Volume 21 (2010)
Issue 1


Family therapy takes place in the lived moment. Our theories and training provide sophisticated frameworks for us to work within but in the middle of therapy, responses are fine-grained and immediate. We have, at least in English, somewhat obscure metaphors: flying by the seat of your pants; holding a tiger by the tail; unconscious competence; and the heavily misused ‘instinctive’. Meanwhile Daniel Stern (2004) proposes a new theorising of ‘the present moment’ in which we should  “view human relations and psychotherapy at a micro-level made up of moments that occupy a subjective now  - what we (he) call present moments  ... the smallest chunks of psychological experience that have a clinical sense. (p. 135).

This issue of Human Systems largely concerns different aspects of therapist reactions that have to be immediate, unthinking, and certainly not mediated through language. Rather they are part of the well recognised human capacity for fleeting expressions of reaction to those we are interacting with. Expressions that are often recognised by the participants and therefore provide a substrate for the verbal dialogue.

The sequence of papers could be read from the perspective of a trainee or therapist going through a period of struggle. Moving from a ‘shop window’ introduction to systemic thinking to a training that is about ‘new ways of being in new circumstances’. With the papers providing ‘a context, within which to make sense of a bewildering, vague, or otherwise indeterminate circumstance’. (both quotes are from John Shotter’s paper).

The order of papers has been chosen as a sequence that could be cast as Bronfenbrenner’s nested systems  - we are concerned to get to the smallest of the Russian dolls.

As is often the case, CMM theory of the nesting of contexts also provides a useful structure:


We present first the wider context of understandings that, because they derive from a long cultural history, we may have difficulty in identifying as our prejudices.  Gianfranco Cecchin, Gerry Lane, and Wendel Ray tackle the dilemmas not only of how society can deal with behavior that it cannot contain, but of how therapists can accept that their role must find a balance between caring for the client and being an agent of social control or at last of protecting the wider society. They give a historical context for how mental illness has progressively been conceptualised in ways that meet society’s needs. Though I do not think the paper goes quite as far as Szasz who regarded psychiatry as just an arm of law enforcement.

The clarification of the assumptions and confusions that may shape our interactions with clients who have attracted a psychiatric diagnosis offers a context for considering what the therapist brings to the speech acts of a session. Peter Rober, Jaakko Seikkula and Aarno Laitila provide a conceptual framework combining voice, words/actions, positioning and sequentiality. They use Bateson’s double description arising from the different positions of therapist and client, a concept picked up in the later paper by John Shotter. And illustrate the ideas through a case vignette but using a fine-grained process research technique that can help us ‘notice things in the transcripts that would remain unnoticed if we would not use the lenses our conceptual tools offer us’

Raymond Traube moves us away from reliance on language to the powerful images that we have at all ages of the character of animals and how these instantly work as metaphors for the people in our lives. As in the previous paper, the dialogical elaboration of varied narratives is central to the therapy but here the route to them and understanding of them relies on connecting anthropomorphised images of animals to all members of the family.

Moving further below the level of verbal articulation, John Shotter draws on Batesonian ideas to understand how we achieve an embodied readiness for direct spontaneous relational action. The preparing activities by which we make ourselves ready to respond to the other in the moment and without verbal mediation.

Finally, Rozanne Leppington takes the process even deeper, with ways of responding without readiness in the context of acts that are intended to be aggressive and therefore have a propensity to evoke instant symmetrical responses.  In the context of high conflict situations she uses CMM to help understand the process and Aikido to suggest ways that it can be made more therapeutic.


And now consider the possible implicative influences that CMM theory suggests that every level could have for each of the ‘higher’ levels:

Aikido is an example of the lengthy, careful, consistent training that might be brought to bear to change what could be a prepared and instant response to aggression. Pacifism is a necessary though difficult position for a systemic therapist and Aikido offers a way for therapists to prepare unthinkingly to deal with what may be construed as attacks. Actually therapists at the moment feel under attack not only from clients within sessions including especially litigious ones, but by many higher levels of context including their organisations and the political system. And of course in families we encounter people feeling attacked by each other and by the wider systems they inhabit.

Aikido has been discussed before in the systemic literature.  Scheff (1995) derives four principles for the therapist and while these may have become incorporated in current practice, the broader implications of the philosophy of Aikido have not remained visible. Roz Leppington’s paper may offer a more practical route through integration with a major body of systemic theory, CMM, and practical ways of learning from what Aikido has discovered.

Roz shows, by juxtaposing the work of Cronen and Ueshiba, how the we can create connections from different times and cultures to Shotter’s embodied readiness.  These two papers suggest ways of understanding how what Ray Traube conceptualises as perceived temperaments, are responsive to his ways of changing them. Which he does by making them visible and available for playing with, through non-threatening explorations with the animals that are chosen to represent them.

Characteristically John Shotter tackles a complex issue with strong practical implications. They have relevance for all of life but should help especially by giving ways to find different positions at times of therapeutic impasse. Understanding the processes, in the way John leads us into, equips us to choose to achieve them in other contexts.

The intellect/will distinction that the paper is about connects to the main reason that students (and readers of complex journal articles) may have difficulty incorporating material that, sentence by sentence, they are well able to understand. If you do not know what the material is for, it is difficult to engage with it. John Shotter’s article is a fine example in a beautifully recursive way, being a practical guide to how to orient to material like this article. You may have to read it twice, first to learn how to orient to it, then a second time in order to do the orienting.

Leppington and Shotter also both contribute further conceptual tools, to those suggested by Rober, Seikkula and Laitila, to an account of how the fast and subtle therapist responses can  come about. They also strongly indicate the need to attend, however we can, to these micro-moments. As Stern (2004) says, these ‘moments of meeting’ do not take place in language but we need to find them within language, as the dialogical analysis does, and then express them in language which is the job of a journal. The theory and research method of the paper by Peter Rober and colleagues are also directed to the wider relational context which frames the dialogical construction of narrative..

Returning to the first paper, enlightened by the implicative influence of the other four, Cecchin, Lane and Ray create a very interesting perspective by considering madness as defined by developing concepts of rationality and the progressive valuing of rationality as a basis for society. It goes a long way to put our current well-meaning attempts to deal with eccentricity into a meaningful, but then examinable framework. the paper works towards indicating in practice how this group of authors evolved ways, over their 20 years of discussions, to work respectfully and effectively with people classed as insane by discussing the actions as eccentric and working on whether the person wanted to change the consequences of these eccentric actions.

Perhaps the loop can be completed by connecting the final recommendation by Cecchin et al, “Do not try to change what is considered psychopathology” to the Aikido stance of harmony. It avoids the aggression of trying to change another person and instead joins them in finding a suitable path for them to follow. An approach, in fact, taken by all of the papers in this Issue.


Scheff, T. J. (1995) Self-Defense against Verbal Assault: Shame, Anger, and the Social Bond. Family Process, 34, 271-286.
Stern, D. N. (2004) The Present Moment In Psychotherapy And Everyday Life. Norton.

Peter Stratton

Joint Editor
Showing 6 items
Editorial Peter Stratton 002-006 Editorial english 
Eccentricity And Intolerance: A Systemic Critique Gianfranco Cecchin, Gerry Lane and Wendel A. Ray  007-026 Full text download Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish  
Dialogical Analysis of Storytelling in the Family Therapeutic Encounter  Peter Rober, Jaakko Seikkula & Aarno Laitila 027-049 Full text download Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish  
The Totem : Therapeutic Evaluation of Family Temperaments and Situations Through Totemic Animals  Raymond Traube 050-067 Full text download Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish  
Bateson, Double Description, Calibration, Abduction, And Embodiment: Preparing Ourselves For The Happening Of Change John Shotter,  John Shotter 068-092 Full text download Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish  
Coherence, Coordinated Action and Intentional Acts of Peace: Training case workers to react without thinking Rozanne Leppington 093-129 Full text download Bulgarian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish  
Showing 6 items