Challenging singular views

Indirect challenges, neutral language, and contextualization

Early work in DA from Burck et al. (1998) illustrates communicative practices used by therapists to challenge views presented as singular or superior. Burck et al. conducted a case study involving parents, Brenda and Miles, who presented in family therapy with concerns related to parenting their three children. The parents described themselves as “parenting negatively” (all quoted speech in this section comes from Burck et al., 1998). It can be a delicate matter for therapists to offer alternative views, as they may be heard as implying that clients’ ideas are inadequate or insufficient. One way to augment and diversify perspectives in therapy conversations is to indirectly challenge clients’ views by eliciting alternative meanings from other family members. In response to Brenda’s self-blame in describing herself as a parent (e.g., “I am a failure,” “... a lot of the time I am very cross”), the therapist elicits Miles' perspective on their parenting. Miles undermines the idea that they are fully responsible and deserve blame, which challenges Brenda’s initial description of herself as a “bad” parent. By introducing alternative, even contradictory, points of view into the room, space is opened up for multiple versions of “reality” to co-exist.

Therapists can also use language to acknowledge a client’s version without accepting its negative evaluation. Burck et al. (1998) described how the father, Miles, presented himself as “failing” as a parent due to experiencing “low-grade depression” that interferes with his ability to set boundaries with the children (“... I take the easy option”). The therapist challenges Miles’ negative evaluation of himself as a parent (“... easy option”) using morally neutral language, implying that his parenting approach is different rather than inferior or problematic (“well, it's a different one isn't it”). In so doing, the therapist acknowledges Miles’ version while not aligning with his negative evaluation of his parenting. The therapist then goes on treating Miles’ self-deprecatory/blaming account as problematic by offering a relational framing of the “problem.” He describes Miles’ “(over) easy” approach not as a result of his depression, but of his efforts to compensate for Brenda being “(over)hard” as a parent.

Burck et al. (1998) provide another example of the therapist refusing to join the clients’ individually focused self-deprecating appraisals. The therapist had inferred that Brenda had a history of abuse as a child. When she tells a story that paints herself as crazy or “paranoid,” the therapist contextualizes Brenda’s actions and replaces Brenda’s negative self-evaluation with an alternative that frames her response as “quite reasonable” (the therapist’s words) given the context of her life. By replacing “bad” with “reasonable,” the therapist was able to challenge a dominant self- deprecatory view. In all, this pioneering study of Burck et al. (1998) illustrates three discursive strategies to reframe unhelpful (e.g., blaming, self- deprecatory) dominant views, namely: by indirect challenges (inviting competing views from others), using neutral language, and contextualizing.

Advancing professional knowledge in "resistance-informed" ways

Clients' disagreements

As professionals, therapists are often seen as experts on clients’ psychological or relational concerns and how to remedy them. A shift toward postmodern, collaborative family therapy practice (e.g., Anderson, 1997; McNamee and Gergen, 1992; White and Epston, 1990) raises questions about how therapists can use their professional authority to facilitate change in ways that attend to and give space for clients’ knowledge and agency. Postmodern therapists challenge the notion of an expert therapist and strive to collaborate and co-construct meanings with clients, rather than seek clients’ compliance with professionals’ meanings.

From a discursive (CA) perspective, power and collaboration are understood as constituted and negotiated between parties in therapeutic interactions, rather than as unilateral moves (Boden and Zimmerman, 1991; Roy-Chowdhury, 2003). While therapists may promote ideas, families can “resist” or push back against therapists’ descriptions and meanings. By “resisting” we mean clients disagreeing, questioning, or displaying other (more subtle) ways of not taking up therapists’ offerings. We favour therapy practice that is informed by resistance from clients. Therapists can modify their offerings and work together with clients to co-develop more mutually endorsed descriptions. For example, clients may resist being portrayed as an inferior parent (O'Reilly and Lester, 2016); as responsible for their family’s presenting problems (Patrika and Tseliou, 2016); as competent and resourceful (MacMartin, 2008); or as not abiding by local cultural norms (Sametband and Strong, 2018). Clients sometimes show clear disagreement, such as by replying “No” or “1 disagree.” But because disagreeing can be a sensitive matter (Pomerantz, 1984), particularly given authority or “expertise” culturally attributed to therapists, clients often push back in subtler ways. Collaborative therapists try to work in ways that are “resistance- informed” (de Shazer, 1984). For example, they may pause when observing clients hesitate in their response to them and become curious about the act of hesitating itself. They may recognize these moments and treat them as opportunities for renegotiating meanings. In this way, we have reframed resistance, moving from the more traditional pathologizing of client actions towards valuing and respecting these important client offerings.

Exemplar 3 (taken from MacMartin, 2008) illustrates how clients’ resistance (e.g., disagreement, reluctance to accept ideas, or interest in joining a proposed description or direction) to therapists’ ideas can manifest in interaction. The client talks about an incident when she was able to assert herself with her ex-partner in the relationship in which she has felt controlled and disempowered.

Exemplar 3 (T - therapist, C - client)

01. T: How does it feel tuh (0.3) sort of see а-where you

have been

02. (0.5) “exerting yer influence, an an having control

over (him).0

  • 03. (0.7)
  • 04 . C: Feels good but then I wonder. “why can't I apply it to: : “
  • 05. (0.6) other areas (0.3) with him.

We see an example of a so-called “presuppositional question” (MacMartin, 2008) on lines 1-2. Presuppositional questions advance specific ideas. Rather than presenting their ideas as declarative statements, speakers may embed them within questions. By directly answering presuppositional questions, their recipients implicitly endorse or take up the questioner’s ideas. In Exemplar 3, the therapist asks the question that embeds “optimistic” presuppositions about clients (e.g., their capacities, competencies, qualities). Optimistic questions are used in solution-focused therapy to highlight clients’ resourcefulness and competencies (MacMartin, 2008). The question advances the notion of the client as someone who has more agency and power in her relationship and presents the client’s action as an example of a pattern (have been...). The client affiliates (“Feels good”) with the therapist’s view of her having greater power and agency in her relationship but then produces a disagreeing response (“but then I wonder...)- She downgrades the optimism embedded in the therapist's question by limiting the scope of her influence over her ex-partner (“°why can't I apply it to:: (0.6) other areas (0.3) with him.°”, lines 4-5). In so doing, the client displays that the therapist’s view of her does not fully “fit.” With the more traditional notion of resistance, the client’s response could be considered a “roadblock” to therapeutic progress. From our resistance-informed discursive lens, awareness of this subtle disagreement can be an opportunity for the therapist to further develop the description of the client that would be mutually deemed “adequate.” Again, often clients disagree in subtle ways without producing an overt disagreement. Therapists may benefit from sensitizing themselves to various manifestations of clients’ resistance and how they respond. In this way, discursive research is a useful resource for enhancing therapists’ awareness and reflexivity.

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