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.


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!