Dr. Harlene Anderson is a well recognized leader in the field of marriage and family therapy, and is internationally recognized for her leading role in the development of a postmodern collaborative approach to psychotherapy. She has applied this collaborative approach to education, research and consultation. She received her B.S. and M.A. at the University of Houston, and her Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family therapy, at Union Institute and University, in Ohio. Dr. Anderson holds a number of editorial board positions including founding editor of International Journal of Collaborative Practices (2009-present), and advisory editor of Family Process (1992-present). Dr. Anderson’s most recent positions include founding member and faculty at Houston Galveston Institute (1978-present), founding member and board of directors at Taos Institute (1993-present) and founding member and principal partner at Access Success International (2002-present). She is the recipient of a number of awards which reflect her contributions to the field, including the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997, and the American Academy of Family Therapy Award for Distinguished Contribution to Family Therapy Theory and Practice, in 2008.
Below is a brief interview conducted by Taylor Bourassa with Dr. Anderson. For those who are interested in learning more, I will provide a list of references at the end of the interview.
Hello Dr. Harlene Anderson, I appreciate your taking the time to conduct this interview with me. Before we proceed to questions about your career, and your contributions to the field, I would like to acquaint my readers with you. Could you give us some insight into how your career began? What about Psychology interested you so that motivated you to dedicate your life’s work to the field?
Very simply that as long as I can remember I have always wanted to help people in one way or another – I came from a very generous family with parents who always noticed people who needed help and provided it or found the resources as best they could.
You are a leading figure in family and marriage therapy, but before we delve into all of your contributions to both therapies, could you elaborate on why you chose this area of specialization? Was there a particular catalyst that helped you make your decision?
By serendipity. I began a position in the Pediatric Department at the Un. of Texas Medical School in Galveston, TX. As soon as I arrived on campus, I began hearing about something called family therapy – always spoken about with a lot of enthusiasm. I had never heard of family therapy in my undergraduate (BS) or graduate (MA) psychology program. I enrolled in a family therapy course to find out what all the buzz was about. In the first session, I realized that I found something that I didn’t know I had been looking for – and the beginnings of a new language, that upon reflection, to make sense of some of my previous professional experiences.
Dr. Harold Goolishian and yourself developed collaborative therapy. This approach is quite interesting, and offers more flexibility within therapy sessions, offering the client more control, and more breathing room. To me, this approach is reminiscent of Carl Rogers’ client-centered approach. Would you say that this therapy was influenced by Rogers’ humanistic approach in any way?
I am often asked this question. I was not influenced by Rogers as his work was not part of my graduate program. There are some similarities and definitely some distinctions. Please refer your readers to and article that elaborates on this response:
Anderson, H. (2001) Postmodern collaborative and person-centered therapies: What would Carl Rogers say? Journal of Family Therapy. 23:339-360.
Could you elaborate on the structure of this approach, and its typical process?
A response to this question requires a lot of elaboration. The approach, rather than being based in techniques and methods, is based in what I call a “philosophical stance.” The stance is based in postmodern and related premises (social construction theory, contemporary hermeneutic philosophy, and some theories of language and dialogue. The premises are based in a strong focus on knowledge and language as relational and generative rather than as static and representative. The stance has several interrelated features that combined serve as an action-orienting guide. This belief/value framework influences the way that therapists and other professionals think about the people they work with, themselves, and what they do together. Each person or group of people we meet with in our work is viewed as a new unique encounter that calls forth a unique relationship and process.
It is interesting to note that this approach does not rely on DSM diagnostic criteria for diagnosing and treating individuals. Is there any specific reason this was determined as a necessary part of the approach?
The approach was originally developed in the psychiatry department of a medical school, and its roots date back to the later 1950s, so it was developed within a medical model of diagnoses and treatment. My colleagues and I took notice of how “patients” were treated as a diagnosis, and not a unique person. In other words, the diagnosis was sitting in front of them, not a unique human being – so what was familiar was noticed and sought. The novelty and nuances of the person and their unique situation/circumstances were not seen nor heard. In other words, the familiar blinded seeing and hearing the unfamiliar.
Stemming from the decision to not rely on the DSM, would you also say that medication then, is not relied on as heavily as it is in other approaches? Would you agree that medication is necessary for treating some symptoms, but the over-reliance on medication may in fact, damage the client more so than help them?
Of course, sometimes medications are helpful.
Stepping away from the collaborative approach for a moment, you are a co-founder of the Galveston Family Institute at the Houston Galveston Institute. What was it like developing and contributing to such an important resource for mental health professionals?
It was then and is now very stimulating – provides various forums and colleagues within and with whom to be in conversation with – to reflect on and challenge ideas and practices.
Since the institute has been established, you have continued to contribute significantly to the field, through writing, workshops and conferences. One interesting event I need to mention is the International summer institute. What are some of the activities and workshops one would typically experience while attending this weeklong learning conference?
The International Summer Institute (ISI) is a collaborative learning community in action. It is week of immersion in collaborative-dialogic practices. Participants come from various professional, cultural and language contexts. The various focuses of the week are influenced by participants’ interests and agendas – there is always a combination of focus on the application of the ideas and practices in therapy, education, research, consulting/coaching and organizations.
There is a balance of plenary/didactic presentations, conversation clusters to discuss the presentations and etc, self-organize dialogue spaces around topics participants want to delve into more, experiential exercises and demonstrations of the practice with clients during the week. There is ample time for people to network, continue to talk and share about ideas and practices, and to enjoy the culture, food, etc of the Mexican Mayan Riviera.
We pay careful attention in selecting the venue for the ISI as physical space and ambience a critical part of “setting the stage” for a collaborative learning community. There is always a rich mixture of participants – some quite experienced professors and researchers, some who are mainly practitioners (though teaching and research are practices), some with little experienced either professionally or with the ideas and practices, and some students. My colleagues and I find that heterogeneity in learning groups invites a richer learning experience, and the participants echo this in their evaluations.
For more information, please refer your readers to: http://harleneanderson.org/isi2016.html
Your writing is some of the most compelling I have had the opportunity to read. One article in particular that is of interest to me is Some Notes on Listening, Hearing and Speaking And the Relationship to Dialogue in which you demonstrate the importance of communication, and having a space for dialogue. This is so fundamental to therapy. In this article you say: “Wittgenstein talked of relationship and conversation going hand-in hand: the kinds of conversations that we have with each other inform and form the kinds of relationships we have with each other and vice versa.” This demonstrates the importance of developing a therapeutic alliance with your client. Would you argue that the most essential aspect of successful therapy is this therapist-client relationship? And that this relationship stems predominantly from the way we listen to and act towards the client?
I think that the relationship is important, and I think most research that accesses client voices/feedback agrees. The way we meet and greet, and the way we respond with others is critical to the relationship. The relationship is not something that is created at the beginning of the engagement, but something that must be attended to throughout.
You mention that most unsuccessful therapy was due to the client not feeling as though they had been heard. Would you propose that listening skills could, and should be taught to therapists, in order to offer a more successful therapy experience for clients?
Not necessarily “listening skills” but the notion of responsive listening . Please refer your readers to the work of psychologist/philosopher John Shotter and literary critic/philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin.
I like to ask this of all persons I interview, as a closing statement more so than anything. If you were to give future Psychologists one piece of advice, what would it be?
Hold what you think you might now in “parentheses”. In other words, always be a reflective practitioner: be questioning of inherited knowledge, be careful of the risks of generalizing, and have an awareness of the importance of the local knowledge (the resources–customs, culture, language, history, beliefs, etc,) that each person we work with brings with them to our encounter. We are always both a momentary and transitional ‘host’ and ‘guest’ in the lives of the people we work with.
Taylor, thank you for your interest in my work and for this opportunity to respond to your questions. I send my warmest greetings to you and your readers.
Anderson, H., Goolishian, H., & Winderman, L. (1986) Problem determined systems: Towards transformation in family therapy. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies. 5(4):1-13.
Anderson, H. (1987) Therapeutic impasses: A break-down in conversation. A presentation at Grand Rounds, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital Boston, MA. April 1986 and at the Society for Family Therapy Research, Boston, MA, October, 1986.
Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1988) Human systems as linguistic systems: Evolving ideas about the implications for theory and practice. Family Process 27:371-393.
Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1992) The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy. In S. McNamee & K.J. Gergen (Eds.) Therapy as Social Construction. Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA.
Anderson, H. & Swim, S. (1993) Learning as collaborative conversation: Combining the student’s and the teacher’s expertise. Human Systems: The Journal of Systemic Consultation and Management. 4:145-160.
Anderson, H. (1994) Rethinking family therapy: A delicate balance. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 20(2):145-150.
Anderson, H. (1998) Collaborative learning communities. In. S. McNamee & J.K. Gergen (Eds.). Relational Responsibility. Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA. Anderson, H. (1997) Conversation, Language, and Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach to Therapy. New York: Basic Books.
Anderson, H. (1999) Reimagining family therapy: Reflections on Minuchin’s invisible family. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 25(1):1-8.
Anderson, H. (2000) Supervision as a collaborative learning community. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Supervision Bulletin. Fall 2000:7-10.
Anderson, H. (2000) Becoming a postmodern collaborative therapist: a clinical and theoretical journey. Pat I. Journal of the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 3(1):5-12.
Anderson, H. (2003). A postmodern collaborative approach to theraphy: Broadening the possibilities of clients and therapists. In Ethically challenged professions: Enabling innovation and diversity in psychotherapy and counseling. In Y. Bates & R. House (Eds.). PCCS Books: Herefordshisre, UK.
Anderson, H. (2005). Myths about not knowing. Family Process, 44, 497–502.
Anderson, H. & Gehart, D. (Eds.). (2007). Collaborative practice: Relationships and conversations that make a difference. New York: Routledge.
Anderson, H. & Jensen, P. (Eds.). (2007. Innovations in the reflecting process: The inspiration of Tom Andersen. London: Karnac Books.
Anderson, H., Cooperrider, D., Gergen,M, Gergen, K., McNamee, S., Watkins, J M., and Whitney, D. (2008). The Appreciative Organization. Taos Institute Publications.
Anderson, H. (2008). Collaborative therapy. In K. B. Jordon (Ed.), The theory reference guide: a quick resource for expert and novice mental health professionals. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Anderson, H. (2009). Collaborative practice: Relationships and conversations that make a difference. In J. Bray & M. Stanton (Eds.). The Wiley handbook of family psychology. (pp.300-313).
Anderson, H. (2012). Collaborative practice: A way of being ‘with’. Psychotherapy and Politics International. 10, 1002.
Anderson, H. (2012). Collaborative relationships and dialogic conversations: Ideas for a relationally responsive therapy. Family Process. 52(1): 8-24.
Anderson, H. (2014). Rethinking psychotherapy: Collaborative-dialogue. Psychology Aotearoa. Auckland, New Zealand: 6(2): 87-92. November 2014.
Anderson, H. (2014). Tips for how to have a good assistant. Silver Fox Advisors. http://silverfox.org/content.php?page=2014_September_Newsletter.
Anderson, H. (2014). Collaborative-dialogue based research as everyday practice: Questioning our myths. In G. Simon & A. Chard, Eds. Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research. www.eicpress.com: Everything is Connected Press.
Anderson, H. (2015). Collaborative therapy. In Sage Encyclopedia of Theory of Counseling and Psychotherapy. (E. Neukrug, Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.