Temptations of Power and Certainty

Jon Amundson, Ph.D.
Kenneth Stewart, Ph.D.
LaNae Valentine, Ph.D.

Jon Amundson is in private practice, Amundson

and Associates, 2003 14 St. N.W., Suite 206,

Calgary, Alberta, Canada  T2M 3N4

Kenneth Stewart is in private practice in the

Minneapolis / St. Paul area

LaNae Valentine is Assistant Professor, Marriage and Family Therapy Program, Brigham Young University, Provo UT  84602

 * Amundson, J., Stewart, K., & Valentine, L. (1993).  Temptations of Power and Certainty.      Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.  Vol. 19, No. 2.  111 - 123.


In our search for guiding principles out of which to conduct therapy, we encounter two temptations: temptations of power and certainty.  When therapists do not adequately account for the position of our clients, we fall prey to the temptation of certainty.  When we attempt to impose corrections from such certainty, we fall victim to the temptation of power.  Colonization occurs in therapy when our commitment to “expert knowledge”  blinds us to the experience-in-the-room.  This paper offers suggestions for sidestepping power/certainty by contrasting therapies of power and certainty with therapies of curiosity and empowerment.

 “...man has an intense need for certainty; he wants to believe that there is no need to doubt that the method by which he makes his decisions is right.”  (Fromm, 1968). 


Though it is our intention to take to task the temptations of power and certainty, at least as they apply to psychotherapy, it is necessary initially to acknowledge that perhaps both power and certainty are ubiquitous aspects of the human condition. From infancy on we seem compelled to understand things and act in ways that are sound and efficacious. We continually make distinctions, assimilate and accommodate in building schema out of which to enact our lives (Ginsberg and Opper, 1979).  These schemas become the personal beliefs and behavioral regularities that provide a sense of continuity, predictability, and personal agency, which in turn protect us from foundering in the precariousness of the moment.  However, like any form of protection, our certainties about the world may also restrict and constrain us.  Outside of a given context, when unquestioned or rigidly adhered to, certainty can become a hindrance in getting things done.  In therapy, certainty often emerges as expertise or privileged knowledge that claims to capture the “essence” of things.  In trying to be helpful there is the temptation to enact our privilege; to impose upon others normalizing standards or to be blinded to diversity by the “professional” certainties of our practice.  

     This paper attempts to address the disabling aspects of power and certainty, especially as they manifest themselves in conscious intent and “willfulness” (Atkinson and Heath, 1990) in the therapeutic encounter.  What begins, as a basic human trait –the desire to make sense of our circumstance and influence the events of our lives – may be the source of much mischief in social systems in general1 and in therapy specifically. This is especially so, given the therapist’s power conveyed by role and status, in relation to the client coupled with the need for certainty on both parts.  We shall attempt to address the ramifications of misplaced or undue emphasis upon certainty and the power it engenders in the therapeutic process.  While to some extent the pursuit of certainty and the issue of power may be endemic to the human condition, it is our contention that this need not, and should not, be foundational to the craft of therapy.  


      Though therapy must begin somewhere, it must not take its beginnings nor endings too seriously.  Serious pursuit of certainty – how to size up and conduct therapy – runs the risk of producing rigidity or inflexibility in the practitioner and in the practice.  White and Epston (1989) speak of the power of “normalized truths” – discipline related beliefs, which are rigidly held, tacitly or implicitly as self-evident, and go unquestioned.  These fundamental beliefs consist of regularities or rules of conduct, which govern practice or define our discipline. However, they can also constitute positive obstacles in the enactment of therapy.  These are the certainties sought after by the novice practitioner or rigidly enforced by the seasoned, “knowledgeable” veteran.  They may be found in generic beliefs about human behaviour or specific theories or schools of therapy.  Power is evoked by and through such knowledge.   While power/certainty 2 promises results, it may unwittingly bind us to the “same damn thing over and over” (Watzlawick, 1978).  

     One result of unchecked power/certainty is the loss of alternatives or the subordination of naive experience to expertise.  Expertise, however, may silence not only our clients but also ourselves as therapists.  At its worst this reductionism (Rozak, 1969) and objectification of ourselves and our clients under “specified knowledge,” “expertise,” and “normalized truths” overshadows the hidden truths or “local knowledge” (Gertz, 1983) of both the client and the therapist.  

     What we argue for here is a process of not only questioning the client but also questioning ourselves and the certainties of our disciplines.  We are not the first to suggest, as does Shore (1990), that all significant inquiry must begin and end in questioning.  He warns that while this may be frustrating at times, it is the price we pay for opening nature to our relentless interrogations.  The temptation to transcend uncertainty and “make articulate the inarticulate parts of the self...to see the world beckoning with meaning, these are the things most of us devoutly desire”(p. 37).   But when this yearning is governed by urgency, we need to be uneasy, “conscious of how such longing can shape perception and color understanding” (p. 37). 


     Without questioning the certainties embedded in our expertise, we may foster a “colonial discourse,” an apparatus of power whose “strategic function is the creation of a space for a ‘subject peoples’”(Bhabha, 1990, p. 75). When this happens, our expertise and specified knowledge run the risk of subjugating rather than liberating.  Under the banner of “treatment,” therapists and other professionals often descend upon families in much the same way that colonists descend upon a new land (Kearney, Byrne and McCarthy, 1989).   Families may respond to this colonizing process by acquiescence, retreat, or at times, even revolt to the apparatuses of power.  This sort of “therapeutic” colonization, then, is the process of unchecked power and certainty in action.  

     Clients arrive for the therapeutic encounter rich in the “resources” of suffering and complaint.  Like an under-developed nation, the client is ripe for colonization.  This can occur as the therapist selects for attention those features of the client’s story, which articulate with therapist predisposition or expert knowledge.   From a position of power /certainty – supported by social institutions and driven by the therapist’s own need to adhere to certain theories about the client and therapy – the therapist ventures forth as colonizer.

     Therapy begins with the therapist having the upper hand (Haley, 1963).  In viewing the suffering or complaint of the client through the lenses of their discipline, therapists select the “raw material” to be used for purposes of therapeutic exploration.  If, under the temptation of certainty, specified knowledge and expertise is held fast, the selection process becomes restricted.  At that point, even well-intentioned therapists may find their flexibility compromised and hence their “raid upon the random” unnecessarily restricted (Bateson, 1972; Keeney, 1983, 1985; Amundson, 1989b). As the selection/ diagnostic / categorizing process proceeds, a colonial discourse can be created that  “produces the colonized as fixed reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible” (Bhabha, 1990, p. 75).  As individuals and families are subjected to such surveillance, colonial discourses of certainty are used “to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction (p. 75).”  The personal knowledge and anomalous experience of the client, that is, the unique accounts (White and Epston, 1989) that tell of exceptions to the rule of the problem, are buried under colonial onslaught. 


     Like a colonial of the third world, however, the client may respond to colonization in a number of ways (Fanon, 1963).  Some clients are successful colonial subjects in that they seem to be predisposed to psychological insights and/or are sufficiently malleable. Much has been written in the literature about such a client; in fact, therapeutic colonizing mentality has gone as far as to define this population as the ideal or even exclusive group for therapy (Shertzer and Stone, 1974).  These individuals, couples or families, may absorb or embrace the therapist's worldview as they respond to the apparatuses of power and the discourses of certainty of the colonizer.  Discarding naive or traditional knowledge, they may mimic the language or espouse the expert knowledge of the therapeutic system.  As good colonial subjects, they readily intertwine their destiny with that of the colonizer.  As clients, they endure and persist with therapy, finally accepting the diagnosis, categorization or labeling, gratefully “making progress,” or “getting better.”

     Another response may be found among those clients/colonials who “just don't get it.” They cannot find a place within the power/certainty of the colonizer.  Try as they might, they are unable to dismiss their naive traditions which have enabled them to survive the colonial vision.  Unfortunately in this scenario problems seem to persist.  Repeated attempts at treatment take on the feeling of “the same damn thing over and over” (Watzlawick, 1978).  Since these clients don’t seem to get it, they become the “white man's burden.” 

     Out of this second population another group can emerge: individuals already on the edge of the dominant culture.  These are low-functioning families, long-term sufferers, individuals compelled to have organized their lives around complaint or young people with the most compelling desire to write their own story (Epston and White, 1989).  In their tenacious commitment to personal knowledge and their own worldview, they take to the hills.  Like guerillas they lock the colonizer into a drama of combat over power/certainty.  Echoing La Pasionara of the Spanish Civil War, they espouse the belief that it is “better to die on their own feet than live on their knees.”  The colonizers’ reality of these clients is that they are “resistant” and “just don’t know what is in their own best interest.”


      While we realize in some ways all things can be seen as relative, there do seem to be some “special status” circumstances (Wittgenstein, 1958).  These are beliefs, cultural practices, habits, etc. that just don’t seem to go away no matter how passionate our deconstructivist sentiment.  We cannot deny abuse, poverty, injustice and inequity if we seek to intervene on behalf of the dominated, the abused, and the vulnerable.   There are other times in which our special status certainties represent unifying principles or treasured ideas, which resonate forcefully within us and drive us inexorably ahead. Dylan Thomas imagined these creative forces were like: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age. . .”  But, these powerful natural forces are like a double-edged sword, as he says in the next line: “that blasts the roots of tree / Is my destroyer.”   The very forces that create, or move us forward, can also destroy or hold us back. Ideas that are born from sudden insight, leaps of faith, and “aha” experiences often become life-changing epiphanies.  These epiphanies and the wondrous ideas to which they give birth, fill us with their richness and evolve into treasured guiding principles.  However, in the whirlwind of fullness we may seek to reify or preserve our insights beyond themselves. Full of our wondrous insight, we leave little room left for anything else.  What once opened space and expanded our minds now leaves little room for more of us or the other person.  Power and certainty may steal or seal off what was once a vital, enabling and creative process.

     Pursuit of absolute certainty or truth, however, is the temptation to believe we may have something in a total sense.   Though in fact, “the truth may snare us at times, but we can never snare the truth,” (Keeney, 1983, p. 3). By holding fast to our pursuit of certainties we attempt to gain power over the chaos and ambiguity problems engender. These attempts may paradoxically weaken us by closing off options, seizing us u, and reducing flexibility.  While power is the state certainty hopes to attain, power/certainty as a fixed perspective represents distinctions and practice which can freeze up a system.


     Often, our clients, like good colonials, have attempted to absorb/espouse contemporary psychology in their attempts to understand the problem.  It is axiomatic, however, that their definition has not led to a solution.  Thus, an integral part of our therapy is to regularly challenge our client's problem definition of family matters.  Our theory might de-construct this pseudo-sophistication and therapy might seek to challenge the certainty/power of their definition.

     However, more often than not, rather than resurrect naive or subjugated knowledge regarding their experience of the problem, we attempt to replace their interpretation of experience with a more convoluted construction of our own.  It is our contention that problem definition is an often overlooked but crucial stage of the therapeutic process (Stewart, Valentine, & Amundson, 1991).   It must be a joint venture where “the therapist acts as a coconspirator with the client(s) in the creation of a therapeutic reality” (Epstein & Loos, 1989, p. 414).  This requires dialogue.  This dialogue depends less upon specified knowledge and expertise than the requisite flexibility (Bateson, 1972) of the therapeutic system, i.e., the clients with their complaints, hopes, fears, and dreams and therapists with all they can offer.   Unfortunately, this flexibility in the therapist is often gained only through years of painful experiences of bumping into their own rigidities, bruising themselves, or stumbling over their clients.  It is not achieved in the abandonment of theory nor by becoming passively eclectic. It is realized by developing an openness not only to ourselves and what we possess as naive or unique resources, but the acceptance of the same in others. 

     There are two attitudes, which support the creative therapeutic naiveté we speak of here:  First one must ask tacitly or explicitly, “Why is the presenting complaint a problem?”  This naiveté sidesteps the presumption of putting theory before experience and allows the client(s) to offer what in their experience leads them to consider the loss of “communication,”  “adolescent disobedience,”  “co-dependency,” “marital infidelity,” etc., to be a problem.   The second question asks:  “How will participants know when we are done?”  Definition of outcome in the client’s terms is crucial for it truly neutralizes expertise/ knowledge and brings forth the experience in the room. Outcomes are determined at local levels (Epstein & Loos, 1989) and whether therapy is changeful or not is determined not behind the mirror nor in the professional audience, but within the family.

     Falzer (1989) has argued succinctly regarding the dangers inherent in attempting to develop a foundation of theory upon which to enact therapy, a danger  “when the therapist’s experience is not in the room but originates instead from a theory” (p. 460). He calls for the acknowledgment of “practical knowledge” (p. 451), which arises out of ordinary experience, resurrected, naive knowledge or tradition (Foucault, 1980). Recently, Atkinson and Heath (1990) have argued for a similar orientation in which one develops an increased interest in the preferences of others through an awareness of “their moment-by-moment experience.”  When this kind of sensitivity to the “magic of everyday life” occurs, there is less of a need to be certain of one’s own explanations or to impose those explanations on others.   

     Colonization occurs in therapy when “expert” knowledge overrides or blinds us to the moment-by-moment experience in the room. Power/certainty is commitment to theory grounded only outside the room. Once we move beyond theory or model to explain those experiences, we are in less-than-certain territory.  No matter how thorough our documentation, the business of discussing events in persons’ lives and trying to make sense of them is a difficult endeavor.   Ironically, the more removed we are in time and space from those events, the more theory, model, or specified approach mediates our experience, the more certain our answers become until a colonial discourse is created in which persons and events seem “entirely knowable and visible”  (Bhabha, 1990).    However, even though colonial mentality may arise from the certainty of theory, it is not the destruction of theory that will set therapy free or help the therapist care for the family (Whitaker, 1976).   All significant encounters activate deep-set beliefs, be they personal, professional, or both.  Drive your car in rush hour and notice your certainty as to how traffic should be negotiated.  As an antidote to deadstick certainty, however, we offer the concept of curiosity not simply in the sense of interest or even enthusiasm for the story of the other, but as tentativeness and subjunctively3 qualified therapy.  As a counter-balance to power we suggest empowerment, the splitting or sharing of task and effort by co-creating problem definition and co-negotiating solutions. 

A Case Example

     Within the past year a group of my colleagues and I (KS) have begun working with couples in situations of domestic violence, primarily verbal and physical abuse on the part of the husbands toward their wives.  Inspired by the work of Gerry Lane and his colleagues (1989) in Atlanta, colleagues in Calgary, and the work of Alan Jenkins (1990) from Adelaide, we have attempted to move from the victim-advocate model traditionally used in these situations to a systemic orientation to the therapy.  

     A couple in their early 40’s, married eight years, the second marriage for both, was referred to our domestic violence treatment team because of the husband’s verbal abuse of his wife over the past several years.  Even though they had both been in couple and individual therapy before, she was still reporting him as verbally abusive and degrading of her daily.  Using a deconstructivist approach (White, 1990), we challenged his restraining and rigid beliefs about his wife (“incompetent / insensitive as a mother and wife,”) that, when applied to their relationship resulted in intense verbal abuse.  Our deconstructive process served to interrupt his tirades and unpack key words and phases he used to describe his wife. We traced the history of such words as “incompetent” with great detail. “Where did that idea come from?”  “How did your father use it on you?”   And, “What were the effects on you when he did?”  What are the effects on your wife when you use that word?” And we suggested alternative frames:  “If instead of thinking of her as incompetent, you were to consider that you just had complementary styles of parenting, what difference would that make to you – and to her?”   He responded that he had never thought of it in just that way before.  This proved to offer a significant enough “news of difference” and he was able to show more caution and flexibility to the point where the verbal abuse stopped and more respectful conversation around parenting took its place.    

     Therapy was proceeding well.  While much of the direct verbal abuse had stopped, the relationship continued to have struggles that resulted in her anger and frustration and his frustration and withdrawal.  A symmetrical struggle began to emerge: The more the team “invited him to take responsibility” (Jenkins, 1990) for his restraining beliefs, the more he objected to the focus of the therapy only being on him and his beliefs and habits.  He was so frustrated that he nearly quit therapy.  We had two individual sessions with her when he couldn’t come because of a work schedule (but we suspected that he was also ready to terminate therapy). She complained that he was spending too much time on the weekends at his mother’s house where she was “taking care of him like he wanted.”  Yet, his wife seemed radiant and strong – ready to move out and begin a new life.  We cheered for her but despaired for him.  

     When we invited him to an individual session, he requested that the whole team be present in front of the mirror.  There were some things that he wanted to tell us.  We agreed.   He then proceeded to defend himself and profess that he had stopped the abuse and wanted therapy to shift its focus to their relationship and how his wife’s issues (her rigidity) contributed to problems in the marriage.  He had complaints about her that he felt were legitimate and deserved attention in the therapeutic process.  

     We continued at first to defend our position, insisting that issues of safety be addressed and satisfied before moving on.  All the members of the team felt that this was important, but two team members, Barb and Camille 4 who had spent many years working with abused women within a victim advocacy model were especially vocal and insistent that he acknowledge how overpowering he could be.  They needed to be reassured that he was not going to be verbally or physically abusive before it would be okay for his wife to come out of her dug-in position, which he saw as rigidity and the two team members saw as a safety measure.    They did not want to take away her safety. 

     They were insisting that his wife’s rigidity and pursuit of him was not, in their eyes, of the same magnitude as his verbal and potential physical abuse. They also tried to tell him that even when he was just talking, he could make himself bigger - which is an implied physical threat.  Did he understand that he was in a much better position to be overpowering than she was?

     The tension in the room was high.  Inspite of the attempts by myself (KS) to redirect the conversation,  he would immediately shift back to Barb and Camille - and engage them further.  What seemed to break the stalemate, in retrospect, was a combination of two things:  Barb and Camille were able to be very open about what their concerns and confess, if you will, their struggle to him.   They told him their struggle with making the shift in the therapy had to do with their personal biases about male-female power struggles.  However, he did admit he could indeed have the upper hand.  He said, “Yes, I am more physically powerful.”  He acknowledged the physical differences between him and his wife.  That acknowledgement was followed by his reassurances that he never intended to be abusive in that way again.  His overpowering potential was acknowledged without an accompanying “Yes, but . . .” that helped make the shift; coupled with Barb and Camille’s confession of personal struggle.  We had deprived him of the certainty of the beliefs and practices that justified his abuse.  And through the encounter with Barb and Camille, he disarmed them of their certainty and the loyalty with which they held the victim advocacy model.  To let go of that model they needed to confess that struggle to him.

     In discussing the session afterwards, we asked ourselves if we were subscribing to a kind of “certainty” about him and the goals of therapy that resulted in his feeling less powerful and influential in both his marriage and the therapy.  Was there an unwitting application of certainty on our part that restrained us from hearing any news of difference?  Yes, there was.  As long as we believed that he needed to “get it” (understand his more physically powerful and intimidating position) before we could proceed in other directions, we remained stuck.  But the “experience-in-the-room” (see below) included another important element:  the confession of personal beliefs about abuse and power.  Once that was admitted by team members, (“Yes, I did hold you more accountable”) and assurances provided by him, the insistence of both positions lessened, tension lessened, and the beginnings of a direction to the therapy began to emerge.       

     When the whole team joined him on the other side of the mirror, the process resembled Furman’s (1990) descriptions of a “glasnost” approach to teamwork.  This move toward greater openness helped us as a team to not only come out from behind the mirror but from behind our power/certainty as well.  It is not openness in the therapeutic encounter per se, but openness to the potentials of the therapeutic encounter.   New directions were opening up for the emergence of novelty in the marriage and in the therapy as well.  

     Clearly, the abuse has stopped.  She reported that she was feeling safe and he said that he was committed to not slipping back into old habits.  We were learning a great deal.  They were good teachers.  We now believed that we could begin to address some of the recursive patterns in the relationship and move away from just addressing his restraining beliefs and abusive practices.   We tentatively inquired if she was willing to address some of his concerns.  She said that while she felt somewhat tentative and clumsy (so did we), she indeed was willing to begin that process.  This seemed to be the turning point.  In subsequent sessions he and she both appeared much more relaxed and affectionate toward each other.  She began revealing some of her own  “rigidities,” as she called them, and the effects they had in their relationship, the parenting of their seven-year-old daughter, and his relationship with his older daughter from his previous marriage.  The tone of the sessions had dramatically changed from both in front and behind the mirror.  A new kind of relaxation and optimism seemed to be emerging. Where once the team’s certainties and subsequent practices of power were battling with his practices of power and certainty, there emerged a new sense of collaboration and curiosity.   

     The team has tentatively concluded that while a great deal of lip service is paid to the notions of empowerment and curiosity in therapy, to escape the temptations of power and certainty is not always as easy as it looks.  We heed well the notion that many discoveries in therapy come from situations where therapy with the client or family fails or nearly fails (Jim Gustafson, 1991, personal communication).  


      As an antidote to undue emphasis upon power and certainty we suggest embracing curiosity and the desire to empower.  To clarify what this might mean, the following distinctions have been provided (Tables 1 and 2).  While guidelines are the last thing an article like this should embrace, we have succumbed to the temptation to generate a few specific ideas.  We would like to think of these as “companionable” ideas of value mostly in the company of other ideas.  Perhaps these distinctions are the basic constituents of any form of therapy conducted outside of sloth, rigidity, or undue judgment.  Like Anderson and Goolishian (1990) we too believe “...much of what is called the use of therapeutic power and expertise can be simply reduced to rhetorical use of language to influence and persuade”  (p. 161).  It is not structural, strategic, or systemic orientation per se, but the use of language on the part of the therapist to influence, persuade, and engage the client in the process of change.    Companionable ideas may help us use our language and the theory we espouse in ever more creative ways. The perspective engendered by curiosity and empowerment provide the ways and means to:  (1) guard against power / certainty inspiring us to try to change a situation and (2) provide the maximum means of leverage to invite them to join with us in co-creating change.

Table 1

  A Therapy of Certainty

 • Is uncomfortable with ambiguity; needs to have structure and  clarity without moving to premature closure 
•  Quickly insists on a diagnosis and adheres 
•  Relies on problem-saturated descriptions of client  behavior   
• Clients who don’t “get it” are seen as “resistant” and this resistance must be subverted, broken through, etc.
• Is concerned with asking and answering“why” questions 
• Closes space by narrowing observations to one’s constructions / predispositions
• Assumes that a symptom serves just as a function, or is a restraint, or is a solution   
• Operates from a first-order perspective and does not consider the therapist - client system     
• Is concerned with teaching, explaining, disseminating “expert knowledge”
•    Discounts or overlooks the resources ofof the client’s strengths

 A Therapy of Curiosity

• Can tolerate confusion and ambiguity   
• Moves more slowly in defining the 
to descriptions from those diagnoses  problem, taking time to consider the  experience in the room.  
• Takes care to discover exceptions to  the problematic behavior
• When it seems that clients don’t “get it” it may be that we haven’t asked the kind of questions that will move the therapy forward
• Asks circular questions and examines the effects of the problem
• Opens space by considering observations from many system levels
• Does not assume symptoms to be doing anything in particular, and may fit many theoretical explanations.
• Operates from a second - order  perspective, always considering the therapist - client system
• Asks questions, looks for the special, indigenous knowledge of the client
•    Takes care to discover what strengths are present even seeing problematic behavior as a potential resource

       By being slow to understand, mutual in definition, and focused upon “local level” outcomes  as suggested in Table 1(Gertz, 1983), therapy avoids the imposition of normalized truths.  Rather than  laying our “middle class therapeutic values” on people, we invite them to help us appreciate and respect the diversity of arrangement clients can come up with in their own lives.  As in the strategic or MRI traditions of therapy, the whole issue of problem definition and solution failure might be attended to in order to simply take to task the certainties of the family and the therapist.  Curiosity debates fixed perspective – a family can be asked, for example, how each might act or what might happen if they saw things one way or another.  Some therapeutic circumstance might best be served by seeing something as “just a mistake,” “only mischief, not a crime,” or as a “passing phase.”  Others served, however, by pretending a problem or symptom is much more serious than it might appear.  Breadth of enquiry  and curiosity open space out of which to glimpse possible solutions perhaps previously unconsidered.  

     Resources, exceptions to suffering, and indigenous knowledge are at the center of brief solution-focused approaches and it’s our loss of curiosity that blinds us to “exceptions” in the lives of our clients.  It is according to O’Hanlon and Wilks (1989), just in being humble enough to realize that there are things people do and things they don’t do; to not let our sophistication or their narrative of suffering and complaint overshadow lighter stories or more enabling themes. 

 A therapy of power versus a therapy of empowerment

     A therapy that favors power can as well be juxtaposed with a therapy that favors empowerment.  The following distinctions are presented for review (Table 2).  As mentioned above, while there may be times to act decisively and powerfully on behalf of the dominated, the weak, the victimized, and the vulnerable, these should ultimately be empowering.  Engaging in therapeutic practices that would empower instead of overpower would  be our preferred approach.  

     A collateral, collaborative, responsive, non-dependent and inspiring therapy requires achieving a particular kind of therapist - client alignment.  This aligment is one of client and therapist against the problem as opposed to therapist, and often other professionals in the larger system, against the client. Temptations of power are always afoot and ready to manifest themselves in traditional forms of control, struggle, and combat.  An empowering therapy may begin by posing the question of whether therapy is even suitable at all.  Is there any chance an error has taken place ?  Why would therapy at this time and in this context seem relevant or  hopeful ?  How would we know it was useful ? Would everyone see this the same?  If seen differently, how do all family members understand the problem (Stewart, Valentine and Amundson, 1991)?  These questions de-potentiate the temptation toward power.  Not only might they free the client from shame, guilt, and defense, but they might also free the therapist from grandiosity and misplaced assumptions about what can be done.



A Therapy of Power 

• Will  tend to be more hierarchical 
• May be tempted to act as an agent of
• Seeks to get the client to respond to the therapy 
• May tend toward rescuing the client; doing for them what they might do for themselves
• May inadvertently foster dependence competence and self-confidence
• May use treatment jargon to sell the“ expert knowledge” of the therapist
• May frame the client as uncooperative or unaware
• Will tend to create a context of passivity 
•    When frustrated, will tend to drift toward less therapeutic  variety and resort to “more of the same”
•    Under the influence of urgency, agency policy or court mandate, may unilaterally “set goals for the family” 

A Therapy of Empowerment

• Will tend to be more collaborative
• Carefully considers the consequences of social control versus choice control 
• Seeks to get the therapy to respond to the client
• Sidesteps temptations to rescue clients and instead calls forth special knowledge and competencies of the client
• May foster independence, a sense of
• Avoids jargon, instead uses the client’s language and metaphors
• May frame the client as restrained or oppressed
• Will tend to create a context of discovery
•    When frustrated will tend to drift toward more therapeutic improvisation 
•    Has a cautious eye for tendencies toward urgency, exercising patience and co-constructed definitions of solution

         A sympathetic, non-blameful, hopeful, restrained, improvisational, and empoweringtherapy nonetheless is calculated and structured.  Instead of being overpoweringly presumptive, it asks, “Who is present ?”  “Who is able to take some steps ?”  “What steps are even possible ?”  It experiments gently yet progressively with solutions that may be presumed of use, yet have a tentative, experimental place in the process of solution.  An empowering therapy is patient in that it is willing to accept its own limitations.  It realizes that there are therapies of change, therapies of only listening, therapies of shared suffering and there are individuals who are compelled by or addicted to complaining or even suffering.  It is brief, not always in the sense of time,  but in the sense of restraining itself from pursuing certainty regarding the clients' complaint/suffering.  No matter how rich or opportune, it is a “fickle” therapy that only accepts certainty when it works on the spot.  Behind this is a belief in minimalism:  That individuals are most skilled at writing their own story and the therapeutic encounter simply seeks to place the pen in their hand. Our use of minimalism does not imply minimizing the concerns of others.  Instead it continually asks, “What is the least or most minimal effort required – in service of protecting the destiny and character of these individuals – that might sponsor change ?”      Curiosity and empowerment as proper conduct in therapy may seem to be just basic principles of respectful therapy.   Who would not want their clients to respond with curiosity instead of monotonous certainty, or to experience rediscovered empowerment instead of reliving an impoverished, impotent story ?  However, in spite of these common sense distinctions for more respectful therapy, we all at one time or another fall prey to either the ever present temptations of exerting control for our own purposes or to holding onto impressions and ideas we feel certain are “true.”  As we are all human, we may unwittingly succumb to these temptations.  Setting off on our modern day heroic journeys with families, we are challenged to carefully navigate between the Scylla of certainty and the Charybdis of power.  Perhaps we should best remember, that in the largest sense, there is no certainty, only degrees of uncertainty. 


      Maturana and Varela (1988) have prescribed “an attitude of permanent vigilance” in order to keep power/certainty in check.  However, as one goes deeper there is an increasing realization that co-created realities, minimalism, and local level outcomes come dangerously close to nihilism, arbitrariness, and alienation from larger ethical concerns.  While cybernetics and constructivist perspectives may not ultimately be up to the larger issues of power/certainty (Dell, 1989), it is too soon to abandon the radical thinking they engender. To guide such radical thinking  and to protect ourselves from an unduly precocious practice, let us consider a few final comments:   

1.  Though globally we may be free of “facts,” we are not free of our “artifacts” (Stamm, 1990).  Things may in the final measure, all be relative but “...not everything is relative all at once” (p. 249).  Poverty, injustice and role by gender – as well as the certainties of family members about problems – may not be fundamental per se, i.e., immutable givens in the human equation, but are “artifacts” we cannot easily deconstruct.  It would appear that attention to “artifacts” – the beliefs and/or resources of the client; beliefs or resources of the therapist, or aspects of socio-political perspective or cultural heritage – are necessary to keep therapy on track.  In the process of increasing options and generation solutions, any solution is acceptable at local levels as long as it does not hide, “grow up,” or cooperate with another problem in any other domain (Amundson, 1989a).   In speaking of solution, it should be remembered that,  

2.  Solutions arise from double description.  Expert knowledge – expertise and theory – when joined coherently with indigenous knowledge represented through the “experience in the room” constitutes the necessary double description, which Bateson (1979) suggests is the difference that makes a difference.   

3.  Through double description we search for, discover and create “...warm ideas [which] compel us to move closer to our subject matter, these are ideas from which we can cast new rays of insight, open up new lines of communication, extend our territory into new avenues of enquiry and amplify our understanding beyond what we knew before”  (Bolchner, 1982, p. 77).   

4.   “Warm ideas,” it seems , are based upon the premise that if one wants to see, one must do (von Forester, 1983).  Warm ideas invite us to move beyond the given by seeing things differently, perhaps to do things differently.   

5.  Constructivism calls for us to keep our options open, to generate fresh alternatives and to grant others freedom and autonomy.  This means a basic respect for diversity through acknowledging that there are many different perspectives, which we might hold of the world.  However, Ravn (1991) suggests that  diversity taken to extremes can lead to relativism. In juxtaposition, it is also necessary to recognize:  “the experience of wholeness or unity of things” that people enjoy when they experience their lives as part of a “larger purpose and coherence” (p. 99).  However,  unity,  when taken to extremes can lead to absolutism.  When the principles of diversity and unity are respectfully and coherently joined, good therapy can take place. Good means an attempt to unify without overpowering and respect difference without succumbing to relativism.    

     By turning our back on the quest for power and certainty, by moving more to cybernetic, constructivist,  and narrative perspective (Parry, 1990) we give diverse points of view all the opportunity we can.  However, in doing so we will also invite a degree of anxiety.  This arises in no small part from having to bear the weight of uncertainty and humility in our work.  The struggle that comes with this is not always inconsequential. However, in echoing the pragmatic philosophers, justice – respect for and acknowledgement of human complexity and its diversity of perspective –  is struggle.  It would appear therapy is not, or should not be, a journey of specified destination but rather a continual process of departure for not only our clients but also ourselves.  


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 1 Bateson (1972, 1979, 1987) has suggested conscious control and the exercise of power to overcome rather than negotiate with the vicissitudes of biological and social life may be at the base of most if not all problems in human affairs.  See Atkinson and Heath (1990), “ Further thoughts on second-order family therapy – This time it’s personal. Family Process. 29:  145 - 155. 

 2 Our use of “power/certainty” is inspired by Foucault’s (1980) juxtaposition of power / knowledge.    He argues that the “exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power.  ... Knowledge and power are integrated with one another, and there is no point in dreaming of a time when knowledge will cease to depend on power... It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” (p. 50).

 3 Using subjunctive verb forms.  For example:   “it might be” “ it could be” “it seems to be,” etc.