation with onlinevents. The workshop is being offered on the self-select fee model. Contribute what you can, with a guide price of £20, or, if you can’t afford to contribute, pay nothing at all.

You can book a place at www.eventbrite.co.uk.

The Responsiveness Ladder: A Practical Tool for Handling Communication Failures workshop with Matthew Elton

The workshop introduces the Responsiveness Ladder, a practical tool developed by Matthew to help clients and therapists understand and talk about why well-intentioned offers of support, comfort and practical advice can repeatedly go very wrong. The core idea is that at any time each of us occupy a rung of our responsiveness ladder. If an offer of support is pitched too high, at a rung that is several steps above where we are, then it is likely to fail – it’ll be seen as unhelpful, discounting, or even antagonistic. The image of the ladder and its rungs can help both client and therapist understand why things go wrong and provide ideas for how to do things differently.

The Responsiveness Ladder is a practical way of distinguishing what a person “can” manage, by way of receiving support at a given moment. In the spirit of Transactional Analysis, the Responsiveness Ladder is described in simple language that is intended to empower both client and therapist by providing them with blame-free ways of thinking about how communication can fail and practical ideas about how it can be repaired.

In the workshop participants will:

  • learn about the Responsiveness Ladder and how to use it with clients – the rungs of the ladder are not universal, so part of the fun of using the tool is working with clients to find descriptions / names for their unique ladder
  • learn how the Responsiveness Ladder is similar to but different from some other tools/ideas that help us understand communication failure, e.g. the Drama Triangle, Ego States, passivity and Games
  • look at some worries – raised by both clients and therapists – to the Responsiveness Ladder, most critically that it invites us to (unhelpfully) “Rescue” or “baby” a person instead of encouraging them to “be more adult”
  • touch on connections between the idea of developmental stages and regression and the simpler (but more tailored to the client) idea of rungs on the ladder

The workshop will mix teaching with regular breakouts for participants to explore their reactions to the ideas and also an experiential exercise where participants can have a go and drawing up their own Responsiveness Ladder.

You can book a place at www.eventbrite.co.uk.

Online workshop: Talking It Better – Tue Mar 16, 2021

I’m pleased to be invited back to onlinevents.co.uk to run a workhsop based on some of the ideas in my book Talking It Better. Onlinevents have been running workshops, lectures, and interviews for counsellors and therapists for years. But over the last twelve months or so, they’ve hugely upped their game. There are lots of good resources on their site. And you can join up for a fee and get access to a library of previous broadcasts.

At the moment all their events are being done using the “self-select” fee model:

To support practitioners in this time of extraordinary circumstances we are offering access to this group for a self-select fee.

The self-select fee is a radical inclusion policy to open learning for all colleagues. The guide price for this event is £20.00, however, we appreciate that income varies greatly in different locations and circumstances. Please contribute what you can to help us maintain inclusive professional training.

About the workshop

Clients – as well as therapists – often hope that gaining insight will smooth the path to making significant change. But all too often, even though gaining insight provides some relief, the therapeutic process remains stuck. This workshop will look closely at this type of therapeutic block, offer some ways of explaining it, and provide practical ideas for how to overcome it.

In particular, we will explore an analogy between achieving psychological change and acquiring complex practical skills, such as driving, sight-reading music, or playing tennis. In all these cases we recognize that just knowing the theory – the equivalent of insight – is not enough. To develop skills also requires practice. Usually, we have to attempt to exercise these skills “badly” before we’re able to exercise them “well”. Sometimes, as with tennis, to gain the skill we also need to practice with another person. I will make the case that the analogy has much to offer practitioners and their clients and, further, that therapeutic work can fruitfully borrow lessons from music, sport, and the learning of other complex skills.

In the workshop we will:

  • share experiences of work where the gap between insight and change has arisen in the therapy room
  • look at and discuss some case studies where the practical skill analogy has helped both practitioner and client make sense of and overcome stuckness
  • learn about some specific techniques inspired by this way of thinking about insight, change, and stuckness
  • reflect on some of the potential advantages as well as limitations of this approach.

Online workshop: Being an OK practitioner (TA Cumbria) – Sat Feb 27 2021

sheep in CumbriaI’m going to be running a workshop at the TA Cumbria conference in February 2021. I usually attend this event in person, but this year the conference is going to be all online. I hope that, even though it’s online, the organisers and presenters will be able to find ways to generate a sense of place. In previous years at TA Cumbria, I’ve always appreciated that.

I’m thinking about how I might generate that sense of place just now. Maybe I’ll just end up with some pictures of sheep – but perhaps I can do better than that.

Workshop outline

What qualities does the practitioner need to bring to their work and what qualities do they need to encourage in their clients? This workshop builds on ideas from Transactional Analysis – such as the “I’m OK, You’re OK” position – looking at three key qualities: being welcoming, bringing curiosity and challenge, and the holding of hope. Faced with what the client can bring, the practitioner needs to be active and skilful in order to keep these qualities fully alive. And they also need to find ways to match and mirror where the client is at, not showing more welcome, curiosity, or hope than can be tolerated at any given moment.

Background

In the workshop I will be drawing on some of the material from chapters 4 and 5 of my book Talking It Better. Here’s a brief extract from chapter 4, where I am discussing the challenging of being welcoming of a person, even what it’s hard to hear what they have to say.

Perhaps more critically, the practitioner also needs to be sufficiently skilled and resourced to hear and welcome the toughest of stories. I’m thinking here of stories that might not be aired in many social settings and might not even be aired with those we are closest to: stories of being sexually abused as a child; of being physically attacked; of being sexually assaulted; of being bullied and mistreated – perhaps over many years. There are other kinds of horror too: stories in which a person is stuck, unable to find joy in their life and self-destructively wrecking all promising avenues of help and change; stories of going around the same hellish loop again and again.

Such stories make for uncomfortable hearing. But I need to make sure I am familiar with and able to manage this kind of discomfort. If I am doing my job right, this discomfort will not dominate or over-steer the way I respond to the help-seeker’s story. It will not bounce me into a response that would match a pre-given social template or that primarily serves my need to settle and soothe myself. That is, I can experience the discomfort and still be able to steer myself by what the help-seeker needs.

And, further, if things are going well, I can actually use my own discomfort as a resource. It may carry useful information for both me and the help-seeker.

For the practitioner, part of knowing how to hear such stories is having the space – the room to take a breath and make an active decision rather than just act – to decide what part of their discomfort to share and what to manage on their own.

There’s a lot more about it in the book. And I’m looking forward to exploring these ideas with the workshop participants in, as it were, Cumbria.

Slides

Nice work: how men and women can find their sharp edges (workshop for therapists)

Here are some details of a workshop I presented at TA Cumbria in February 2020. Many thanks to the hugely engaged participants at the workshop. As with some of my other workshops, I like the idea that I might write this up as a stand alone article at some point. In the meantime, though, here are some elements of the workshop.

Outline

When “nice” people struggle they can double down on “niceness” in order to be OK with themselves, others, and the world. But instead of helping, such a policy can lead to depression, anxiety, outbursts of anger, etc. This workshop looks at various ways of working with “nice” people including the use of provocative (and “not nice”) language – such as “swagger”, “edge”, or “forcefulness” – to challenge and disrupt an “excess of niceness”.

We will explored ways in which the meaning of “niceness”, “swagger”, “edge”, “forcefulness”, etc. can be very different for men and for women. Part of this difference is due to cultural stories that swirl around us – both old and new – of what it is to be a good and kind woman or a good and kind man. While many “new” cultural stories aim to empower – we think we are more progressive than our parents’ generation – they can also oppress.

These themes will be explored through examples of therapeutic work with men and women, exercises illustrating techniques for working with “niceness”, and group discussion.

More about the workshop

Picture of Frederic Douglass
I opened the workshop with a quote from Frederick Douglass:

Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men people who want crops without ploughing up the ground.

  • Adapted from Frederick Douglass 1818-1895 – described as an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman.

A key theme for the workshop was what I called the “tyranny of niceness”. “Niceness” here is intended to parallel a strong aversion to “ploughing up the ground”. We can agree that “niceness” has its place. And we can value politeness, respect, kindness, and a strong desire to avoid offending, disturbing, or harming others. And, at the same time, we can recognise that sometimes other values will trump things that are on the “nice” axis.

Ani DiFrancoAnother quote I used as a reference point in the workshop comes from Ani DiFranco:

’cause every tool is a weapon if you hold it right

  • Part of “My IQ” from Puddle Dive (1993). Ani DiFranco is described variously as a “voice of positive social change” and as a singer/songwriter.

This quote  and the idea of thinking about tools/weaposns in a therapeutic context introduced to me by Vikki Reynolds at a workshop in Edinburgh in 2018. (I highly recommend Vikki’s workshops – and you can check out her written work on her website.)

Megan Rapinoe playing footballMy third reference point isn’t a quote but simply an idea: the idea of a “contact sport”.

contact sport is any sport for which significant physical impact force on players, either deliberate or incidental, is allowed or within the rules of the game.

Just like football, I suggested, life is a contact sport. That is to say, significant emotional impact, either deliberate or incidental, is “allowed”. And, like life, I further suggested, “therapy” is a contact sport. That is the “rules” allow for significant emotional forces to be exchanged. There will be emotional contact. There may be emotional bruises. There will certainly be falls and mud on the face. And none of this need be an indication that anything has gone wrong. The tyranny of niceness, however, would not allow such impacts. Or would see such impacts as an indication that something had gone wrong.

To object the tyranny of niceness is not to provide a licence for cruelty. The point of using the phrase “the tyranny of niceness” is to make visible something that can be influential on us but unseen. If unseen – and unexamined – it may have an influence that we would, on reflection, reject or want to modify. Participants at the workshop explored their own attitudes to “niceness” and the extent to which they agreed or disagree with the suggestion that both life and therapy are “contact sports”.

Other ideas explored in the workshop included:

  • Diagram analysing "If you don't want to get hurt, don't play"Different ways of thinking about the statement “If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t play.” Participants were presented with this statement in written form on a slide, i.e. without any particular intonation. I asked them to reflect on how the statement “landed” with them. We then used some tools from transactional analysis to look at some different ways of mapping how it might be intended and how it might land.
  • Two case studies – one of work with a man and another of work with a woman – where the people seeking help were caught up with “excessive niceness” and could not find their edge. I described how I used some language that could be heard as transgressive, such as “swagger”. (There was also some swearing.)
    • In both cases studies the person’s father had been very far from nice. The fathers showed an excess of swagger, of callousness, of selfishness. I speculated alongside these clients that they might be concerned to avoid showing these qualities, concerned of being in any way like their fathers.
    • The idea I explored with the clients is that their “niceness” was an attempt “not be like dad”. I talked about how at times I made what felt like very transgressive statements, such as “What would it be like to channel a bit of your dad sometimes?” Such suggestions were disturbing to both me and the clients. With my clients, and then with the workshop participants, I explored whether we needed to be “edgy” to in order to disturb the tyranny of niceness that seemed to dominate these clients. That is, we wondered whether there was a “nice” way to free them up.
    • Both clients to some degrees “organised” themselves – or some of the feeling, thinking, and behaviour – in response to the example set by their father. Their initial “decision” was to be “not like dad”. I wondered alongside them whether they would prefer to reach a position where it didn’t matter whether some of their conduct was “dad like” or not, so long as it was conduct that they, in the here and now, thought was OK by them. We were exploring whether they could be “edgy” (or “fierce” or “show swagger” or “stand up for themselves” or “put themselves first”) without becoming monsters.
    • A key background idea was that while they were afraid of becoming monsters, they needed to stick to being “nice” at all costs.
  • We talked about non-violent communication and wondered whether as well as being a tool it can sometimes be a weapon.
  • We talked about Jung’s idea of the shadow. Much of the workshop content could be theorised in term of that idea. I don’t always find the shadow metaphor intuitive and don’t always find the theoretical discussion around it easy to follow. But I wanted to acknowledge the connections to what, for me, feel like more familiar and accessible words and ideas.
  • We talked a little bit about gender and various “nice” and “nasty” expressions.
  • We talked about what I call “pokey interventions”. This is where what the therapist says is definitely not “nice”. It’s not “nasty” either. But it gets right into a conflict and does so recognising that there is a risk that it might go awry – it could be powerful, but it could also be hurtful. Such moves are done on the basis that if there is a rupture, it can be repaired. And they are done on the basis that without disturbing the client in some way, we may not be assisting them. “Pokey interventions” need to be used with caution!

Changing styles (a workshop for therapists)

I presented a workshop at the TA Cumbria conference on Saturday 2nd March 2019. The conference theme was attachment. I wanted to talk about the way in which talk about attachment can influence us in various ways. Although I am interested in attachment theory as science and as a source of ideas about how to understand the ways in which people get stuck in their lives, I’m also interested in the way that it offers a set of general (or abstract) categories that can move me and the person seeking help away from the particular. Although such general/abstract categories can be hugely empowering – they can be tools for change – they can also be disempowering – at the extreme, weapons of oppression.

Whether we go with attachment-styles as a theoretical frame or something else – in the workshop I talked about core script beliefs from Transactional Analysis theory – the often more interesting question is how or whether I can change. Can I move from being stuck – in a way described by some theory or another – to being un-stuck? And, by so doing, reach a point where I am probably much more interested in getting on with other things as opposed to, say, describing how things stand with me in terms of a theory from the world of mental health.

Well, the above might not mean all that much if you weren’t at the workshop. And here is a link for the slides and the two handouts, for anyone at the workshop or for anyone curious:

The Responsiveness Ladder (workshop for therapists)

I had a great response to my workshop on what I call the responsiveness ladder at the Scottish Transactional Analysis Association conference on Saturday 18th November 2017.

The idea of the ladder came from thinking about exchanges between people that ought in theory to go well but which actually end up making things worse. Think about a person who is getting anxious because they are running late. Let’s call this person the struggler. And, lucky them, they have a supporter. The supporter says, in a calm and warm voice: “No need to worry about it. Just call them and let them know you’re a few minutes behind.” At this point the struggler has some sort of meltdown, perhaps resulting in exclaiming “you just don’t understand” (or worse) or, on another occasion, turning into a sulk. In the workshop we looked a lots of other cases of exchanges like this, and also at some therapy tools that can be used to understand them, such as the Drama Triangle from Transactional Analysis.

The responsiveness ladder takes a slightly different approach to the Drama Triangle. It suggests that at different times and in different contexts we can managed different levels of sophisticated in our responses. When things are going well – we are well-fed, well-rested and so on – then we can respond with our best rational self. We are, in this case, on the top-rung of our responsiveness ladder. But when things are going badly – we are stressed, we are hungry, we are tired etc. – then we are on a much lower rung. At the lower rungs we are – like much younger versions of ourselves – not equipped to respond in such sophisticated ways.

This is something that we all – many of us anyway – might know intuitively. The ladder is a way of making it explicit. And of emphasising, as I said in the workshop:

never mind what rung you think that person ought to be on, pitch yourself at the rung they actually are on.

If we pitch our support at a rung that is higher than where the struggler currently is, our support will land badly. To be effective, we need to tune into the rung they are at. Does this mean we have to “baby” people? Or that we have to as, as Transactional Analysis might say, “Rescue” people, i.e. offer un-requested help while discounting the struggler’s ability to think and problem-solve for themselves? After all, we know that the struggler is capable of behaving in grown-up ways, so why can’t they just do that? In the workshop I argued that often pitching to the rung they are at is the fastest and most efficient way to respond. And that when you do this, it helps the person quickly climb back up their responsiveness ladder.

Basically, if someone is upset, it’s often best to save all the rational talk until they are feeling a bit calmer or more connected. And it makes sense for a supporter to focus on helping the struggler get calmer and connected before anything else because, well, not only is it kinder, it’s also more efficient and more practical.

Of course, if you are often the supporter of someone who is often on their bottom rung, you might want to do something about that whole setup. And the workshop didn’t contest that. But it did look at how we can be surprised over and over again by something that, once we describe it in terms of the responsiveness ladder is perfectly predictable. Knowing more about what’s going on – or having better ways to describe it – gives us more options for how to move ahead.

From the workshop abstract:

The responsiveness ladder is a tool for clients and therapists seeking to understand why well-intended offers of support, comfort and practical advice can repeatedly go very wrong. When under stress, we drop down the rungs of the responsiveness ladder. Transactions that are pitched at too high a rung are experienced as unhelpful, discounting, and even antagonistic. The image of the ladder and its rungs can help us understand why things go wrong, help us adjust how we pitch our transactions, and help us focus on what a person can manage in the given moment instead of focusing on what they “should” to be able to manage.

I do have slides for the workshop, although they might not make too much sense outwith the presentation. But do get in touch if you’d like to see the slides or ask more about the model. I would like to write up the workshop at some stage, not least to incorporate some of the great ideas participants came up with during the session.. And if I do, I’ll update this page.

Practice & performance – learning new life grooves

I’m facilitating a one day event for the Scottish Association of Transactional Analysis on August 20th 2016. The day will be exploring some ideas that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year to with some of the parallels between achieving (or struggling to achieve) therapeutic change and the challenge of learning complex practical skills, such as mastery of a musical instrument, a sport, or a second language.

My goal for the event is to explore the lessons therapists and their clients can borrow from the learning of complex practical skills, such as performing music, playing sport, or gaining a second language.

In music, sport, and second language learning, we know that acquiring skills takes deliberative practice. In order to establish new grooves, ones that we can rely on even when under pressure, we have to repeat them many times, often slowly, and we have to repeat them right.

Teachers and coaches have much experience of how unhelpful habits can impede a student’s learning and growth. And they know a lot about what it takes to unlearn bad habits and replace them with new and more productive ones. They also have a good understanding of how new learning that feels secure in rehearsal or practice, can collapse in the face of performance pressure.

If these ideas are of interest and you can’t make the event, then I very much hope to be writing some of them up here or elsewhere.

Update (Mon 22nd August 2016)

Slides from the day. Some of these won’t make much sense out of context! I’ve also put up the handout from the “plinth” activity.

Learning New Life Grooves (slides)

Activity #3 – Standing on a Box (handout for “plinth” activity)

 

Re-Writing Life Stories – Narrative Therapy workshop

Workshop at TA Through the Ages Conference, Edinburgh, November 2007

From the handout: “In narrative therapy people are invited to find new ways to tell their story… Through various techniques – such as ‘externalising the problem’ – the person is invited to discover alternative storylines that have been waiting in the shadows. The invitation is not just for different stories, but stories that open-up instead of limiting possibilities for action and for living.”