I have been interested in systemic practice in child protection for several years. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity, along with a group of dear colleagues, to spend the whole week learning from and with two wonderful women, Jennifer Summer and Liz Bosanquet from Collective Space. Collective Space is a social enterprise which trains social workers and organizations in systemic practice in England.
There are many things that inspire me in systemic ideas such as focusing on relationships, genuine, respectful collaboration with children and families and curious yet neutral exploration of family patterns just to name some.
Systemic practice has opened up as a whole new sea of possibilities for me as a social worker. Talking about a sea, the week we spent with Liz and Jennifer took me at least a hundred nautical miles ahead on my journey to systemic thinking and practice. I will probably remember our week as one of the major turning points of my professional journey. What we heard and learned during the time spent together showed me what extraordinary, humane, effective social work practice could really look like.
In my case, a lot of digesting will be needed after the rich week. But when thinking of why it was so inspiring, a few words come into my mind, freedom being the first one. Systemic thinking increases one’s freedom. New ways of thinking and working open up as one’s consciousness of one’s professional thinking and working increases. Systemic thinking is to a large part about awakening to how we as professionals think and what other possibilities there are. After the training week I was given tools for actual self-reflection i.e. recognizing one’s own biases, beliefs and prejudices and realizing more clearly than before how we very tangibly construct the phenomena we work with. As workers we have a huge role in constructing how mothers, fathers and children are defined. This makes us very much part of system we work with, also sometimes part of the problems and part of the solutions. The freedom lies in that our constructions are just that – constructions. We can always take a few steps back and think of alternatives.
Another word that I take with me from the week together is respect. Adopting a genuine respect for clients frees you from the stiffness of the expert role and allows you to be curious, a human being with just a few hunches from where to start with a new family. I thought respect was also present in the way Liz and Jennifer payed attention to the powerlessness many families have experienced in their lives when we become part of it . I felt there was a lot of respect in the way they emphasized the need for empowering children and parents in every phase of the work. Asking for permission, asking if it’s okay to go on discussing, being sensitive to signs of hesitation or confusion in body language and in the expression of emotions. We learned that it is so important to be aware of even the most subtle things happening in the worker-client -interaction, since children and families start making observations of our use our power from the very first meeting or contact with us. Even the tone in one’s voice or the postures we take, may be part of a powerful intervention – in good and in bad. Taking up a gentle, permission seeking practice is essential in systemic practice to make sure that we are using our power in the most empowering way possible.
A third word describing the lessons I learned is safety. Strange enough, I realized during the training week that the feeling of insecurity I have experienced as a social worker has much more to do with my own fear of mistakes and being a rubbishy social worker than anything else. I have feared that I don’t have what it takes – that I can’t see things clearly or that I would be too much or too little of this and that to do a good job. I realized during the week that uncertainty is an inescapable part of the job in child protection and that one should actually embrace it. If one would feel safe and certain all the time and know exactly how to make the risks to disappear, then one would be a rubbishy worker. Hesitation and uncertainty are okay, since in real life there are no “final solutions” to complex problems. Interventions alter family systems but along with changes that make it better, there may also be new dilemmas raised up. Paradoxically it seems that safety increases when you accept that uncertainty will always be there and that it is even desirable. Feeling safer as a social worker comes from accepting the position of safe uncertainty.
A forth word I took with me is skill.Liz and Jennifer took us through a lot of useful new ideas, theories and concepts. But we also learned a lot simply by seeing and experiencing how they actually do things, how they practice and how they teach! For example, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone building a genogram with a client (the lovely expert by experience) as gently and skillfully as Jennifer. The interview Jennifer did, demonstrated to us how an encounter can be started by carefully warming up the context and gently seeking permission. Starting the genogram like this made the whole process seem very calm and safe. And we who listened learned just by observing.
These are just some of the things I learned. And though I felt I really learned a lot, I was also left with a huge curiosity and an interest to learn more and to try out the ideas in practice.
We are lucky in Finland having the amazing opportunity to spread the ideas of systemic social work throughout the country. The ministry supports this. All the 18 counties are participating. During this year and the next 150 teams will be trained and leaders are invited to organize support to make systemic practice possible in Finnish Child protection.
I started today by talking about a new sea. I said that I feel like standing on the shore of an amazing new sea. But maybe I’m not standing on the shore after all. Maybe I have already taken off. Working can be really inspiring sometimes and right now I’m feeling so lucky, like the poet Rumi:
“On a day when the wind is perfect, the sail just needs to open and the world is full of beauty. “
So, Liz and Jennifer (and the wonderful group) thank you so much!