Yvonne Dolan The Brief Therapy Network
Lighting The Smallest Candle!
A Conversation With Yvonne Dolan
Tapio Malinen (TM): Yvonne, today you are here with us, and tomorrow you will be doing your presentation in an different place here in Toronto, and some day you will come to Finland and I know you are doing lots of things. I wonder what is the dream that gives you all the energy to do all the things that you are doing just now?
Yvonne Dolan (YD): Well, I believe that we each have a responsibility to do the best we can and what I seem to be best at is learning from my colleagues, and learning from my clients, then writing it down and talking about it. I feel that I have a responsibility to do what little I can do to make a difference. I always think about my grandmother! There is a saying that was made famous by Eleanor Roosevelt. She used to say, "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness". We each should do what little things that we can to make our little space as good as possible but for my grandmother, for her it was too big. So she would say "you know, we can only do what we can do so better to light - even if it is only a little tiny candle you are lighting - the best candle you can light, even if it is just a little tiny candle". So I feel that I am lighting the best little candle I can light. Mostly it is from learning from other people. I try hard to share what I learn. I think we are all sort of a chain. We all are connected. So I guess I feel like I am part of a big old quilt.
~~~~~~~~~~~ (SC): I enjoy your quilt metaphor! Who would you say speaks through you the most in your work? Is it perhaps many people who are a part of that quilt?
YD: have been very lucky! I have been helped by a lot of people at different times in my career. Steve de Shazer has mentored me for almost the past 20 years. I have also been deeply influenced by Insoo and by Eriksonian thinking. Ernie Rousso is someone who has really affected how I see the process of eliciting client resources. Steve Gilligan also has had quite an impact in that way. Jeff Zieg is another, and I could probably take up this entire hour listing the people who I think whose shoulders I rest on. I probably then afterwards would feel ashamed because I had left somebody out. Those are the folks who have made a huge difference for me.
TM: How has your thinking and approach changed since your time with Steve de Shazer? What caused you to make those changes?
YD: After learning more about Solution Focused Brief Therapy I originally was interested in Ericksonian utilization and I wrote a book about that in the mid 80's. I was fascinated with Dr. Erickson's work in making therapeutic use of what the client already had. So at that time I was interested in doing that both explicitly and implicitly, both more consciously and yet less directly. After becoming familiar with Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Bergs' work as well as Eve Lipchiks' I began to be a little more parsimonious. I began to use very consciously oriented questions any time the clients goal was something that was under their behavioural control, that they could influence in a behavioural conscious way. I began to play more with the indirect aspects of Ericksonian work but even less explicitly and even more implicit invitations when things were not under someone's conscious control. I began to develop more criteria for when to use what. I wanted to incorporate both. I believe&ldots; -and I would be curious as to what you think- I believe that in order to be respectful one should offer the least intrusive interventions than what one can offer a client to have relief from the problem. I want to be the least intrusive I can be while still being competent.
TM: During your years of practice what have you started to do and stopped doing?
YD: Well I started out always asking the client to tell me what I needed to know. I kept doing that, just even very explicitly - "Please tell me what I need to know in order to be useful". Over the last few years I have constantly added on the other question "What should I have asked that I didn't ask?" That's a little bit new! The other thing that I have learned to do differently&ldots; I have always used compliments but I started out using very overt compliments and I learned that a lot of people who have had terrible things happen in their life appear to dislike compliments. They appear to almost have a polarity response where they become fearful or uncomfortable.
SC: They question if it is a genuine compliment?
SC: My understanding is that when we explicitly offer a compliment it can place a person in the position where they can refuse that compliment. Also, I worry that at times a compliment or cheerleading could be experienced as a judgment.
YD: Do you find that asking it even creates discomfort in the client?
SC: There's one thing that is on my mind today because we saw Wendel Ray present tapes of Don D. Jackson's work and he talked about the notion of "mutual influence". What I do influences you and what you do influences me and this is a constant process that goes on all the time. So the notions of complimenting, and a persons apparent discomfort with a compliment are some things I think that are valuable to pay attention to in our interactions. It becomes our responsibility to perhaps change how we are presenting as to not position someone in a way that they feel the need to deny the compliment.
I remember a story from Insoo Kim Berg who described it like putting moisturizing lotion on. Giving someone a compliment, like lotion, wears off after a while but if you can elicit a self-compliment from them, getting them to compliment themselves it is like our bodies natural moisturizer, it lasts longer. It is an important shift!
YD: I think that it allows the therapist to be less intrusive while still very powerfully validating. Insoo calls that a process compliment "How did you do that?"
SC: It is a powerful and subtle question.
YD: After learning that from Insoo too, I like that kind of compliment. I also used to reframe things. I don't reframe anymore! I do ask the client two questions. One - If they say I need to make some meaning of this I say "well, what difference would that make?". They answer for instance, "Well I would know what to do". Some people say, "I just can't go on until I make meaning of it". Instead of fighting with that I say, "Well, how do you explain it to yourself?".
The second question is "What do you think is the most useful way to look at it?". So I don't have to do any reframing. I think it is less intrusive to allow the client&ldots;even if the client has explained things to me in a very negative way like "I tell myself I am a failure", I've noticed if I say "Well what do you think is the most useful way to look at it", they say "I'll tell myself that I'll get through this experience like any other and I am not a failure". So I guess I have become more and more aware that my job is to just give the client enough structure to reconnect to their resources.
Ian Bennett (IB): In a sense it sounds as though you have them reframe it for themselves.
SC: Then it is more likely to be right for them?
YD: Yes, because it fits for them. They are coming up with their own reframe. It is similar to Insoo's idea of self-complimenting; it is self-reframing. I think the narrative folks have made incredible contributions to this.
SC: I am intrigued by the subtleties of your work. There are so many subtle things happening in that simple question "What meaning do you make of this?". It implies there are multiple meanings, and we don't have to get it right today or right now but there are other meanings out there. This for me begins already to draw in hope. It starts to draw in possibility; something different starts to evolve. It is so subtle yet not intrusive or laborious.
TM: I am thinking of something that also brings respect into the relationship and that is "fit" and "timing". There is a definition that touched me quite deeply. You can define life in different ways but one that touched me very deeply is "In life you are all the time licking honey from the razor's edge".
TM: Both those elements are always there, the sweetness and the possibility to be deeply hurt and it is question of balance all the time. You talked a couple of minutes ago about this balance - how to validate and bring hope at the same time. I started to think about this "respectful timing" how important it is. Does this have any meaning for you?
YD: I think that clients give very good signals and I have always believed that if I am not in a state of comfort and rapport with a client it means I am doing something wrong. I truly don't believe in resistance! I think if the client appears to be resisting it means I am not doing what I need to be doing. So I have always believed that any sign that the client is "resistant" means that I need to first of all find out if I am understanding what they want and secondly find out what I need to be doing differently.
SC: Again, does this relate to "mutual influence" and how we mutually influence each other in the experience? In relating to pace or timing these are aspects I don't hear talked about a lot anymore, that is, paying close attention to one's pace and one's timing of questions and responses, especially in our time where many services mandate a limited number of sessions. How do we respect timing and pace, in a way that is productive and feels right to us as people given those constraints?
YD: How can we do whatever good we might be able to do within those constraints because sometimes it isn't a choice? Sometimes we just don't have more time. (pause)
YD: There is this thing called the "response attentive moment". Are you too young to have heard about that? Erickson and Rosse wrote about this way back, I think it would be in the early 1980's and it is the closest I have heard to an operationalizing of rapport. Basically they were trying to provide some guidance for when to offer the client a comment or an idea or an invitation on a question. They believed that there are times that people can take in a question or an idea more easily than others. They believed that this was often marked by stillness in the body and an evenness of breathing and oftentimes sort of an expectant look. Of course what they described there is what we experience as connection or rapport. One of the ways they got there was by creating a "yes set". Creating an ambiance where the client could feel a sense of support and it was fed back to the client what they were saying and perceiving in an appreciative way. Of the non-hypnotic approaches, solution focused therapy has been, for me, one of the ways people can do that.
SC: Begin to create the "yes set", establish rapport?
YD: Even within the constraints of a relatively short amount of time because we don't argue about what the clients want. So we are less apt to get into an antagonistic relationship.
TM: I just realized that I am thinking about the flowers and tress. All the different flowers have their different times and different trees have all the different fruits ripening at different times and falling at different times. We are part of that. Probably we have our times too.
If you would be a gardener and lets say your garden had the title of Therapy Training, and you would have the possibility to put some seeds into that big garden, which seeds would you choose? Which ones are most important for you personally and somehow for this great garden, too?
YD: I have been long fascinated with two small details that I think are very rich and I think they are two very basic questions in solution-focused therapy and one is "Between now and when you made the appointment did anything get better?". The "pre-session change" question is something I am fascinated by.
Very closely related to that question that I also find fascinating and I use it a little differently I suppose than most people do is, "What are the things that you want to have continue"? I believed that many times the list of things the client would like to have continue in their life or the things that they did between making the appointment and coming in function as a bridge across the problem. In those two questions, they actually in themselves, often contain the entire potential seed for the therapeutic process. Particularly, often in my work where my primary interest is with people who have had recent and severe trauma there is something about answering the question about what you would like to have continue in the next few days or weeks that for many people provides an ongoing connection to hope, to something under their control that they can hang on to. A lot of times my clients tell me they have written down the things that they want to have continue and slept with them under their pillow so that they realize that this terrible thing that happened, whether it was a crime or illness of a loved one or some other terrible thing, they realize that it is not all there is to them! It is not all there is to their life! There are all these other things that they are going to be continuing. Almost always people say they want to continue caring for their children, or they want to continue dong things in nature. There are certain little rituals that often I think are more valuable and powerful than any assignment that I could construct. I emphasize those two small things probably more than most people do. I sometimes just use those two things in therapy.
TM: Small, big things! I have the experience that when I grow older, year after year, somehow my professional practice and my personal life lose limits. Somehow something is happening, probably I can't express it but I can use my life experience all the time, more and more, therefore I feel that I am privileged because the older I grow the more I learn all the time. I can use it all the time in my work.
YD: I suspect your clients are privileged as a result to have that from you.
TM: What connections do you see between your personal life and your professional life?
YD: Certainly some of my clients have been aware over the years, not because I have told them, but because I have written a number of things that allude to my having a history of trauma and abuse. Over the years people have sometimes said to me, "you seem happy, you seem to be having a good life". I like to be able to answer truthfully that I am. I usually can answer quite truthfully but this past three or four years I had something happen that was a little more obvious than I would have preferred. I have always had an office at home and clients would see me at home. I went through a divorce a couple of years ago so my clients saw me move. They saw that I had moved to a different place so what would normally be a very personal thing became pretty clear to them that my life had really changed. I temporarily moved to an apartment that was much like the kind I would have lived in as a college student and it was a wonderful old house. I had the top floor itself and it was smaller than what my clients had previously seen me live in.
When they would come up to my office they would have to go in through the landlord's front door and walk up. It was very humble. In the same week almost every one of my clients who came had seen me at this previous place, and I had just given the explanation that my office was moving but it was obvious to them that it had been more than my office. Do you know that every one of them, when they got up to my office, they had climbed the stairs, sat down and it was clear that it was part of my house, my very small house, they said, "I just have to ask you one thing - are you alright?". I tried to answer really honestly and I said, "Yes I am". I realized that sometimes clients just need to know. If I had not been, I think I would have said something like "no, but I will be". So I had that experience of real personal changes in my life becoming very obvious. I realized that perhaps that was not so bad. You know we all have things that are challenges and I am sure they realize that was a challenge for me.
TM: When I flew from Finland to Canada I had time to be and to think and to read. I tried to prepare myself for this situation, for this interview by reading your 3rd book. There were many, many good exercises but especially one chapter was important for me, it was the chapter concerning work. In it you are saying that your work is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Would you say something about that? What does it mean for you personally?
YD: Well for me spiritually is something that one can sense or feel or respond to without concrete evidence. I feel that in seeing clients who come in often in agony from what life has done after there isn't an immediate picture that indicates any possibility of things getting better as life goes on - for me it requires every bit of spirituality I have to be able to make that leap of faith to trust that something will come. Each time I kind of have to just choose to act "as if" something useful will come even though there is no evidence usually immediately that it will. I have to trust that that person possesses that, if only I can make the right space. I am repeatedly humbled by what people come up with in seemingly impossible situations.
For me to communicate that faith, and often it isn't one I actually feel, I always think about a friend of mine who was a very, very old priest who worked only with dying people. A friend of mine who is an incredible intellectual, and an incredible cynic and both of those things very much there- and an atheist! We had a dinner party and my friend who is the priest and my friend who is the intellectual atheist, they were both really bright people, are sitting having dinner and my friend who is the atheist says, "You know father, I don't believe in God". The priest looks at him and says "me neither" but they force us to behave as though I do, as though God does exist. I often don't have any evidence of what the solution is or the good thing that comes of this is going to be&ldots;but I am disciplined to believe and behave in such a way that implies something good will happen. Certainly it does! To me that takes the best spirituality I can muster because it is scary. Sometimes I sit there and think, "Oh my God, what if nothing helps". Sometimes for a while nothing does. Yet something always comes. That is scary and I think that therapists have to be very brave. I mean it would be easier to talk about something real trivial sometimes than to wait for the answer to the miracle question.
Ian Bennett: Is it therapists having faith in the process of life to let that chance event happen? Do you let that time past...trust in the process of life? Do we sometimes get in the way of that in trying to he helpful?
Yvonne Dolan: It is the stance that gets in the way; at least it has for me at times. In this field I think traditionally we are trained to place more importance on the bad things that happen to people than the good things. So we have in the field of abuse people still defined as victims and survivors.
Scot Cooper: Defined by the event?
YD: Yes, as opposed to becoming people to whom a variety of things have happened and one of them is abuse. Another one might be falling in love, another one might be planting a garden, another might be becoming a mother or a father, wanting to do pole vaulting or who know what. I think that one of the things that interferes is training to place more emphasis on the negative than the positive one.
SC: How strange that sounds when we talk about it.
YD: We actually imprison the person in the problem in a sense. Even calling someone a survivor implies that for the rest of their lives they will live in reaction to that event.
IB: They will never get over it?
TM: You also show the third possibility that you called the Authentic Self.
YD: I think that people in our field have been alluding to that for a while. It is not a unique idea to me. I do think that I am perhaps more attached to the importance of the third stage because I see the legacy of defining clients as living in reaction to their problems as opposed to living in reaction to their hopes. I always want to ask&ldots; even if someone is giving me a history of awful things that have happened, I always want to ask "what else matters to you"?
IB: And if they can't think of anything?
YD: I have never had that happen. You would think it would but I never have. I used to work in rural mental health and you would see people in one way in your office and then go somewhere else and see them entirely differently. There was this family that from the first day I was warned about. I was working in this really small town and I was told that this is a family with a lot of abuse, the parents are shiftless, they don't work, the family has been on welfare for several generations, there is a lot of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, very negligent. They said just be really careful with this family because you really have to pay a lot of attention so they don't do anything else to their children. The implication was that their children had been badly neglected.
Right about at that time I was really getting used to living in a small town and I had only met one person that I was getting to know outside the professional field. He was an artist and he had these wonderful paintings he had done. He had a little art gallery and some of the more remarkable paintings were the ones he had done. He did portraits of a family. One of a woman carrying a loaf of bread and this family sitting around on a big old front porch and I remarked on them and he said "you need to meet these people, they are some of the most wonderful families I have ever met". He talked about how there was a musical festival that weekend and if I attended it I would for sure see them there because they always went to it and they all played differed musical instruments. Well of course I did go and it was the family I had been warned against. All these people there were saying "oh yea this family would give you the shirt off their backs", "their door is always open to anyone who is hungry or needs anything".
It was a completely different picture and I realized that I had only got part of the picture from my colleagues. It didn't mean that my colleagues picture was wrong. What they were saying was probably absolutely true but this other past was true too. That's a long time ago and I am still trying to remember to make space for both those pieces when I meet people. The piece that brings them to therapy and the piece that is their life outside of therapy.
TM: I have learned something from you today. I am thinking that if you don't ask the client questions about the future and things that in spite of all are working you don't have a complete picture. So lets suppose that we meet after six or seven years and you are still smiling and you are feeling okay in your life, your profession and I ask you "oh, how are you?" and you say "oh, I just love my life". And then I would ask you "so what are you doing?".
YD: What am I doing that I love?
YD: Well, first of all you know I love my life at least some of the time. I don't think that I love my life every second but I try to focus on the times I do love it.
TM: It reminds me of what Stephen Madigan said. He plans to write a book called "I'm not okay, you are not okay and that's okay". (Laughter)
YD: I guess I would find myself continuing to have clients like I have right now. I said to one of my clients this week&ldots;. She said "thank you for seeing me, I know how busy you are". In fact I don't feel that busy but I said to her "it is a pleasure to watch you bloom". I feel like as long as I stay out of the way and offer encouragement my clients bloom. I think all clients bloom sooner or later. I have given up guessing what they need. I ask them what they need. They know and I just watch them bloom. It sounds awfully simplistic but it is not because every person is different.
TM: Are you doing anything else besides watching your clients bloom?
YD: I would be making quilts; hosting gatherings of solution-focused therapist so I can listen to them talk to each other. I would, I suppose, right now I'm looking forward to gardening all summer and reading other people's books and seeing clients but I have written three books in the last five years but I suppose when I have so many ideas that I can't contain anymore I will have written another book. I feel compelled to write stuff down before I forget it and I end up with a book.
IB: What do you see as the future for solution-focused brief therapy?
YD: I think that there are certain strands of the various constructivist therapies that I predict may stay the same. That is respecting and honoring what the client knows. I think how that gets expressed is going to continue into almost a gothic number of possibilities. I think about quilts a lot. That is one of my passions. If you look at a quilt pattern it is structurally the same but ten different quilters can do it with ten different colors and each one looks different. That is not all. One person can just do a corner of it and then add something of their own and it looks entirely different. Another person can deconstruct it in a different way and it looks entirely different. I think the reason that there are so many approaches in our field in general is because there are many ways to do good therapy. There are many things that work. One of the things I love about this field is that I can't predict how it will go next. My hope is that people will continue to discover more of what works. It will be different for each person. It will be different for each client and for each therapist.
One of the things I love right now is that I am finally at an age when I am learning from people younger than me. It's really fun. I can't really predict it. I'm a little impatient with the American therapy field in the sense that in the last ten years they seem to have a trend in which for someone to feel that they have contributed something it is as if they have to annihilate their father and mother before them in the field. I don't think that is necessary. I think that new ideas that work are worthwhile on their own and don't need to be held up to the test of being a replacement for something else. I think it is good enough if they work. I just don't think it is useful to discredit the people who came before us.
IB: Going back to your story about trees&ldots; I see it as a continuing, growing forest. You don't chop down the old trees after the new ones start to sprout. You make a forest.
YD: You wouldn't suggest getting rid of all the pines to grow a proper apple tree? (laughter)
TM: Also all the trees are growing in the same earth. (Pause) I wonder what has been the most important thing for you during this discussion?
YD: For me, your thoughts and questions have provoked me to think about the fact that the field has and will continue to evolve. I find I am hoping I get to live a really long time so I get to see what comes down the river. I have this belief or stance that it is going to be useful and I want to see what it is.
TM: So you want to watch how the river flows?
YD: I should have warned you I am a chronic optimist.
TM: For me personally, this has been a very warm and open and creative discussion. I found some new ideas that I want put into my heart. I just want to thank you.
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