The Language of Hope

Well, I made it to the end of Course 1. I felt like we were really diving in, especially with the reading. So. Much. Reading. And writing. Lots of writing. But it was interesting. The two Big Ideas – Living Systems Theory and Appreciative Inquiry were totally new to me. Applying them to a methodology of family support is not only fascinating, but I think ground-breaking as well. Working together, both approaches amplify the life and the life-giving qualities in the family system. It has been interesting to watch my own perspective shift from complaining to appreciating, and from a “What’s wrong with my kid?” mindset to a “Is my child’s developmental needs being met?” mindset. The questions we ask, I have learned, set the course for what we find. 

My biggest take-away from Living Systems Theory is the simple truth that humans are not machines. I know, DUH. But you’d be surprised by how many problem-solving approaches treat human-beings like machines; expecting them to be ‘fixed’ by one-size-fits-all solutions. When we look at families through the lens of a mechanical system, the questions we ask seek to identify problems. We try to find answers to fix the problems. For example, if my kid is doing something that I find bothersome, I ask, “What’s wrong with her?”. 

When we contrast this with a Living Systems approach, the child is not isolated and analyzed in such a way. We recognize that the child – and the child’s bothersome behavior – functions as part of a living system of dynamic relationships. The questions we ask from this approach seek to understand how the system operates. We ask ourselves questions like, “Are developmental needs being met?” “Are supportive relationships established?” “Is the child being appreciated for her uniqueness?” I really like thinking about such questions as the language of hope, versus the language of deficit. 

Viewing parenting as a “living system” frees parents from unrealistic expectations and allows each family to express their own unique identity. When we add Appreciative Inquiry to this view, again the family dynamic shifts to a more enlivening framework. We start to notice and value the things that are working in the family and in each individual.

Any social worker, therapist, doctor, etc. is well versed in the vocabularies of human deficit. As a culture, we are all immersed in the terminology of the mental health profession: narcissism, bi-polar, codependent, type-A, manic-depressive, and the list goes on. What is that doing for the patients? For our society at large? Is there increased acceptance or just increased diagnosis? I don’t know. Just interesting to think about. I like that parent coaching is looking critically at that and asking important questions. Maybe we do need a new language. One that doesn’t simply confirm the problem lives and negative needs of our clients.  

Either way, the questions we ask are critical: “Words do create worlds” – Cooperrider. 

6 thoughts on “The Language of Hope”

  1. so true… we joke as interns that we become doctor-bots because we are so stressed and working such crazy hours that we just create patterns and protocols for everything we see. This can sound horrible… but the interesting thing that I’ve found, is that once I embrace the robotic-ness of it, the actual simplicity that there are really a limited number of things that we can do… once i get comfortable with my robot, I can get past it, see it for it’s utility, and move forward with patient centered care instead of patterned care…

  2. May, do you ever feel like the questions you ask will have immense impact on what is discovered? Are you able to keep your curiosity about a patient’s life or illness aroused once they’ve been diagnosed? Do you make assumptions without checking them against the patient’s actual experience/perception? Obviously in medicine assessments and evaluations are necessary for diagnosis, but measurement has limitations. Do you ever feel like the process of measurement moves you further away from the meaning?

  3. Evolutionarily – our great “advantage” as a species is pattern recognition, and once there, pattern nuance recognition. I don’t think the patterns and “protocols” are bad in and of themselves. I think they serve as foundations. I think it is insight to knowing what our assumptions/patterns in understanding others are, and with that insight, being able to question ourselves and push through those patterns/protocols to recognize the individual nuances that exist with every patient. I think what we learn over and over again in medicine, is not to treat the “numbers” but the patient. Ie: two patients can have masses in their brain – the slow growing one may have no symptoms, the quick growing one may not survive the next few minutes. There are protocols by which to examine them, and how to treat them, but the nuances of how they personally develop and adapt to their own disease is individual. I think my ability to remain curious is maintained by my life balance. On days when I feel unbalanced, I an equally uncurious about patients as I probably am of my own children. (luckily those days are few) Fortunately, i’m surrounded by a community of people who are very curious in their dedication to our patient population. Through maintaining a personal balance of health and emotional energy, I remain curious and interested in pushing boundaries with my patients. We have a “balint” group where we talk about patients who are especially emotion-evoking – i just talked at one about a patient I was scared of. And during these sessions we unburden ourselves of all the emotions the patient makes us feel, discuss it as a group, and it really helps us grow in realizing our own emotions, assumptions, and then pushing our own boundaries. I don’t think the process of measurement takes away from it, as long as we practiced in a balanced way that allows us to take those steps past the measurements.

  4. some rambling thoughts….
    I think that as an educator I get to see patterns in groups of similarly aged children that individual parents don’t see/experience. Parents of the children I work with worry so much… ‘is my kid normal?’… ‘are they behind, how far behind are they?’ ‘how can I catch them up to their peers?’ and because most of these parents don’t spend a bunch of time around a bunch of kids they have this idealized / invented notion of what is ‘normal’… of what is a typically developing ‘normal’… and this can lead to both under and over confidence…. and another thought I had to what you’ve written…. a one-sized fits all approach can actually be effective in providing a foundation for strengthening my students learning systems… and if everyone that walked in our doors did the same four programs it would be very powerful….. but the real art of it all is how we customize each therapy and tweak it for each kid and strive for personal connection and finding out exactly the one thing (often VERY UNIQUE) that motivates / excites kids to push themselves to the next level…. I think it is a balance between macro/micro… As a mathematician I am obsessed with patterns that emerge and cannot ignore them… one concern I have is that some parents might take the approach you’re talking about as an excuse to not create healthy boundaries, structure, appropriate expectations, consequences, etc. I think it can be taken too far and leave some children feeling really confused and lost.

  5. Like Laura, I will ramble!

    It’s always helped me — almost beyond measure — to talk to other parents of children the same age because it so clearly reveals the wide range of “normal.” The question “What’s wrong with me kid?” is often answered with a resounding “Absolutely nothing.”

    I don’t know if previous generations of parents experienced the same pressure regarding the “right” way to do things, but I do know many of us have that notion even though the “right” way to do things varies wildly depending on the source. Would supporting families include helping them make space for their own dynamics? I see families I know struggling to carve out that space beneath the pressures

    My (social worker) Mom once told me that a central tenet of family counseling is helping individuals recognize their familial behavior patterns, some of which have multi-generational roots. That approach seems less about labeling and more about increasing understanding.

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