Inside: Dr. Harlene Anderson

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:

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.

Selected References: 

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.

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. 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.


Inside: Jerome Kagan

Dr. Kagan is a renowned developmental Psychologist and a key pioneer in the development of that field. He is professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and is most famous for his research on child temperament. What follows is a brief interview conducted by myself, Taylor Bourassa, with Dr. Jerome Kagan.

Q: What would you say was the catalyst that drew you to Psychology, particularly developmental Psychology?

A: My attraction to developmental psychology in 1954, when I made my career choice, was the belief, which was popular at the time, that   the experiences of children during the first few years shaped future development. Discovery of these cause –effect relations would allow psychologists to inform parents of the proper behaviors. As a result, it was assumed that crime, psychosis, addiction, and other social ills would be reduced. Few believe that optimistic premise today, but many did in 1954.

 Q: Who would you cite as your intellectual influences? This does not have to be limited to those within the field of Psychology.

A: Several people influenced my ideas. My mentor at Yale, Frank Beach, affirmed my personal preference for discovery of nature’s secrets, as opposed to affirming abstract a priori hypotheses.   Bohr’s idea of complementarity and the principle that the meaning and validity of every conclusion depend on the source of evidence have had a profound effect on my thought. I have also been influenced by the many historians I have read. Their books taught me that historical events have a more serious effect on the psychology of individuals than most social scientists are willing to admit.

Q: You have completed a great amount of research in the field of developmental Psychology – is there any other stream that has or continues to peak your interest?

A: I continue to read genetics and history for both play important roles in the psychology of the person.

Q: You have a great many publications, including such works as “Growth of the Child”, and “Birth to Maturity”, which would you say you enjoyed writing, and researching for the most?

A: Because “Birth to Maturity” was my first major book and the project that led to the book my initial major investigation, I naturally hold a sentimental feeling for that text and the work that preceded it. I am proud of “ The Long Shadow of Temperament”, written with Nancy Snidman, because it summarized many years of research on the infant temperamental biases we called high and low reactive. I learned a great deal by writing “ The Three Cultures” because I had to read deeply in economics and the humanities.

Q: In the 1970s you conducted research with colleagues on daycare, where you created a daycare of your own, and compared the infants who attended said daycare to those who stayed at home with their mothers. Could you elaborate on the procedure, ie: what the structure of the daycare was, what sorts of activities were provided for the children. What was your inspiration for conducting this research? Do you think if the same study were conducted now, 40 years later, similar results would be shown?

 A: The day care study, with Richard Kearsley and Philip Zelazo, was motivated by the historical moment. The Congress was considering sponsoring federal day care centers in the early 1970s because more mothers were working. Many psychologists, including me, were concerned about the consequences of day care on young infants. So NIH gave us a grant to assess the effects of day care on infants from 3 to 29 months of age. We established our own center in the South End of Boston in a working class neighborhood and recruited both European-Caucasian as well as Chinese-American families. The staff played with the infants and provided appropriate cognitive stimulation. A matched control group was reared at home.

We were convinced that we had to assess many infant behaviors directly, rather than rely on maternal reports as the bases for evidence. We also believed that the infant’s response to violations of discrepancy was an important trait. Hence, we devised many procedures to evaluate this property and we coded both behaviors as well as heart rate changes to the violations. Our surprise was discovering that at 29 months there were minimal differences between the infants in our center and those raised at home, but the Chinese and Caucasian infants differed in many traits. That discovery motivated me to study temperament. I believe that if the same study were repeated today the same basic results would be found.

 Q: With the recent advances in, and research on, early childhood education, there have been varying views and arguments regarding its efficacy and necessity. I would like to get your point of view on the impact early childhood education programs have on a child’s development.

A: The results of the many intervention efforts with young children have been less effective than many hoped. Ken Dodge has pointed out that one reason for this fact is that the contexts in which the children lived and acted (classroom, playground, evening meal, with peers in groups) were not the contexts in which most of the interventions were implemented. Behaviors are affected by the local context! A child is more likely to hit a peer on the playground than when interacting with a stranger trying to teach them to read or control impulse. In addition, it was a bit naive to assume that 6 to 12 months of intervention experience (usually less than a few hours a week) could offset the effects of home and neighborhood experiences. Finally, it has proven difficult to change the practices of poor or minority parents if they have little faith in the premise that what they do will have a serious effect on their child. As a result, most of the programs that have been reported have had minimal long term effects on a majority of children. We need different kinds of interventions and have to assess a parent’s willingness and receptivity to change.

 Q: In “A history in Psychology” you show that cognitive growth is malleable. In recent years the concept of neuroplasticity has become more and more popular- do you agree that our brains remain malleable throughout development, well into adulthood? If this is true, based on your studies in temperament, what would be your take on the idea that adults can alter their temperament?

A: Yes, the brain and behaviors are malleable, especially during the first decade. A temperamental bias for cautious, timid behavior can be changed easily, but that does not mean that the neurobiology that is the basis of the bias is equally malleable. Our results show that many of the children who had been shy, fearful two-year-olds but became sociable, non-timid adults retained the neurophysiology of their initial temperamental bias. The behavioral phenotype can change without a comparable change in the biology. A person with the genes for diabetes can avoid the symptoms by the proper diet even though he or she possesses the risk genes.

 Q: What changes have you seen in the study of developmental Psychology from the time you began your career to the present day?

A: The main changes in developmental psychology over the past 60 years include a keen interest in the cognitive capacities of infants that are more complex than perception, studies of the consequences of the attachment bond of infants, concern with executive processes and regulation in older children, and measuring relations between brain states and behavior.

 Thank you for answering my questions Dr. Kagan, and I have one more question for you. If there would be one piece of advice or suggestion you could give to aspiring or new Psychologists, what would it be?

A: My advice to the next cohort of psychologists is to be bolder and address more significant problems. Three such questions in developmental psychology are:

  1. How do the experiences of children from advantaged versus disadvantaged homes affect their development? This requires direct observations over time rather than verbal reports of parents. A child’s social class remains the best predictor of the risk for a mental illness, incarceration, and a metabolic illness.
  2. Development of procedures that measure a child’s identifications with family, class, ethnicity, and religion. These identifications have profound effect but we do not have methods to measure them with accuracy.
  3. Initiate studies of the large number of infant temperamental biases by observing infants directly, gathering biological data, and following the children for at least 10 years.