Does my bias look big?

“Does my bias look? An Existential Look in the Rear View Mirror”

Published in ‘The Review’, journal of Resolution the organisation for family lawers. 25th Anniversary special issue [Issue 133], June 2008.

In March, Liz Edwards (The Review issue131) discussed the concern some of you feel about crossing a boundary from being a lawyer into therapy. While acknowledging you are lawyers first and foremost she suggests that, to act authentically as Resolution lawyers, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of your relationship with your client, and their relationships with partner and children.

My training and experience as a psychotherapist has shown me that one of the biggest hurdles to getting to grips with these issues lies in our own bias, our own way of looking at things, which clouds our understanding and makes it difficult to be accurately empathic about what’s going on. It’s not so much a question of how big is my bias but how much of it do I see? Other people can probably see aspects of my bias only too well.

It is nearly two years since I wrote Counselling that supports collaborative law: an existential approach (The Review issue 121) when I discussed divorce as a crisis. This time I intended discussing my sideways view of the collaborative law process, distilled from conversations with clients but, after reviewing the last two editions of The Review, I decided to take a different approach and to address the specific issue of bias.

I am going to draw on how clinical supervision enables psychotherapists to develop awareness of themselves in relation to the client. It is a requirement for continuing accreditation but I would do it anyway because I find it so useful. I am a supervisor as well as supervisee, and find both experiences provide valuable challenge and fresh perspectives – the learning is always mutual. So I offer the following in this vein, to stimulate your thinking about how to be ‘more effective Resolution lawyers’ (to quote Liz again).

Supervision is about helping therapists to re-view and re-engage with their clients in new ways. It is not about solving client problems or telling supervisees what to do. They are assumed to be competent professionals who have dilemmas in their work as we all do. Very often these dilemmas are personal, arising from the being of the supervisee as much as from the client. Even where the client is clearly a ‘difficult’ person the issue for the therapist is personal.

Existential soundbite

We exist in an inter-relational world. There is no I in isolation, no I without You. The quality of relating varies but not the fact of our inter-relatedness. Withdrawal is a form of relating. We make our self differently from the way we interact. Treating the other as object results in separateness and eventually despair. Approaching the other as subject, open to their otherness, moves us towards intimacy and transcendence. What you do to others, you do to yourself because the world and self are connected.

There is no separate, objective therapist (or lawyer). Both participants are subjectively bound up in what is happening. This is why accreditation usually requires the therapist to have had their own therapy, to become aware of their bias. We all are biased. Andrew Baines ( The Review issue 131) alludes to this in saying clients are experiencing their problem in a particular way, not due to fate but due to the position they take in life, which arguably is a choice. Often it is a choice unconsciously made and therapy can reveal and make this conscious.

Bias like your bum, is a fact of life, we cannot be without bias. It is the idiosyncratic lens through which we interpret our world. Bias is contingent and provisional, encapsulating your values, beliefs and aspirations, your inheritance, life experiences and choices. Bias can change as we go along because we constantly have new experiences and insights, but for some people holding firm and not changing is very important, especially at a time of upheaval and uncertainty like divorce.

I have bias about every topic that comes up in therapy – divorce, dependency, work, addiction, sex, commitment, treatment of other people – and so on. My bias is also traceable in my choice of profession as yours probably is too. How did you choose to become a lawyer? Was it to please your parents, annoy your parents, make the world a fairer place, or a tidier place, to put right old childhood grievances, to be secure?

We all have strong ideas about how people ‘should’ live. Perhaps we believe in hard work and are annoyed by clients who want to coast and loaf along? We might wonder ‘why can’t you shape up? try harder? make a decision?’. Beware – our thoughts and feelings are present in the room with our client. Everything I say comes from me, I don’t have a purely objective viewpoint, no one does.

Existential soundbite

Phenomenology is a systematic method to elicit and describe human experience. It says all our theories and concepts of the world are fictions or opinions. Our position affects our perspective, and our perspective affects our research and conclusions. There is no one single truth, we would need to see all perspectives to ‘know’ something definitively but we cannot do this. Working phenomenologically with a client we try to suspend judgement (called bracketing) not to eliminate our prejudice but to recognise and separate it from our observations.

So as therapists we try to become more aware of our bias and how to use it. It can be a source of inspiration and a starting point in understanding the client. Working with a 15 year old threatened with expulsion from school, I can use my own distant memories of being 15 and disaffected to help her explore what she’s expressing in her ‘delinquent’ behaviour. She has a different take on life but my bias can help me formulate and pose a question along the lines of ‘I wonder if….’. If she trusts me she will take it up from there and we can go exploring together. Liz Edwards did this in putting the issues to her client as a hypothesis for consideration.

‘Is there another way to view this…? If you were (child/grandparent) …? It seems to me … is this how it is? How is [your behaviour] getting you where you want to be?’ Such questions are genuine ways of checking out reality with clients and help them grasp alternative perspectives. But first you must have established a good enough relationship where the clients feel respected and secure and able to be open and truthful both with you and with him/herself.

The client/therapist relationship is widely regarded as a key success factor, and research bears this out. No matter how clever our interventions and insights (or knowledge of the law), if the relationship isn’t good enough openness is the first casualty and the client is less likely to benefit from therapy. It seems reasonable to assume something similar applies in collaborative law.

Clients invariably intuit when we disapprove or don’t want to discuss something, and edit themselves accordingly. Perhaps this is when they moan to their therapist about the collaborative law process or their lawyer, but it would have been much better if they could have talked to you about what’s not working for them.

I find it helpful and productive to use the ‘here and now’ in my work. Everything the client tells me is hearsay but what happens between us in the therapy hour is concrete and real, and can be used therapeutically. For example, if I sense something held back or that the client may be angered by something I’ve said, I will reflect this back and ask about it. I might ask ‘If you were annoyed with me could you tell me?’ This can seem risky but I’ve never known it to go badly. It can be a huge relief to the client to know it is OK to express ‘negative’ feelings and it models a more truthful and caring way of relating.

What if I really can’t stand my client, if as happened in The Sopranos I think my client’s values suck? Or I just do not like them very much. Asking about their experience in terms of feelings is likely to evoke tales of loneliness, rejection, despair, hurt, hatred, or fear. We all know what these things feel like – we can empathise with these aspects of our shared humanity.

Existential soundbite

We need others for love, belonging, acceptance, recognition, admiration but we also fear them because they have the power to reject, engulf, exploit, hurt and betray us. They’re dangerous and we can’t live without them. We discover who we are through interacting with others. All alone on earth we wouldn’t know ourselves. If I withdraw I become unreal and empty. And of course ‘we’ are also ‘them’. Others reminder me of myself and of the possibilities or catastrophes that I may encounter.

Existential supervision looks beyond how the client is living her life and asks how the therapist thinks the client should be living it. This can reveal where therapy is stuck. Try asking yourself what you want for your client or what you would really like to say to them. Asking myself this question the answer might be ‘oh grow up!’ I wouldn’t say this of course, but being honest about how I feel reveals my bias and where I may be asking too much of the client and imposing my own values on them.

Sometimes the therapist is not asking enough of either herself or the client. She may be colluding in avoidance of conflict or difficult stuff, trying to make it better for the client where it would be more therapeutic to say ‘This has to be faced’, or ‘Maybe life just doesn’t work that way’. If the issue is something she has struggled with, something that makes her anxious, she’ll want to avoid it. Relationship breakdown is likely to be anxiety provoking for many people, if we let it touch us. None of us can count on our relationships and our current well-being as unassailable.

How do you work out what’s going on between people who aren’t even there? In existential therapy we talk about ‘parallel processes’ meaning that the client makes happen in therapy their way of being with others generally. They probably are ‘difficult’ in similar ways with everyone else, but empathy with their pain is a best first step in understanding their relationship dynamics.

A client’s ‘difficult behaviour’ can be understood as their current solution to the anxieties, fears and inner conflicts that assail them. It puts the problem ‘out there’ and this works for them even if it results in further pain and problems. So to work directly on the behaviour can actually raise their stress levels and make things worse. The client will make the changes they are able to make when they are able to make them. Do you make changes any sooner than this?!

Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, suggested we should try to be objective about ourselves and subjective about others. Oh hard this is!