Meeting 10,001 people from another country

Posted: Tuesday 20th October 2020

We were reflecting on our professional development in our roles recently. Having been involved in building MyST from an idea to a regional programme over the past 15 years, we have become very familiar with how things can be in this field of practice. Tracing back over the years, we reflected on our many mistakes. One amongst the crowd was a phase of feeling as if we knew exactly what was what, and what to do about it. Looking back, it was a phase when models and patterns had mercifully emerged from the original overwhelming chaos. In some ways it had felt like flying high, conquering the unknown, but remembering more closely, it had also felt like something was missing. And indeed it was.

It put us in mind of a metaphor: When we meet the first person we’ve ever met from another country, our eyes are wide open to taking them in, full of curiosity. Still, when we meet the tenth person from this country, they are a mystery to us and we remain curious. But years on, when we’ve met 10,000 people from this far flung place, we might, quite understandably, come to assume that we know what they’re going to tell us. And when the 10,001st person from this place appears before us, we probably think that we already know this person before we hear them speak. We might feel quite pleased that we can efficiently predict and respond to what’s going to come up. Aren’t we doing well to be able to move at such speed? Speed, so very valued and rewarded in this busy world of ours.

But of course, there’s a problem. Even though we’ve already met 10,000 people from this other country, we can’t possibly know the 10,001st person immediately. In trying to understand this next person, our previous experience of the issues involved in being a person from the other country might be a resource to us to some extent. But then again it might not. Decades ago, Harlene Anderson and Harry Goolishian began to speak about taking a ‘not knowing’ stance in systemic family therapy. Before and since, psychotherapists from many different traditions continue to emphasise the vital therapeutic quality of curiosity and openness to the other person.

If we think we’ve met someone before just because we’ve developed a model based on previous experience, we are mistaken. These kinds of mistakes can lead us to objectify people and miss their humanity, focus only on what’s the same about everyone instead of also what’s different, put people into categories and deal with them using blunt instruments. And perhaps worst of all, if they don’t conform to the model we’ve built, we pathologise them, and get rid of them as a messy outlier.

Mass modelling might be pure gold in contexts such as factories and mathematics labs, but people aren’t objects nor numbers. We are way more than predictable. We are also beautiful mystery. In psychological practice, we need to hold our models lightly, and put the unique and special person before us front and centre.

Jen & Jael

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