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Harlene Anderson, PhD

How can our practices have relevance for people’s everyday lives in our fast changing world, what is this relevance, and who determines it?

is a persistent question for collaborative practitioners and a question that I think all therapists should be asking. Why?

Because our world is ever-changing – change characterized by social, cultural, political, and economic transformations as well as the influence of the internet and media on the decentralization of information, knowledge, and expertise. A new international spotlight is coincidentally being placed on democracy, social justice, and human rights; the importance of the people’s voice, singular or plural; and the need for collaboration. People increasingly want input into what affects their lives; they have lost faith in rigid institutions and practices in which being treated as numbers and categories ignores their humanity or worse yet, violently violates it. People demand systems and services that are more flexible and respectful. These contemporary global and local shifts, the unavoidable complexities inherent in them, and the effects they have on our individual and communal lives and on our world press therapists to reassess how we understand the world around us, our clients, and our roles as therapists. Collaborative practice is a response that shares common ground with a growing international community of practitioners and clinical scholars including Tom Andersen, Vivien Burr, John Cromby, Kenneth Gergen, Mary Gergen, Lynn Hoffman, Lois Holzman, Imelda McCarthy, Susan McDaniel, Sheila McNamee, Robert Neimeyer, David Nightingale, Peggy Penn, Sallyann Roth, Jaakko Seikkula, John Shotter, Lois Shawver, and Michael White. (I am using the term collaborative practice rather than collaborative therapy because the ideas have applicability across a variety of human systems regardless of the designated system, the number of people in it, or their relationship with each other—this includes systems such as education, research and combinations of people called organizations and communities (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988; Anderson, 1997, 2006).)

Collaborative practice has evolved over time with its roots tracing back to the 1950’s

Multiple Impact Therapy project in Galveston, Texas (MacGregor, Ritchie, Serrano, McDanald & Goolishian, 1964). Its evolution over the years has been continually influenced by the reflexive nature of theory and practice (Anderson, Goolishian, Pulliam&Winderman, 1986; Anderson & Goolishian, 1988, 1992; Anderson, 1997, 2006). Because a large percentage of the Galveston team’s clinical and consultation practice then--and that of the Houston Galveston Institute afterwards--included a large percentage of what are commonly called “treatment failures,” we have continued to seek out how our therapy could become more relevant and effective. This ambition and curiosity has led to lessons learned from over 25 years of inquiry into client’s experiences, and descriptions of the nature of successful and unsuccessful therapy and the advice that clients—the true experts--have had for therapists (Anderson, 1996, 1997; Anderson & Goolishian, 1992).

Assumptions of Collaborative Practice: A Tapestry

“Your attitude towards your life will be different according to which understanding you have.”


Collaborative practice—sometimes referred to as postmodern, dialogical, or conversational therapy--has grown from assumptions in the broader postmodern movement in the social and human sciences, as well as from related assumptions from social construction and dialogue theories (Bahktin, 1981, 1984; Derrida, Edwards, 2005; Gadamer, 1975; Gergen, 1999; Hacking, 1999; Lyotard, 1984; Shotter, 1984, 2005, 2006; Vygotsky, 1986). These assumptions inform the way the therapist conceptualizes and approaches therapy and apply regardless of the designated system or the number of people involved in it. As there is no single definition of postmodern, I refer to the set of abstract assumptions that inform collaborative practice as a “postmodern tapestry.” These assumptions—the threads of tapestry--challenge our inherited traditions of knowledge and language, and provide a contemporary alternative. The central challenge is to reexamine these traditions of knowledge as fundamental and definitive, the top-down nature of knowledge systems, language as descriptive and representational, and the stability of meaning. For the purposes of this chapter I identify six assumptions.

Maintaining skepticism. Postmodernism asserts the importance of holding a critical and questioning attitude about knowledge as somehow fundamental and definitive. This includes knowledge of inherited and established dominant discourses, meta-narratives, universal truths, or rules. We are born, live, and are educated within knowledge traditions that we mostly take for granted. A postmodern perspective suggests that unwittingly buying into and reproducing institutionalized knowledge can lead to forms of practice that risk being out of sync with our contemporary societies and possibly alien to humanity as well. This is not to suggest that we abandon our inherited knowledge or discourses (i.e., psychological theories, a priori criteria), or that these can be discarded for that matter. Any and all knowledge can be useful. Nor is it suggested that postmodernism is a meta-knowledge narrative. The invitation is simply to question any discourse’s claim to truth, including the postmodern discourse itself.

Eluding generalization. The probability that dominant discourses, meta-narratives, and universal truths can be generalized and applied across all peoples, cultures, situations, or problems is suspect. Thinking in terms of ahead-of-time knowledge (i.e., theoretical scripts, predetermined rules) can create categories, types, and classes (i.e., people, problems, solutions) that inhibit our ability to learn about the uniqueness and novelty of each person or group of people. Instead, we might learn about the distinctiveness of others and their lives directly from them and see the familiar or what we take for granted in an unfamiliar or fresh way. We are accustomed to viewing, wittingly or unwittingly, many people and the events of their lives encountered in therapy as familiar rather than exceptional. Familiarity tempts us to fill in the gaps and proceed based on our assumptions about these gaps; this knowing can put us at risk of depersonalizing the client and preventing us from learning about their specialness—limiting our and the client’s possibilities.

Knowledge as an interactive social process. Embedded as it is in culture, history, and language, knowledge is a product of social discourse. The creation of knowledge (i.e., theories, ideas, truths, beliefs, or how to) is an interactive interpretive process in which all parties contribute to its creation, sustainability, and change. Knowledge is not fundamental or definitive; it is not fixed or discovered. Instead, it is fluid and changeable. So, instructive interaction is not possible; knowledge cannot literally be transmitted from the head of one person to another.

Privileging local knowledge. Local knowledge–the knowledge, expertise, truths, values, conventions, narratives, etc.--that is created within a community of persons (i.e., family, classroom, board room) who have first-hand knowledge (i.e. unique meanings and understandings from personal experience) of themselves and their situation is important. Since knowledge is formulated within a community it will have more relevance, be more pragmatic, and be sustainable. Local knowledge, of course, always develops against the background of dominant discourses, meta-narratives, and universal truths and is influenced by these conditions. This cannot be, nor is it suggested that it should be, avoided.

Language as a creative social process. Language in its broadest sense--any means by which we try to communicate, articulate, or express with ourselves and with others--is the medium through which we create knowledge. Language, like knowledge, is viewed as active and creative rather than as static and representational. Words for instance are not meaning-mirrors; they gain meaning as we use them and in the way that we use them. This includes a number of things such as context, why we use them, and how we use them such as our tone, our glances, and our gestures. Language and words are relational. As Bakhtin (1984) suggests, “No utterance in general can be attributed to the speaker exclusively; it is the product of the interaction of the interlocutors, and broadly speaking, the product of the whole complex social situation in which it has occurred” (p. 30). He further suggests that we do not own our words: The word in language is half someone else’s. The word becomes “one’s own only when the speaker populates it with his own intention. . . the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language . . . but it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts (1984, p. 293-4).

Knowledge and language as transforming. Knowledge and language are relational and generative, and therefore intrinsically transforming. Transformation—whether in the form of a shift, modification, difference, movement, clarity, etc.--is inherent in the fluid and creative aspects of knowledge and language. That is, when engaged in the use of language and in the creation of knowledge one is involved in a living activity—dialogue with oneself or another— and cannot remain unchanged. To reiterate, these assumptions do not suggest that postmodernism is an oppositional perspective calling for the abandonment of our inherited knowledge or any discourse, or that these can be discarded for that matter. Nor do these assumptions suggest that postmodernism is a meta-narrative or –perspective since self-critique is essential to postmodernism itself. Nor does postmodern define a school of therapy. It offers a different language or set of assumptions, or as Wittgenstein suggests, a different language game (Amscombe & Amscombe, 2001).

Implications for Clinical Practice

All understanding is dialogical.” Bahktin

The question is “How does this different language or language game influence the way that I think about the goal of therapy and its process, including the client’s role and my role?” First, they inform what I call a philosophical stance: a way of being. And second, particular kinds of relationships and conversations naturally develop from this philosophical stance.

The philosophical stance is the heart and spirit of the collaborative approach: a way of being. It is a posture, an attitude, and a tone that communicates to another the special importance that they hold for me, that they are a unique human being and not a category of people, and that they are recognized, appreciated, and have something to say worthy of hearing. This stance invites and encourages the other to participate on a more equitable basis. It reflects a way of being with people, including ways of thinking with, talking with, acting with, and responding with them. The significant word here is with: a “withness” process of orienting and re-orienting oneself to the other person (Hoffman, 2007; Shotter, 2004, 2005). Hoffman (2007) refers to this kind of relationship “withness” as “one that is as communal and collective as it is intimate, withness that requires us to “… jump, like Alice, into the pool of tears with the other creatures. Withness therapy relationships and conversations become more participatory and mutual and less hierarchical and dualistic.

With this belief connecting, collaborating, and constructing with others become authentic and natural performances, not techniques. I call these performances collaborative relationships and dialogical conversations, and although I address them separately below, they are intrinsically interrelated. The philosophical stance becomes an expression of a value, a belief, and a worldview that does not separate professional from personal. Before elaborating on the philosophical stance, I will briefly discuss collaborative relationship and dialogical conversation.

Collaborative Relationship and Dialogical Conversation

Collaborative relationship refers to the way in which we orient ourselves to be, act, and respond “with” another person so the other joins a therapeutic shared engagement and joint action that I call a shared inquiry (I discuss shared inquiry in the next section). Shotter (1984) suggests that all living beings exist in joint action--in the meeting and interacting with one another in mutually responsive ways. That is, we are relational beings who mutually influence and are mutually influenced by each other. As relational beings our “selves” cannot be separated from the relationship systems which we are, have been, and will be a part of. As well, though we are always speaking an ambiguous and different language than the other, as Bahktin (1981) suggests, our speaking and our language always includes others’ intentions and meanings. Here I want to highlight “respond.” We are always responding: there is no such thing as a “no response” or “lack of response.” There is simply one kind of response which as with any response, the “receiver” interprets and decides whether this action is hearable or visible or not. Our responses to the other are critical to the development and quality of the relationship. They create the framework, the parameter, and the opportunity for the relationship. Collaborative practitioners value partnerships characterized by joint action or social activity in which each member develops a sense of participation, belonging, and co-ownership. The therapist is the catalyst for this partnership and its process. I am talking about the therapist’s response to the client, yet responding is an interactive two-way process.

Dialogical conversation refers to talk in which participants engage “with” each other (out loud) and “with” themselves (silently)—in words, signs, symbols, gestures, etc.—in a mutual or shared inquiry: jointly responding (i.e., commenting, examining, questioning, wondering, reflecting, nodding, gazing, etc.) as they talk about the issues at hand.

Drawing on Bakhtin’s (1984) definition, dialogue is a form of verbal interaction; it is communication between people that takes place in the form of an exchange of utterances. Dialogue, however, is not limited to spoken words; it also includes the silent way (inner talk and physical expressions) in which we talk with ourselves and others. Dialogue involves a process of trying to understand the other person from their perspective not ours. Dialogical understanding is not a search for facts or details but an orientation. It is an (inter)active process not a passive one that requires participation through responding to connect and learn about the other, rather than to pre-know and understand them and their words from a theory. In relation to therapy, dialogue is invited through the process of the therapist’s learning about the other, especially about their uniqueness and noticing the notyet-noticed. Through the process of trying to understand, local understandings develop from within the conversation. Dialogue is an always becoming, never-ending, and immeasurable process. As Bakhtin (1981) said, dialogue is the condition for the emergence of new meaning and other newness. I assume that when people have a space and process for collaborative relationships and dialogic conversations, they begin to talk with themselves, each other, and others in a new way. Through these conversations newness develops and can express itself in an infinite variety of forms such as enhanced self-agency and freeing self-identities, different ways to understand themselves, their life events and the people in their lives as well as new options to respond to the challenges and dilemmas of the circumstances and situations in their lives.

I ask, “How can practitioners invite and facilitate the condition and the metaphorical space for dialogue?” I return to the philosophical stance.

Philosophical Stance

“. . . not to solve what had been seen as a problem, but to develop from our new reactions new socially intelligible ways forward, in which the old problems become irrelevant.”


“Problems are not solved but dissolved in language.” Anderson & Goolishian

The philosophical stance expresses the assumptions of collaborative practice. It has seven distinctive, interrelated, features that are guiding ideas for the therapist; together they inform how the therapist thinks about the relationship and the conversation with the client, and helps create and foster a metaphorical “space” for these. Despite guiding ideas collaborative practice is not replicable, but creatively invented and customized each time a therapist meets a client. In other words, though the stance has common identifiable features, their expression is unique to each therapist, each client, and each human system and to the circumstances and desires of each.

It acts as a philosophy of collaborative practice, a conceptual guide and not a formula.

Mutually Inquiring Partnership

Attracting and engaging another into a collaborative relationship and dialogic conversation entails inviting them through the therapist’s way of being, a way that communicates to the client, as mentioned above, that they and their situation hold a special importance for the therapist, that their views are respected, and that what they have to say is valued without judgment. This begins a partnership relationship and process characterized by a joint activity that I refer to as “shared” or mutual inquiry. It is an in-there-together process in which two or more people (one of whom can be yourself) put their heads together to puzzle over and address something.