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Healing Elements of Therapeutic Conversation: Dialogue as an Embodiment of Love

Abstract

From our Bakhtinian perspective, understanding requires an active process of talking and listening. Dialogue is a precondition for positive change in any form of therapy. Using the perspectives of dialogism and neurobiological development, we analyze the basic elements of dialogue, seeking to understand why dialogue becomes a healing experience in a network meeting. From the perspective of therapist as dialogical partner, we examine actions that support dialogue in conversation, shared emotional experience, creation of community, and creation of new shared language. We describe how feelings of love, manifesting powerful mutual emotional attunement in the conversation, signal moments of therapeutic change.
Healing Elements of Therapeutic Conversation:
Dialogue as an Embodiment of Love
JAAKKO SEIKKUL A, PH.D.w
DAVID T RIMBLE, PH.D. z
From our Bakhtinian perspective, understanding requires an active process of
talking and listening. Dialogue is a precondition for positive change in any form of
therapy. Using the perspectives of dialogism and neurobiological development, we
analyze the basic elements of dialogue, seeking to understand why dialogue becomes a
healing experience in a network meeting. From the perspective of therapist as dialogical
partner, we examine actions that support dialogue in conversation, shared emotional
experience, creation of community, and creation of new shared language. We describe
how feelings of love, manifesting powerful mutual emotional attunement in the con-
versation, signal moments of therapeutic change.
Keywords: Dialogue; Healing; Networks
Fam Proc 44:461–475, 2005
This article seeks to identify the actions in dialogue that facilitate healing and to
explain how they work. A variety of dialogical approaches to family therapy now
exist (e.g., Andersen, 1991; Anderson & Goolishian, 1988; Fishbane, 1998; Inger &
Inger, 1994; Pare
´& Lysack, 2004; Penn & Frankfurt, 1994; Tschudi & Reichelt, 2004).
The first author helped develop the Open Dialogue approach (Seikkula et al., 1995;
Seikkula & Olson, 2003) in Western Lapland, Finland, as an approach to treating
psychosis, schizophrenia, and other severe psychiatric crises.
In the Open Dialogue approach, when a person or family in distress seeks help from
the mental health system, a team of colleagues are mobilized to meet with the family
and concerned members of the family’s network as promptly as possible within 24
hours, usually at the family’s chosen familiar location. The team remains assigned to
the case throughout the treatment process, whether it lasts for months or for years.
No conversations or decisions about the case are conducted outside the presence of the
network. Evaluation of the current problem, treatment planning, and decisions are all
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461
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jaakko Seikkula, Department of
Psychology, 40014 University of Jyva
¨skyla
¨, Finland. E-mail: seikkula@psyka.jyu.
wSenior Assistant, Department of Psychology, University of Jyva
¨skyla¨, Finland, and Professor II, Institute
of Community Medicine, University of Tromso, Norway.
zClinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology, Boston University
School of Medicine, Boston, MA.
made in open meetings that include the patient, his or her social relations, and all
relevant authorities. Specific services (e.g., individual psychotherapy, vocational
rehabilitation, psychopharmacology, and so on) may be integrated into treatment over
the course of time, but the core of the treatment process is the ongoing conversation in
treatment meetings among members of the team and network.
In their acute distress, network members often appear stuck in desperate, rigid,
constricted ways of understanding and communicating about the problems that ab-
sorb them. In treatment meetings, team members solicit contributions from every
network member, especially the acutely psychotic patient. Everyone’s utterances are
listened to carefully and responded to respectfully. Team members support the ex-
pression of emotion. They respond transparently and authentically as whole persons.
Transparent about being moved by the feelings of network members, the team
members’ challenge is to tolerate the intense emotional states induced in the meeting.
Their conversations among themselves in the presence of the network serve the
function of a reflecting team, expanding the network members’ possibilities for
making sense of their experiences. Particularly in the beginning phase of treatment,
decisions are deferred in favor of expanding and extending the conversation, enabling
the system to tolerate ambiguity in the context of extreme stress. This makes it
possible to entertain new ideas for addressing the troubled situation.
At the beginning, team members are careful to incorporate the familiar language of
the network members into their own utterances. As team members respectfully and
attentively draw out the words and feelings of each network member, the conversation
shifts. As the original network incorporates the team into its membership, new
meanings emerge when new shared language starts to emerge between the team and
members of the social network. The drama of the process lies not in some brilliant
intervention by the professional, but in the emotional exchange among network
members, including the professionals, who together construct or restore a caring
personal community.
The meetings are organized with as little preplanning as possible. One or more team
members lead the meeting. With everyone sitting together in the same room, in the
beginning, the professional helpers share the information that they may have about the
problem. The leader then offers an open-ended question asking who would like to talk
and what would be best to talk about. The form of the questions is not preplanned; on
the contrary, through careful attunement to each speaker, the leader generates each
next question from the previous answer (e.g., by repeating the answer word for word
before asking the question or by incorporating into the language of the next question
the language of the previous answer). It is critically important for the process to proceed
slowly in order to provide for the rhythm and style of each participant’s speech and to
assure that each person has a place created in which he or she is invited and supported
to have his or her say. As many voices as possible are incorporated into the discussion of
each theme as it emerges. Professionals may propose reflective conversation within the
team whenever they deem it adequate. After each reflective sequence, network mem-
bers are invited to comment on what they heard. When the leader proposes to close the
meeting, the participants are encouraged to say if there is something they want to add.
Each meeting concludes with the leader or leaders summarizing what has been dis-
cussed and what decisions have been or should be made.
Several outcome studies (Seikkula, Alakare, & Aaltonen, 2001; Seikkula et al.,
2003; Seikkula et al., in press) have demonstrated the utility and effectiveness of the
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Open Dialogue approach, especially in psychotic crisis. The Open Dialogue approach is
distinguished by its integration of two key elements, the organization of the treatment
system and the dialogic process of the meetings. A team of professionals responds
immediately to the client and social network, and continues their involvement for as
long as needed. This article focuses on the process of the Open Dialogue meeting itself,
with its emphasis on supporting ‘‘polyphonic’’ engagement between the voices of
client, network, and team.
CASE ILLUSTRATION: FROM FLASHBACKS TO LOVE
This single meeting, to which the first author had been invited to consult about a
‘‘stuck’’ treatment system, embodies much of what we seek to explore in the dialogical
treatment process. The network meeting was organized for Ingrid, a resident in a
sheltered psychiatric residence. Her difficulties had emerged 9 years ago in reaction to
an assault that she and her boyfriend had suffered on the street when three men,
friends of Ingrid’s brother, had tried to rob Ingrid’s boyfriend. Ingrid had been injured
when she tried to defend her boyfriend. She began to experience flashbacks of the
assault and sought psychiatric treatment. Quite soon after the assault, she discon-
nected from both father and mother, who had earlier divorced. Nothing seemed to
help. The flashbacks, in the form of painful nightly dreams, came to invalidate her
entire life. Ingrid was a pleasant woman, and everyone eagerly wanted to help her.
Two contact nurses were responsible for her treatment and rehabilitation, working in
collaboration with other social and health-care professionals.
Early in her career as psychiatric patient, Ingrid’s treatment team had tried to
organize family meetings, which turned out to be unsuccessful because of the strong
emotions involved. After many years of treatment, the team arranged a network
meeting to plan for Ingrid’s treatment and future. The meeting, led by the first author
as consultant, included Ingrid, her current boyfriend (not the one assaulted), her
mother and father, her social worker, the two contact nurses, and her doctor. Al-
though invited to the meeting, her brother did not appear.
The consultant asked the team members about their ideas for the meeting. They
said that they wanted to reconnect the family relationships and discuss the future.
The consultant offered open-ended questions to Ingrid and her family, wondering how
they wanted to use the meeting time. Ingrid said that she was very tense and wanted
to hear from her parents. They in turn said that they wanted to hear about Ingrid’s
current life. Her boyfriend accused Ingrid’s parents of failing to support her reha-
bilitation by not being in any contact with her. The meeting was tense; Ingrid and her
parents avoided looking directly at each other. Ingrid’s mother began to talk about the
assault, coming to tears as she spoke of feeling guilt about the event. She said that
when she spoke with Ingrid’s brother, he blamed Ingrid’s boyfriend for what had
happened. The consultant moved carefully to ensure that everyone had opportunity to
express his or her concerns, aiming to move neither toward conclusions nor toward
treatment planning decisions. One of the contact nurses burst into tears as she de-
scribed her difficulties trying to help Ingrid without any remarkable success. The
mood of the meeting became progressively sadder. Ingrid’s mother spoke of pining for
the daughter she had loved so much when she was a child.
At that moment, after a short period of silence, the consultant asked the family
members to allow the professionals to speak with each other while the family listened. In
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the ensuing reflective dialogue, the professionals expressed their surprise at seeing how
caring and loving the family members were with each other after so many years with no
contact. Agreeing with them, the consultant emphasized how difficult it must have been
for everyone in the family these last 9 years, knowing of each other’s existence but
finding it impossible to express to each other how much they wanted to be in touch. The
consultant also commented on the strong involvement of the treatment team.
After the reflective dialogue, the consultant asked the family members if they
wanted to comment on what they had heard. Ingrid’s mother had been listening to the
team’s conversation in tears. Her father spoke of being moved by the dialogue and was
especially touched by their affirmation of the family despite his own feeling that he
had not done enough to reconnect. Ingrid’s mother said that she loved her daughter
very much. From my (JS) perspective as the consultant, I had been tracking verbal
and gestural signs of emotional expression throughout the meeting, my own feelings
resonating to the feelings in the room. I was moved by Ingrid’s mother’s expression of
love and by the signs that the others in the room were deeply touched by her words.
Ingrid and her mother took each other’s hand. I proposed that we close the meeting if
no one had anything else to add. All agreed.
As we prepared to close, I asked how the meeting had been for everyone. Many had
experienced the meeting positively. Ingrid’s mother said that she liked it. She had
been so afraid of the meeting that she had not been able to sleep the night before,
and she had been extremely tense at the beginning. She said to me, ‘‘You made this so
easy, because you were so usual, not at all likeaprofessor.’Onlythesocialworkerhad
negative comments. She was dissatisfied that such strong emotions had been aroused
with no concrete decisions being made for how to go on.
In a follow-up 1 year later, Ingrid remembered the meeting well. She said that it
was one of the most powerful experiences of her life. She did not have a single
flashback for 4 months following the meeting. Although the dreams of the assault
occasionally recurred thereafter, she had managed to start vocational school with
team support. She was no longer in a relationship with her boyfriend but was in
contact with her mother and had visited with her father and his new family. She had
met with her brother on one of her visits with her mother. They had had a couple of
family meetings with the team as well.
MAKING SENSE OF THE DIALOGICAL PROCESS OF HEALING
The development of the Open Dialogue approach involved recursive processes
among action, observation, research, description, and theory. Practical clinical dis-
coveries, together with the research information, led us to explore theoretical per-
spectives, which in turn led to changes and refinements of practice, which led us to
further search for theory to describe our observations of the effects of these changes
and refinements. The dialogue between the Finnish first author and the second author
from the United States added further layers to the recursive process. In what follows,
we abstract from this complex enterprise the theory that has informed our practice
and our observations of the actions that we believe to have been helpful for the net-
works with whom we have worked. We share our particular perspective on dialogue
and explore how dialogic theory can be enriched by ideas from developmental psy-
chology and neurobiology. We use our theoretical lenses to examine the activities that
appear to be factors in healing: creation of new, shared language from multivoiced
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conversation, shared emotional experience, and creation of community, all of which,
we believe, are supported by powerful mutual emotional attunement, an experience
that most people would recognize as feelings of love.
Dialogue as a Condition for Understanding
The ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin (1975, 1984) and Valentin Volos
ˇinov (1929/1973) have
influenced the Open Dialogue process from its beginnings. Bakhtin understood dia-
logue as the condition for the emergence of ideas. It is in the particularities of ex-
changes between persons in the moment that meaning develops, not within either
party’s head, but rather, in the interpersonal space between them. ‘‘Borrowing’’
words already richly endowed with the meanings that they carry from their history of
prior usage, participants in dialogue craft meanings for those words unique to the
particular occasion of their use. An utterance derives its meaning as much from the
listener as the speaker; for words to have meaning, they require response. This de-
pendence on response for meaning contributes to what Bakhtin calls the ‘‘unfinaliz-
ability’’ of dialogue (Holquist, 1981). Meaning is constantly generated and
transformed by the intrinsically unpredictable process of response, response to re-
sponse, followed by further response, in a process that may be interrupted but can
never be concluded. The more voices incorporated into a ‘‘polyphonic’’ (Bakhtin, 1984)
dialogue, the richer the possibilities for emergent understanding. Thus, team mem-
bers strive to draw out the voices of every participant in the room. For each theme
under discussion, every individual responds to a multiplicity of voices, internally and
in relation to others in the room. All these voices are in dialogue with each other.
Thus, the aim is not to find one description or explanation. Dialogue is a mutual act,
and focusing on dialogue as a form of psychotherapy changes the position of the
therapists, who act no longer as interventionists but as participants in a mutual
process of uttering and responding. Instead of seeing family or individuals as objects,
they become part of subject-subject relations (Bakhtin, 1984).
One way to understand dialogue is to distinguish it from monologue. Bra
˚ten (1988)
described monologue as seeing the other as passive. Interpersonally, monologue in-
volves silencing the other by domination or by control of the available means of ex-
planation. Intrapsychically, monologue restricts one’s internal representation of the
other (Bra
˚ten’s [1992] ‘‘Virtual Other’’) to the position of echoing and ratifying
the inner voice of the self. The verbal exchange between a patient and a physician to
rule out a heart attack is an example of interpersonal monologic discourse. The
physician is guided in her questioning of the patient by a well-established internal
mapofthepatternofsymptomsofaheartattackandaclearsetofinstructionsfor
action if the diagnosis is confirmed. The patient’s responses to the physician are under
the control of this monologic discourse. In situations of trauma, discourse tends to-
ward monologue among members of a network affected by the extreme situation. At
times, dominant members of the network may impose their single-minded view of the
situation onto the others. More often, several competing views struggle to dominate
the situation. Although some individual dialogical utterances may emerge, these do
not become the main form of conversation. No one is truly responding or listening to
the others because each clings doggedly to his or her own understanding. The con-
versation persists primarily in the monologic domain, which in such situations is
maladaptive because the network members’ understandings of the situation have
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failed to resolve the situation, and no new ideas can emerge if everyone is stuck in
monologic mode. Distressed network members are caught in a dilemma: To find their
way out of their situation, they must shift into dialogue, but dialogue by its nature is
unpredictable and therefore particularly threatening for people struggling with
trauma (Kamya & Trimble, 2002). Thus, in the case illustration, both Ingrid and her
mother said how afraid they had been before the meeting.
Dialogism shares with other constructivist and social constructionist approaches to
therapy the idea that meaning is generated from relational activity. We share the
perspective of those postmodern thinkers (e.g., Lannamann, 1998; Pakman, 1995;
Shotter & Lannamann, 2002) who emphasize that this relational activity occurs among
‘‘embodied’’ persons, those who are both shaped and constrained by the particularities
of their physical bodies and contextual influences (e.g., class, race, gender, culture,
geography, history). Physical and contextual embodiment affords both possibilities and
limits for the collaborative construction of meaning. Dialogue occurs in the concrete,
often mundane, particularities of human experience, in what Bakhtin (1984) called the
‘‘once-occurring event of being.’’ Thus, as team members solicit the voices of all the
participants in the meeting, they are constantly focused on what is taking place in the
moment. Without attunement to the immediacy of the moment, the dialogical process
can be inhibited. Haarakangas (1997) described a family therapy training situation in
which each time the supervisors introduced proposals for new themes for the conver-
sation from behind the one-way mirror, they interrupted tiny germs of dialogue. From
the position of neutral observer not sitting in the same room, it is very difficult to un-
derstand the comprehensive, embodied shared experience in which therapist and family
members are sitting together. Without this experience, words used and heard easily
become merely rational description. In a study (Seikkula, 2002), we found that in the
first meeting with a severely psychotic patient, if we did not respond immediately to the
patient’s psychotic utterances or to first tiny signs of the patient’s reflection, the pos-
sibility for dialogue might be lost, leading to poor treatment outcome.
From Bakhtin’s (1975) perspective, ‘‘for the word (and consequently for a human
being) there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response’’ (p. 127). Respecting the
dialogical principle that every utterance calls for a response in order to have meaning,
team members strive to answer what is said. Answering does not mean giving an
explanation or interpretation, but rather, demonstrating in one’s response that one
has noticed what has been said, and when possible, opening a new point of view on
what has been said. This is not a forced interruption of every utterance to give a re-
sponse, but an adaptation of one’s answering words to the emerging natural rhythm of
the conversation. Team members respond as fully embodied persons with genuine
interest in what each person in the room has to say, avoiding any suggestion that
someone may have said something wrong. As the process enables network members to
find their voices, they also become respondents to themselves. For a speaker, hearing
her own words after receiving the comments that answer them enables her to un-
derstand more what she has said. Using the everyday language with which clients are
familiar, team members’ questions facilitate the telling of stories that incorporate the
mundane details and the difficult emotions of the events being recounted. By asking
for other network members’ comments on what has been said, team members help
create a multivoiced picture of the event.
In reflective dialogue, carefully directing their comments and their gazes toward
each other rather than toward the network members, and commenting to each other
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about their observations, team members construct new words in a very concrete
fashion. It is as important for team members to engage each other in dialogue about
eachotherscommentsasitistomakethecommentsthemselves.Theteamdialogue
affords the network members a more colorful picture of their own situation, and
everyone is afforded more possibilities for understanding what is going on.
Although the content of the conversation is of primary importance for the network
members, the primary focus for the team members is the way that the content is
talked about. More important than any methodological rule is to be present in the
moment, adapting their actions to what is taking place at every turn in the dialogue.
Every treatment meeting is unique; all the issues addressed in prior meetings gain
new meanings in the present moment. They include what we may remember from the
earlier dialogues but also include something completely new, experienced for the first
time. The team members’ task is to open up a space for these new, not previously
spoken meanings (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988).
Team members avoid speaking too rapidly or moving toward conclusions. Toler-
ating a situation in which no ready-made responses or treatment plans are made
available enables network members to make use of their own natural psychological
resources. As multiple voices join in the sharing of the situation, new possibilities
emerge. These possibilities seldom emerge as a single unambiguous response to the
question of how to go on. Different network members live in very different, even
contradictory, situations, and thus have very different ideas of the problem. Consider
a crisis surrounding a mother, father, and son, in which the son, suspected of drug
abuse, becomes nearly psychotic. The father may be concerned primarily about the
family’s reputation among his coworkers and the mother about her son’s health, and
the young man may protest angrily that he does not need any treatment and that his
parents are crazy and should seek treatment for themselves.
THE SHARED EXPERIENCE OF EMOTION
Committed to responding as fully embodied persons, team members are acutely
aware of their own emotions resonating with expressions of emotion in the room.
Responding to odd or frightening psychotic speech in the same manner as any other
comment offers a ‘‘normalizing discourse,’’ making distressing psychotic utterances
intelligible as understandable reactions to an extreme life situation in which the pa-
tient and her nearest are living. Understanding does not imply dismissal or minimi-
zation of the difficulties experienced; the team member’s response resonates with the
degree of distress and difficulty uttered. Indeed, sometimes team members offer en-
hanced opportunity for network members to express feelings of hopelessness. This
contrasts with a solution-oriented approach in which the therapist tries to find more
positive words to construct experience. In the case illustration, it was important that
the emotions of the family members connected to the ‘‘not-yet-spoken’’ experi-
enceFIngrid’s assaultFwere expressed openly in the meetings in the presence of the
most important people in Ingrid’s life.
By making it clear that the team will remain involved with the network throughout
the treatment, by assuring that all treatment decisions are jointly discussed and de-
cided, by exploring intensely emotional themes in a calm, engaged manner, and by
consistently seeking contributions from all the participants, team members provide
reassuring predictability about the intervention process. Network members learn that
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they can rely on the professionals to help them remain engaged in conversations about
difficult and distressing matters that had not been successfully contained in conver-
sation before.
From its beginning, the practice of network therapy has recognized the importance
of shared emotional experience for healing (Seikkula et al., 1995; Speck & Attneave,
1973; Van der Velden, Halevy-Martini, Ruhf, & Schoenfeld, 1984). The crisis that
moves network members to seek help and conflicts between network members each
contribute to the powerful emotional ‘‘loading’’ of a meeting. Responding as whole
persons, team members’ embodied selves manifest that they are moved by the emo-
tions in the room. Their calm, respectful conversational moves are paced to allow full
experience and expression of feelings in the meeting. If team members try to move the
conversation forward too quickly at such moments, there is a risk that it will take
place solely at a rational level. The most difficult and traumatic memories are stored in
nonverbal bodily memory (Van der Kolk, 1996). Creating words for these emotions is a
fundamentally important activity. For the words to be found, the feelings have to be
endured. Employing the power of human relationships to hold powerful emotions,
network members are encouraged to sustain intense painful emotions of sadness,
helplessness, and hopelessness. A dialogical process is a necessary condition for
making this possible. To support dialogical process, team members attend to how
feelings are expressed by the many voices of the body: tears in the eye, constriction in
the throat, changes in posture, and facial expression. Team members are sensitive to
how the body may be so emotionally strained while speaking of extremely difficult
issues as to inhibit speaking further, and they respond compassionately to draw forth
words at such moments. The experiences that had been stored in the body’s memory
as symptoms are ‘‘vaporized’’ into words.
It has been our experience that the heavier the experiences and emotions lived
through together in the meeting, the more favorable the outcome seems to be. Before
the meeting, network members may have been struggling with unbearably painful
situations and have had difficulty talking with each other about their problems. Thus,
they have estranged themselves from each other when they most need each other’s
support. In the meeting, network members find it possible to live through the severity
and hopelessness of the crisis even as they feel their solidarity as family and intimate
personal community. These two powerful and distinct emotional currents run through
the meeting, amplifying each other recursively. Painful emotions stimulate strong
feelings of sharing and belonging together. These feelings of solidarity in turn make it
possible to go more deeply into painful feelings, thus engendering stronger feelings of
solidarity, and so on. Indeed, it appears that the shift out of rigid and constricted
monological discourse into dialogue occurs as if by itself when painful emotions are
not treated as dangerous, but instead allowed to flow freely in the room (Trimble,
2000; Tschudi & Reichelt, 2004).
It is important to remember that all the members of the network are struggling
with the emotionally loaded incidents and experiences that constitute the crisis, albeit
from different positions. Network members may have acted to bring on the crisis, lived
through the effects of the crisis, or both. The hallucinations of a patient having psy-
chotic problems may incorporate traumatic events in metaphoric form. Although the
symptoms’ allusion to the traumatic events may thereby be inaccessible to network
members, they themselves may have been affected by those same events, and their
own embodied emotional reactions are stimulated. The emotional loading from these
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collective interactions and amplifications of emotional states make the network
meeting very different from a dialogue between two individuals. The loading seldom
manifests as a huge explosion or catharsis. It emerges most often as small surprises
that open up new directions for dialogue. By its nature, the emotional exchange occurs
intheimmediatemoment,andtheexperience cannot be moved as such to another
time or place. The outcome of the meeting is experienced more in the embodied
comprehensive experiences of the participants than in any explanations offered for
problems or decisions made at the end of the meeting. This may be unusual for pro-
fessionals used to working in a more structured way. This could have been one factor
behind the social worker’s negative comment after Ingrid’s meeting, when she asked
for more concrete decisions to be made.
Observing and reflecting on his experience participating in scores of network
meetings, the first author began to recognize an emotional process that, when it
emerged in a treatment meeting, signaled a shift out of monologic into dialogic dis-
course and predicted that the meeting would be helpful and productive. Participants’
language and bodily gestures would begin to express strong emotions that, in the
everyday language used in meetings, could best be described as an experience of love.
As in the meeting with Ingrid and her social network, this was not romantic, but
rather another kind of loving feeling found in familiesFabsorbing mutual feelings of
affection, empathy, concern, nurturance, safety, security, and deep emotional con-
nection. Once the feelings became widely shared throughout the meeting, the expe-
rience of relational healing became palpable.
APPLYING THE LENS OF DEVELOPMENTALTHEORY
Dialogism is not merely a form of communication but an epistemological stand
(Markova, 1990). As dialogical actors in treatment meetings, our experiences of action
are necessarily informed by responsive dialogical attunement to the particular mo-
ment of conversation among embodied selves in a once-occurring event of being. Yet,
as we reflect on these experiences, particularlyaswestrivetomakesenseofthemto
our collegial community, we find it useful to draw from a variety of discourses, in-
cluding modernist scientific discourse, in order to explain them. As we understand
postmodern theory, it does not forbid the use of any form of discourse. Rather, it
forbids any form of discourse from making exclusive claims to the truth. We recognize
that our efforts to explain may invoke theories that do not, ultimately, agree with each
other. In so doing, we believe that, just as in the multivoiced discourse of treatment
meetings, we are realizing a polyphonic practice from which new understandings will
continue to emerge.
The ideas of developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978; 1934/1986) resonate
in many ways with the dialogic ideas of his Soviet-era contemporary and compatriot
Mikhail Bakhtin. Vygotsky proposed that language, thought, and mind originate as
interpersonal events that become internalized individual processes over the course of
development. Vygotsky reinterpreted Piaget’s (1923/2002) egocentric speech as the
beginning of the internalization of parental speech, thus refashioning Piaget’s indi-
vidual theory into a social one (Bruner, 1985). The child takes on the roles of both
parent and child by instructing and commenting on her own actions. As this multi-
voiced speech becomes fully internalized, it forms the foundation for inner speech, a
powerful instrument for the regulation of action and emotional states.
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Vygotsky’s idea of the ‘‘zone of proximal development’’ provides a frame of refer-
ence for understanding how the actions of team members support the flow of emotion
in treatment meetings. The zone of proximal development is the metaphorical space
between the student who strives to learn new skills just beyond the limits of her
current ability, and the teacher who, already having mastered those skills, draws the
student forth, offering the teacher’s skills as a scaffolding to support development of
the student’s skills. The process is, however, not a one-sided act directed from the
more skillful person to the student, but a mutual cooperation in which the one in
charge must constantly adapt his or her activity to the learner (Bruner, 1985). In the
case of Open Dialogue, it appears that the team members’ experienced mastery of
strong emotions in meetings provides a secure framework in which network members
discover their abilities to sustain conversation about the most difficult of experiences.
Although moved by the emotions in the room, team members are still not as fully
embedded as network members are. Not having participated in the past events that
have shaped the current crisis, they are less vulnerable to being overwhelmed emo-
tionally. They do not share the intensity of the network members’ bodily involvement
in the feelings in the room. Their experiences with other crises in other networks have
shown them that the current crisis can be survived. The particular experience of the
team members is embodied in their presence in the room as they radiate calm confi-
dence and compassionate engagement. Demonstrating, with their embodied presence,
that it is possible to talk through extremely difficult experiences, they afford feelings
of safety that make it possible for network members to venture forth from their
monological impasse.
Contemporary developmental psychologists have shown that in the development of
the structure of human brain and body, dialogue is a fundamental formative process
originating in the first months of life. Vygotsky’s idea that the mind originates in
relationship resonates with the ideas of Bra
˚ten (1988, 1992, 1997a, 1997b), Stern
(1974), Siegel (1999), and Trevarthen (1979a, 1979b, 1990, 1992), who describes the
infant as engaging in a dialogical relationship with others from the earliest postnatal
moment. The infant enters the world fitted to a parent-child environment in which
embodied mutual regulation of emotional states develops over the course of matura-
tion into mutual direction of attention to the world of objects, then into mutual at-
tention to signs, and ultimately into mutual understanding of language.
Trevarthen’s (1979a) careful observations of parents and infants demonstrate that
the original human experience of dialogue emerges in the first few weeks of life, as
parent and child engage in an exquisite dance of mutual emotional attunement by
means of facial expression, hand gestures, and tones of vocalization. This is truly a di-
alogue; the child’s actions influence the emotional states of the adult, and the adult, by
engaging, stimulating, and soothing, influences the emotional states of the child. Siegel
(1999) described the neurobiological complexity of the mutual influence between mature
adult and immature child through processes of alignment, attunement, and resonance.
The emotional dialogue between adult and child shapes the ability of the child’s nervous
system to self-regulate emotional states and prepares the parent-child system for later
learning of language, with its seemingly limitless capacity for expanding dialogue.
Vygotsky (1934/1986) argued that psychological life originates from action in social
relationships. In early childhood, the parent’s voice organizes and regulates the child’s
behavior. Speaking aloud, the child begins to develop her own control over her be-
havior, a transitional form of social control. With maturation, this spoken social
FAMILY PROCESS470 /
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speech becomes internalized as the psychological experience of inner speech, which is
instrumental for self-regulation of emotion and action. As the child develops further,
words become both the objects and the means of more complex higher mental func-
tions (Vygotsky, 1978), which expand the capacity for making meaning. As a network
member speaks aloud, the words produced in her vocal cords make it possible for her
to hear what she herself is saying. When responses from team and network members
show her that her words are accepted and important, she can reflect on their meaning.
As the not-yet-said (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988) emerges in the space between
speaker and listeners, response by those present makes for an experience of healing,
often manifested by the speaker being visibly moved emotionally. The task for the
listeners in that moment is to accept the speaker’s words entirely, without offering
any word at all of interpretation or of alternative perspective. Offering rational ex-
planation at such a moment may lead the speaker to defend her utterance, and the
processisinhibited.
We find these ideas from developmental psychology to be useful in understanding a
variety of phenomena in dialogic process. Theimportanceofsustainingemotional
expression in dialogue is ratified by the role of mutual emotional regulation in the
earliest human dialogical relationship. Mutual emotional regulation is fundamentally
formative of the relational process that supports the more complex dialogic processes
mediated by language. The experience of loving feelings is an indicator that mutual
emotional regulation is functioning effectively in a successful meeting. Mutual emo-
tional regulation also appears to be fundamental to supporting the activities in Open
Dialogue of constructing new shared language and creating community.
CREATION OF NEW SHARED LANGUAGE
The activity of constructing new shared languageFincorporating the words that
network members bring to the meetings and the new words that emerge from dialogue
among team and network membersFaffords a healing alternative to the language of
symptoms or of difficult behavior. The team helps cultivate a conversational culture
that respects each voice and strives to hear all voices. Essential team actions toward
this purpose include the following:
(1) Asking for information in a manner that makes telling the stories as easy as
possible and as distressing as possible. This includes using everyday language,
pursuing details, and inviting comments on people’s responses, thus generating
a multivoiced picture of an incident.
(2) Listening intently and compassionately as each speaker takes a turn and
making space for every utterance, includingthosemadeinpsychoticspeech.
Showing appreciation for the extreme life situations that engender psychotic
ideas and feelings of hopelessness.
(3) Conducting reflective dialogue among team members, commenting not only on
the network members’ utterances but also on each other’s utterances about the
network members’ utterances. This recursive process helps team members,
other professionals in the meeting, and network members to tolerate the un-
certainty of a situation in which there are no rapid responses for difficult
problems and no rapid treatment decisions. By tolerating this uncertainty,
SEIKKULA & TRIMBLE / 471
Fam. Proc., Vol. 44, December, 2005
network members discover in their sharing of the situation the psychological
resources for answering the question of how to go on.
After team members have entered the conversation by adapting their utterances to
those of the patient and her nearest relations, the network members may in time come
to adapt their own words to those of the team. It helps one to understand more when one
experiences the other as understanding oneself. If one discovers that one is heard, it
may become possible to begin to hear and become curious about others’ experiences and
opinions. Together, team and network members build up an area of joint language in
which they come to agreements about the particular use of words in the situation. This
joint language, emerging in the area between the participants in the dialogue, expresses
their shared experience of the incidents and the emotions embedded in them.
By listening to the reflective dialogue of team members, network members discover
new possibilities for meaning about the situation. Bra
˚ten (1997b) described how the
nervoussystemisorganizedtoallowtheperson to shift fluidly between engagement
with the external Actual Other and engagement with the internal Virtual Other.
Momentarily relieved of the need to speak in conversation with others in the room, a
network member can activate dialogue with her internal Virtual Other as she listens
to the words of the team. From her reflective internal dialogues emerge new ways of
understanding the problem situation that, as they are then spoken aloud, lead the
group dialogue into new, previously undiscovered possibilities.
Just as symptoms are comprehensive, embodied experiences, so is the new language
generated through comprehensive, embodied experiences more than by rational ex-
planation. As network members share feelings of togetherness, they begin to give
voice to the not-yet-said. Sharing difficult issues may feel threatening if previous at-
tempts have led to painful failure. One learns that starting to be open with one’s own
experiences often means that others present at the meeting, even the silent ones,
themselves become more open and more able to trust in each other and in the belief
that difficult issues are possible to handle. As team and network live through the
experiences that thus find their way into the room, their shared emotional experience
allows the familiar words of network members to be organized into new under-
standings, stories in which each participant can address his or her own trauma and
handle his or her own emotions. It is when the new language captures the original,
unexpressed, distressing story and the context from which the symptoms first
emerged that the dialogue begins to compensate symptoms. As network members find
language for their traumatic experiences, both the situations described and the
emotions associated with them become controllable. As seen in Ingrid’s case, this
process can be powerful. Ingrid did not have any flashback for 4 months after the
single meeting, in which it became possibletosharethetraumaticincident,dissat-
isfaction with the long treatment process, and strong feelings of guilt and of belonging
to each other.
The healing factors that we have already described contribute to the creation of
community. Community is sustained and revitalized by collective sharing of powerful
feelings, with the reciprocal attunement process drawing forth our most profoundly
human relational capacities. Participation in joint language helps define membership
in and identity with community. Meanings and feelings intersect in the deep basic
human values that constitute the meeting ground between team and network mem-
bers. Basic human values are central to the culture of any community.
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LOVE AS A MARKER OF MOMENTS OF HEALING
The process of healing and change in Open Dialogue meetings is subtle, embedded
in the familiar language of network members as they talk about getting through
their lives together. We have learned that by supporting dialogue in the conversation,
encouraging free expression of emotion, and facilitating the emergence of new joint
language in the community formed for the treatment, we can witness networks dis-
covering what they need to get through extremely difficult and distressing situations
and go on. Certain experiences have come to mark for us turning points in the healing
process. They include strong collective feelings of sharing and belonging together;
emerging expressions of trust; embodied expressions of emotion; feelings of relief of
tension experienced as physical relaxation; and, perhaps surprisingly, ourselves be-
coming involved in strong emotions and evidencing love. Some others might like to call
it a deep trust or some other more neutral term. For us, shifting the focus in a network
meeting from an intervention to generating dialogue, we also take a step from ap-
plying some specific therapeutic method toward more basic human values.
Maturana (1978) wrote, ‘‘the only transcendence of our individual loneliness we can
experience arises through the consensual reality that we create with others, that is,
through love’’ (pp. 62–63). The feelings of love that emerge in us during a network
meeting are neither romantic nor erotic. They are our own embodied responses to
participation in a shared world of meaning cocreated with people who trust each other
and ourselves to be transparent, comprehensive beings with each other. Tschudi and
Reichelt (2004), whose use of network conferencing parallels Open Dialogue meetings in
many ways, invoke Buber’s (1923/1976) ‘‘I-Thou’’ relationship, a wholehearted en-
counter in which one engages with the other with all of oneself. Our highly focused
attunement to the words and feelings of network members resonates with the most
fundamental of human relationships, a relationship that developmental psychologists
now recognize to be truly reciprocal and dialogical from birth. As we become fully ab-
sorbed in the profound exchanges of mutual attunement in a network meeting, we access
the feelings that hold us together as relational beings and that make us truly human.
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This is a personal reflective piece based on my clinical and personal experience in the current environment, which can feel at times oppressive. I situate my critique as an early-career psychologist who holds multiple marginalised identities. Using systemic ideas, particularly coordinated management of meaning, circularity, and reflective teams, I use case examples to illustrate how practitioners can deconstruct power and resist dominant narratives, countering oppressive practice in action. I critique the existing systemic literature in relation to anti-oppressive work and offer suggestions for future research and practice such as holding an anti-oppressive lens and understanding power and difference within the reflecting team.
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Er is op dit moment veel belangstelling voor de collaboratieve praktijk, maar toch is er nog maar weinig onderzoek gedaan naar de manier waarop therapeuten de samenwerking met cliënten kunnen verbeteren. In dit onderzoek wordt gebruik gemaakt van verbatim transcripten van psychotherapiesessies, ter illustratie van therapeutische communicatievormen waarin het centraal stellen van de stem van de cliënt met een sociaaleconomisch kansarme achtergrond gefaciliteerd of belemmerd wordt. We hebben vier voorbeeldcasussen geselecteerd uit een grote interventietrial voor het verbeteren van de vaardigheden van gedeelde besluitvorming (SDM) van therapeuten die werken met cliënten met een laag inkomen. We hebben voor deze casussen gekozen omdat hierin duidelijk de verschillende maten waarin de therapeuten erin slagen SDM te bevorderen naar voren komen. De formuleringen van de therapeuten zijn in vijf aparte communicatieve praktijken gegroepeerd, waarin de stem van de cliënt centraal of juist minder centraal wordt gesteld. De communicatiepraktijken zijn bekeken door de lens van collaboratieve benaderingen in de gezinstherapie. Uit de analyse blijkt dat de kruisbestuiving tussen SDM en gezinsgeoriënteerde collaboratieve en kritische benaderingen veelbelovend is voor het verhelderen en verbeteren van de moeilijke weg van therapeutgeleide naar cliëntgeleide interacties. Daarbij is belangrijk dat er rekening gehouden wordt met relationele intersectionaliteit bij cliënten en gezinnen die wellicht niet het gevoel hebben dat zij hun verwachtingen kunnen uitspreken of dat zij vragen kunnen stellen tijdens een gesprek met een autoriteitsfiguur.
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Background: Over the last decades, treatment of patients with mental health diseases has shifted from longer-term in-hospital diagnosis and treatment to brief crisis diagnostic and/or treatment stays in hospital wards combined with ambulatory care preventing relapse and promoting patient-centered recovery. To guarantee a shared understanding of the nature of the care provided, it is important that hospital brochures and ambulatory care information are aligned, both in the way in which they define and understand recovery and regarding how they approach the empowerment and activation of the patient. Aim and research questions: The overall aim of the study was to shed light on whether (1) hospital brochures used in crisis intervention centres in Flanders reflect the tenets of recovery-oriented and empowering care, and (2) the encoded messages are reflective of patients and their needs. Methods: A systemic functional critical discourse analytic framework was used to analyze a small corpus of hospital brochures. Results: Our findings suggest that the answers to both research questions are negative. Conclusion: This small-scale qualitative study on the under-researched population of psychiatric patients admitted to crisis intervention wards highlights the complexities involved in imparting well-aligned psychiatric care messages to the patients, their home caregivers, the medical community and the general public.
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Family therapy demonstrates the need for conceptualizing and treating emotional difficulties contextually. It looks beyond the individual to the family as the system of concern. Ackerman’s (1970) “interpersonal unconscious of the family group,” Minuchin’s (1974) of the “extra-cerebral mind,” and Palazzoli, Cecchin, Prata, and Boscolo’s (1978) of the “family in schizophrenic transaction” all have helped us to understand that there is a dialectical relationship between intrapsychic and social experience. In such a relationship, intrapsychic and interpersonal or social processes reflect and influence each other; each is an ever changing creation of and counterpoint to the other. Human consciousness is a dynamic interplay between these two processes.