A self-generating practitioner community
Published in R. House and N. Totton
(Eds), Implausible Professions: Arguments for Pluralism and Autonomy in
Psychotherapy and Counselling, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 1997.
Starting with ends
What constitutes a healthy
practitioner community? I start my answer with the notion of intrinsic
value, of what is good as an end in itself. What states of affairs, for
human beings, are worthwhile simply by virtue of what they are, not as a
means to anything else? Such states are the ultimate ends of action, the
final human rationale for individual behaviour. Each person’s intrinsic
values are the non-negotiable ground on which they stand up to be counted.
Statements of intrinsic value are,
on my view, autonomous; they rest on their own epistemological ground, not
to be justified by theological assertion or statements of fact. If
well-founded, they are also subjective-objective, relative-universal in
their formulations. On the one hand they are relative to the person and to
the cultural context out of which they have emerged. On the other hand they
have reference to the needs and interests of our common humanity within
shared features of the human condition. No statement about what is good in
itself is ever final, because of its contextual relativity, but every such
statement that is thoughtfully put together claims general relevance.
What I present here is my account
of intrinsic values. It is certainly not a prescription for other
practitioners, who will evolve their own account. But if there are other
practitioners whose own autonomous values significantly overlap or resonate
with mine, then we constitute a viable network of value. We can commence a
fruitful dialogue about the nature of a healthy practitioner community. This
chapter is my contribution to that dialogue.
Practitioners within the
Independent Therapists Network in the UK would seem to have values that
relate to mine, from what I have heard, and from what I have read (Totton,
1995). I am not a member of this network since I live in Italy and work
internationally. But there is clearly a strong basis for co-operation.
An account of intrinsic values
The state of affairs I take to be
desirable as an end in itself is human flourishing in individual and
social life. I conceive this flourishing as a process of social
participation in which there is a mutually enabling balance between
autonomy, co-operation and hierarchy; and which is interdependent with the
flourishing of the planetary ecosystem.
By autonomy I mean a state of
being in which each person can in liberty determine and fulfil their own
true needs and interests. I do not here mean the autonomy of the
isolated and dissociated Cartesian ego, but the autonomy of the person
in a deeply participative relationship with being and other beings
(Heron, 1992, 1996).
By co-operation I mean mutual
aid and support between autonomous persons, including negotiation,
participative decision-making and conflict resolution.
By hierarchy I mean a state of
being in which a person appropriately takes temporary responsibility for
doing things to or for other persons for the sake of their future
autonomy and co-operation. This is part of parenthood, education and
What is valuable as a universal
means to this comprehensive end is participative decision-making, which
enables people to be involved in the making of decisions, in every social
context, which affect their flourishing in any way; and through which people
speak on behalf of the wider ecosystem of which they are part.
This is a dynamic account of
intrinsic values: to do with the politics of choice and action. Autonomy is
about deciding for oneself, co-operation about deciding with others, and
hierarchy about deciding for others. And this order seems to be paramount.
Only persons who know what their own preferences are can negotiate and
co-operate effectively in conjoint decisions. People who do not really know
where they stand on an issue have no proper ground for co-operation, and can
only huddle together in the middle of a fudge.
Even more critically, a person who
does not know how to be autonomous and co-operative cannot make effective
decisions for other people to empower their future autonomy and
co-operation. Leaders who are not inwardly free can only lead people into
sustained submission and subpersonhood. So hierarchy has human value when:
It is manifested by a person
well-grounded in their own autonomy and co-operation, both rooted in a
deeply participative relationship with being and other beings.
It is exercised to empower the
emergence of autonomy and co-operation in others.
It is reduced as that emergence
It is abandoned when that
emergence has occurred; otherwise it is disvaluable and oppressive of
Berdyaev (1937) affirms human personhood as the creative process of divine
spirit, manifesting as the self-determining subjectivity of persons engaged
in the realization of value and achieved in true community (sobornost).
This gives a theological account of human autonomy and co-operation. But
whether theologized or not, the above account of what is intrinsically
valuable stands firm, in my view. And it subsumes, within the notion of
autonomy as the freely chosen fulfilment of human needs and interests, many
other states of being of intrinsic value.
The challenge of hierarchy
The challenge of human development
on this planet could be construed as the challenge of learning how to
manifest hierarchy - deciding for others - in an appropriate and flexible
way that honours the flowering of autonomy and co-operation. It is the great
challenge of parenthood, itself the primary form of helping, in which
deciding for and on behalf of young children is shaped from the outset by a
concern for that future flowering, and is progressively reduced over the
years as that flowering occurs. The parent is between the Scylla and
Charybdis of too little hierarchy, or undercontrol, and too much hierarchy
A few years ago I was involved in
making a TV programme for the BBC on parents and teenagers, which had the
unfortunate, but telling, title of ‘Living with the Enemy’. In the research
for it, it became painfully clear how many parents in the UK are stuck in a
compulsive attitude towards their teenagers of overcontrol. It was also
clear how counterproductive and useless this attitude is. A teenager cannot
learn how to live and emerge as a young adult by being told how to live, but
only by the practice of making their own choices, by being supported to be
responsible in increasing measure for their own lives.
The parents repeatedly justified
their useless overcontrol on the grounds that they were seeking to protect
their teenage sons and daughters from the snares and pitfalls of the adult
world. But over and again this inappropriate seeking-to-protect merely
generated sullen resistance or overt rebellion. And since modern societies
have no appropriate rites of passage to initiate teenagers into the real
challenges of adult autonomy and co-operation, teenagers today have to make
a leap into adulthood simply by virtue of the turn of the years and the
external structure and demands of the social system. To meet these demands
they learn to exercise a modicum of an apparent autonomy and co-operation,
but it is not grounded in a real emotional and volitional inner entry into
Political acting out
The political Scylla and Charybdis
within family dynamics of too little or too much hierarchy is echoed in all
other forms of human association between the family and the state, and
beyond that within federations of states and the total international
community of states. Democratic institutions seek to find the balance by
making the temporary hierarchical control of their officers periodically
subject to the autonomous voting rights of their members.
However, the adults who hold office
are ex-teenagers who missed a real entry passage into adulthood. Hence they
tend to act out in office two left-overs from the unresolved tension of
their teenage years. These are the interacting poles of internalized
parental overcontrol and adolescent resistance and resentment. The first is
acted out as a tendency toward centralized overcontrol, often justified by
an assumed need to protect some group or other from an assumed danger; the
second as a regular relapse into factional fighting and compulsive
resistance, at the expense of exercising any real personal autonomy and
We see both these tendencies at
work in our parliamentary democracy in the UK. We also see them at work in
many supposedly representative institutions, especially those seeking to
court the approval and imprimatur of the government of the day. Thus the
United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy ‘continues to work to achieve
statutory regulation of the profession’ and justifies this work, and the
Council’s existence, on the grounds of ‘adequately protecting the public’
(Tantam and Zeal, 1996).
The public, of course, cannot be
protected by the statutory regulation of any profession. Such regulation
just lulls some people into an uncritical dependence on legalized dogmatism.
The public can only be educated to be self-protecting, by learning to claim
To have satisfactory evidence
from pracititoners about their credentials and competence.
To know what constitutes such
To be fully informed by
To participate in whatever
decisions practitioners make.
The public has never needed the
legalized professionalization of a few experts. What it has always needed
and still needs is the widespread and competent laicization of itself, so
that it becomes empowered to relate effectively to practitioners of any
kind, whether legalized or not.
So here within the UKCP the first
tendency is at work: a strong compulsion to overcontrol the profession, to
regulate it centrally, justified by a specious concern to protect the
public. Needless to say, significant numbers of the public will inevitably
and healthily discount and ignore all this, just as they have ignored
conventional medicine’s attempts in the past to protect them from
alternative medicine. And the second tendency is at work too, for the UKCP
has already been riven by factional splits and infighting between
psychoanalytic diehards who want to maintain a patriarchal hegemony over
mere psychotherapists, and other groups who resist this (Young, 1996).
Finding a model
It surely behoves adult
practitioners within the helping professions to step outside this dynamic,
which looks very much like adolescent insecurity and mayhem sententiously
masquerading as social responsibility. Counsellors and psychotherapists need
to find a model for institutional forms and processes which are free of
centralized overcontrol and compulsive factionalism, and which have the sort
of empowering hierarchy which serves the flourishing of autonomy and
co-operation among its members. It seems fairly clear that if professional
helpers are incapable of practising these values in their own working lives,
they are in no place to empower their clients to do so.
I believe there is a basic model of
community process which has relevance here. It is that of a self-generating
culture. Within its broad aegis there are two sub-models which have
particular relevance for a community of practitioners: self and peer review,
and co-operative inquiry. I will first sketch out the self-generating
culture idea in general, then look at how the idea could apply within a
practitioner network, including the use of self and peer review and of
A self-generating culture
A self-generating culture, which I
have discussed elsewhere (Heron, 1993), is a vision of a community whose
members are in a continuous process of co-operative learning and
development, and whose forms are consciously adopted, periodically reviewed
and altered in the light of experience, reflection and deeper vision. Its
participants continually recreate these forms through cycles of
collaborative inquiry in living.
In its most comprehensive,
society-wide, version, it includes many strands: forms of association; forms
of decision-making and political participation; forms of economic
organization; forms of supervision and quality control; revisioning a wide
range of social roles; forms of ecological management; forms of habitation;
forms of education and personal development for all ages; forms of research;
forms of intimacy and parenting; forms of conflict resolution; forms of
recreation; forms of aesthetic expression and celebration; forms of
transpersonal association and ritual.
What all this entails is individual
and co-operative commitment to experiential learning and inquiry through
living. Each person in the everyday process of his or her personal and
professional life is adopting an informal experiential inquiry cycle, what
Torbert calls action inquiry. For Torbert (1991) this means extended
consciousness-in-action, widening attention to encompass your vision of
goals, your strategies to achieve them, your current actions and their
outcomes, and what is going on in the world around. It also means noticing
and amending, either through action or internal revision or both,
incongruities between these components of your lived inquiry.
Such action inquiry will have its
idiosyncratic private strands, its shared and face-to-face strands with
people at home and at work, and its more collective strands within
organizations and the wider culture. It will involve phases of intentional,
aware living; with time out for phases of collaborative reflection, review
and goal setting. The totality of all this, applied within each of the
several strands of social life, is what I call a self-generating culture.
The concept of the learning organization points in this direction (Garratt,
1987) as does a wide range of recent work on community building (Gozdz,
Torbert, working within the field
of management training, presents a similar notion. For him, personal action
inquiry 'aims at creating communities of inquiry within communities of
social practice'. It exhibits 'transforming power' which 'operates through
peer cultures, liberating structures, and timely actions. Cultures are truly
peer-like, structures are liberating, and actions are timely, if they
simultaneously promote widening inquiry about what is the appropriate
mission, strategy, and practice for the given person or organization or
nation, while accomplishing established objectives in an increasingly
efficient, effective and self-legitimizing manner' (Torbert, 1991: 100).
A 'liberating structure' within an
organization is one in which there is a sense of shared purpose among its
members, an increasing self-direction among them, and a commitment to
generate quality work by them. It is a structure which simultaneously
cultivates among its members both quality improvement in their work on the
one hand and action inquiry and personal development on the other. 'If
liberating structures succeed organizational members will increasingly take
executive responsibility, will increasingly treat one another as peers, and
will increasingly create their own liberating structures' (Torbert, 1991:
100). In short, they manifests the values of autonomy, co-operation and
For Torbert, the leader who
exercises transforming power to bring a liberating structure into being
essentially invites mutuality and participation in power. This is similar to
my notion of empowering hierarchy which serves the flourishing of autonomy
and co-operation. Thus any practitioner exercising this kind of empowering
hierarchy, will take initiatives for and on behalf of other interested
practitioners, and will invite them to participate in a professional
community in which the values of autonomy and co-operation are paramount.
A self-generating practitioner
A healthy practitioner community is
one, then, that is self-managed in the spirit of a self-generating culture,
a liberating social structure. Such a self-generating community of
practitioners includes a selection of strands from the society-wide version.
It particularly attends to three clusters. In characterizing these I am,
again, not making prescriptions, but putting forward my own contribution to
a dialogue with other practitioners with similar sorts of values. I have had
experience, in one context or another, of all the different forms I describe
The first cluster deals with
basic social structure and process.
Forms of association.
Local face-to-face self
and peer review groups of practitioners within a loose
characterized by a commitment of all participating groups to the
values of autonomy and co-operation within each group and
officers exercising the kind of empowering hierarchy that
enhances autonomy and co-operation within and between local
Forms of decision-making and
A form of co-operative
decision-making within a group in which each person has a voice
which is heard, in which authentic differences are affirmed, and
in which there is a commitment to a creatively negotiated
outcome. The same applies to federal decision-making between
Decisions about basic
policy and practice, to do with the main activities of
practitioners in association with other practioners, are made
heterogeneously and idiosyncratically within each group.
Dialogue, exchange and
conference among local groups, is further to enlarge and extend
the autonomy and co-operation within each of them, not to
achieve homogeneity, standardization and conformity between
The second cluster attends to
the main activities of the practitioner community.
Forms of supervision and
quality control. In all these forms, the role of the peers is to
enable each individual rigorously to deepen the integrity of her or his
Varieties of peer
supervision with regard to professional practice, using self and
peer feedback, assessment and review. Feedback is informative,
assessment is evaluative, and review is revisionary. I describe
several different kinds of peer supervision in Group
Facilitation: Theories and Models for Practice (Heron,
More formal peer review
audit, in which: the main components of the job are identified
and revised; the criteria of professional competence with
respect to these components are identified and revised; the
practitioners do on-the-job self- (and where possible peer)
assessment of their competence applying these criteria and
keeping records of the assessments; the practitioners meet
periodically in an audit group to present these on-the-job
findings and to process them by self and peer assessment. A full
description of this sort of peer review audit is given in the
same book (Heron, 1993).
Forms of research.
participative research, in which research is done with
people, not on them or about them. Co-operative
inquiry, which I practice and about which I have written, breaks
down the distinction between researcher and subject. All those
involved are co-researchers, doing the thinking that designs,
manages and draws conclusions from the research. They are also
co-subjects, engaged in the experience and action which are the
focus of the inquiry. They move cyclically several times between
reflecting and planning as co-researchers, and action and
experience as co-subjects. And they use a variety of validity
procedures to secure the process against uncritical
subjectivity, consensus collusion and other hazards of the
method (Reason, 1988; Heron, 1996).
can be applied to all forms of peer supervision or peer review
audit, and of continuing professional education, raising them up
into systematic research into professional practice. It can also
be used by pracitioner-client pairs and groups, and by
client-only groups, to explore relevant concerns and interests.
Its strength is that it is a form of research that fully honours
personal autonomy and group collaboration.
Forms of continuing
education and development.
Practitioners need to
attend to their own ongoing professional education and personal
development, through the whole range of adult education and
growth strategies: conferences, seminars, peer teaching and
learning, literature and internet searches, training workshops,
co-counselling, individual sessions, ongoing experiential
groups, and so on.
And the third cluster deals with
Forms of conflict
notorious for incompetence in committee and bizarre forms of
factionalism and infighting (Young, 1996). A healthy
practitioner community could address this propensity by working
out and agreeing, within each local group, forms of dispute and
conflict resolution. These forms need to separate out authentic
and honourable differences that are to be properly acknowledged
and accommodated, from misunderstanding, misrepresentation,
manipulation, and unaware projection of unprocessed distress.
Forms of ceremony and
community, as a systemic whole, has an ethos which
transcends any purely linguistic description of its values,
norms and beliefs. This ethos of a body of practice can be felt.
It can be grasped imaginally and intuitively. It can be invoked
through metaphor and indicated by symbolic presentations. Above
all, it can be honoured corporately by the use of creatively
devised ceremony and ritual.
This kind of self-generating
practitioner community is grounded in relatively small peer groups in which
the basic processes of self and peer review, and co-operative inquiry, can
proceed effectively. With its basic values of autonomy, co-operation and
empowering hierarchy, such a community affirms the principle that in the
last analysis all authority about practice rests with each practitioner’s
well-informed discriminating judgment, a precious metal refined within the
crucible of rigorous peer process.
Ending with starts
I began this chapter with some
axiology, a consideration of value, in particular with the idea of what is
intrinsically worthwhile, an end in itself. I’ll conclude it with some
ontology, thoughts about the nature of reality, in particular with the idea
of innovative reality, the reality of new starts.
Revisionary thinking aross a wide
array of disciplines from physics and biology, through medicine to social
science and consciousness research, is articulating a new paradigm
worldview. This differs in fundamental respects from the old paradigm
positivist account - inherited from Descartes, Newton and others - of
reality as an objective physical world, independent of the human mind, which
we can all set about studying as if it had nothing to do with us. There are
various overlapping ways of characterizing the new worldview, and here is my
account of three of them:
Reality is transactional,
relational, to do with dynamic interconnectedness.
subjective-objective, a transaction between the human mind and the
cosmically given, in which persons participate in what there is without
separation from it, and in the process shape it perceptually and
conceptually (Skolimowski, 1994; Heron, 1996).
This reality, co-created by the
mind and the given cosmos which it conjoins, is in process of emergent
evolution, which is unpredictable and innovative, generating new starts.
One wing of the new paradigm is the
science of complexity, or complexity theory, which seeks to give a
comprehensive account of the emergence of creativity and innovation in the
dynamics of complex systems in nature and culture. It is a recent develpment
which claims wide relevance, from the weather and ecosystems to elaborate
human societies (Lewin, 1993; Goodwin, 1994). Reason and Goodwin (1997), in
an interesting paper on complexity theory and co-operative inquiry, take six
principles of complexity theory and use them as metaphors for what goes on
in a co-operative inquiry. These principles can also be used as metaphors
for what happens in the kind of self-generating pracitioner community (SGPC)
which I have outlined above. In saying that this is what happens, I am
extrapolating from my experience, in diverse contexts, of the different
forms I have included within my account of an SGPC.
Complex systems have
variegated, multiple patterns of interconections between diverse
components. The interconnections are not simple and uniform. This is a
precondition of the emergence of unpredictable novelty.
The SGPC form of association,
with its loose federation of local groups, has a rich diversity of ways
in which autonomy and co-operation interact both within and between the
In complex systems, novelty
arises by the repetition of cycles of a regular pattern of activity, in
which both convergent and divergent processes interact.
Within an SGPC, the use of both
peer supervision and of co-operative inquiry involves repeated cycles of
activity within which there will be innumerable varied patterns, both
concurrent and serial, of converging on the same and diverging over the
different. Thus everyone explores the the same issue, but each a
different aspect of it; or everyone explores a different issue, but each
the same dimension of it; and so on.
The order that emerges in a
complex system cannot be predicted from the nature of the interconnected
entities that comprise it. It can only be discovered by going through
the cyclic processes that constitute it.
The order within an SGPC
consists of the values, criteria, beliefs and procedures related to the
professional practice of its members. These cannot be derived by some
process of abstraction from the views of individual members. They can
only be discovered by their emergence through the cyclic
processes of self and peer review within local groups, and as between
The novel order that emerges in
a complex system is holistic. It results from the interactions among
constitutive parts of the system. It is not determined by the properties
of a privileged set of parts, by preordained instructions coded in them.
It is the dynamic interconnectdness of the whole that has the potential
for emergent novelty.
An SGPC does not have a central
privileged committee that shapes policy and controls the organization of
the profession. It is the dynamic relations within and between its
loosely federated local groups that gives rise to its innovative order.
Complex systems are
characterized by variable and transient fluctuations between between
chaos and order, which at a certain point may lead over into the
emergence of complex and novel organization. The fluctuations may also
go the other way and involve a transition from some degree of initial
organization to chaos.
The organization of an SGPC
fluctuates between chaos and order. The members of an SGPC live and work
within this fluctuation awarely as part of the challenge of being
co-creators within emergent innovative evolution.
A complex system is most
adaptive, flexible and innovative when it is at the edge of chaos where
large fluctuations between chaos and order occur, since it is here where
novel order emerges.
An SGPC is continuously
involved, through autonomous self and peer review groups, in a deeply
grounded revisionary exploration of its members’ professional practice.
They put all at risk by moving away from the security of established and
authoritative definitions of practice, and by moving toward self and
peer definitions, attending rigorously to their own experience. They may
flounder at times in the rough seas of uncertainty, confusion and chaos,
before spacious new continents arise from the depths.
There is, of course, nothing
sacrosanct about complexity theory, itself part of the emergent process it
seeks to describe. But for those of us who have worked with autonomy and co-peration
within peer groups of various kinds, there is an interesting isomorphic
resonance at work. And the kind of SGPC I have derived from a consideration
of intrinsically worthwhile ends of action- as well as, it must be said,
from a great deal of practice - is consonant with the new paradigm worldview
that affirms a participative reality of emergent starts.
By contrast it seems that the
overcontrol of professional practice by centralized bureaucracy, evident in
much current psychotherapy professionalization, is very much an expression
of the old paradigm worldview. Positivist science regards the whole as the
mechanical sum of its parts. Specialist experts divide a domain into its
simple parts which can then be intellectually and technically managed to
gain control over the whole. This breeds a rigid and restricted view of what
constitutes reality, since it has no way of honouring the creative emergence
If a group of senior and specialist
practitioners analyse the whole field of psychotherapy and counselling into
its component parts - the numerous schools and modes of practice - and then
use this analysis to devise a way of managing and controlling and organizing
the whole, there can only be one result: a rigid and restricted view of
human helping, with no way of honouring creative helping at the forward edge
of evolutionary emergence.
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