The Centre for Narrative Psychology and Practice


Reflecting team
6 2011

Lynn Hoffman


Lynn Hoffman


Question: How do reflecting teams work? Do they discuss the problem in the family and come up with an answer?

Hoffman: No they don¹t. Reflecting teams, as envisioned by Tom Andersen, the person who originated them, do not come to a consensus. And they don't speak in the voice of a professional, either. We found, when experimenting with the idea, that we had to shed that persona, and not make suggestions, or be supervisors, or teach, or be useful in any of the ways we had been taught. It felt like we had to keep in mind the saying: "Don't be mad at me, I'm not trying to help you."

Question: So what was left?

Hoffman: We began to share bits of personal history that fit with the family or person's story; or we would associate to some hopeful idea that came out of that story; or we would come up with an image or a metaphor that seemed to embody in an empathic way what we were hearing. We would also honor suffering the way a Greek chorus does, by witnessing it.

Question: Doesn¹t Michael White also use reflecting teams?

Hoffman: Yes. White, who has adapted Andersen's format for his own use, thinks of them as definitional ceremonies in anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff¹s sense. He will ask people in the picture - workshop audiences, or former consultees - to reflect as "outsider witnesses" to a person's story. But he discourages "applause" or being positive for the sake of being positive. Instead, he pushes for "thicker descriptions," so that people offer a richer picture to each others' eyes.

Question: It sounds like a kind of therapeutic brainstorming.

Hoffman: No, that would be like the old grand rounds thing, where the person in distress is merely a stimulus for the opinions of the experts. What Andersen was doing was more radical, in that the family or person asking for help was asked to be a critical audience. Having listened in to the conversation between the professionals, the family would be asked what struck them about what they heard. Even if they didn't say much, or anything, they were put in the novel position of being consultants to their consultants.

Question: You¹re talking about a more democratic way of working.

Hoffman: Not only that. It was the piling of turn upon turn that hit me as so new: family telling their story, team speaking about family's story, family speaking about team's ideas about their story, another "pod" commenting on the foregoing, and so forth. This layering process seemed to open a window through which the most interesting ideas would stream, as well as creating a sense of trust and shared optimism.

Question: Do reflecting teams always use a oneway screen?

Hoffman: No. The oneway screen pretty well collapsed as a result of all this sharing. Tom is now involved in "open dialogues" in psychiatric settings in the North of Europe, where everybody involved in a case speaks their points of view in the hearing of everybody else, and there is no gulf of secrecy between clients and professionals at all. Of course, this type of procedure makes professionals careful about what they say in front of the persons consulting them. Clinical language takes a beating.

Question: If you don¹t assess, diagnose, prescribe or interpret, what do you do?

Hoffman: The image that I use to describe this process is kneading yeast dough. You have to fold over the dough over and over again, and as you do that it stops being an inert sticky mass of yeast and water and flour and becomes alive. You know when this has happened, because the dough begins to resist your hands. If you try to poke your finger into it, the hole just fills back up. But what makes the dough come alive is not just the folding over and over; it is also the warmth of your hand.

Question: This is a kind of work that some postmodernists are calling social poetics.
Hoffman: Yes. The art of a reflecting process, as Tom came to call it, lies in the way a pod of people can work on a vision together so that those listening in feel as if they are eavesdropping on something that is always at the edge of the new. And there is a contagion effect, so that the next layer of the conversation continues the spell.
Question: But if you watch a reflecting team, what do you see and hear?
Hoffman: When Tom is listening to people, he follows very closely the "not yet seen" and "not yet said," and attends especially to what is told in the language of the body. His way of reflecting on these hidden dimensions is always full of thought and care. He will often come up with an amazing image that "says without saying" in the most perfect way.

Question: Can you give an example?

Hoffman: Yes. I saw a tape of an older couple who had recently fallen in love but were experiencing enormous strife. It turned out that the man was a devout Buddhist and the woman was a Born Again Christian. Andersen was on the reflecting team and when he spoke he said something like the following: As I listened to the conversation here, a picture came into my mind of two smiling suns. And as I thought about this picture, I also saw the coming and going of these suns. First I was thinking Let come the sun, and then I thought, Let go the sun. Two smiling suns - let come the sun - let go the sun.

Question: What did you make of this?

Hoffman: It was only much later that it occurred to me that he was perhaps suggesting that in a solar system with two suns, they had better pay attention to their comings and goings. But I never asked.

Question: Did he make any interpretation of this to the couple?

Hoffman: No. But the couple reported being very pleased with their consultation, and spoke of it in the most positive terms.

Question: So there is no emphasis on solutions?

Hoffman: None at all. But what is so surprising is that during a reflecting process an answer of some kind will so often fall out of the air, even though there is no attempt to answer any question or to reach any goal.


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