Distinguishing Ideas
Theory Conceptualization
Therapeutic Process
External Links

I. Distinguishing Ideas

Humans exist in meaning making language systems that are constantly evolving.
Therapists are contributors to the meaning making of clients in therapy (Anderson, 2005).

We are always in a translating process.
Interpretation is dialogical.
Dialogue is a process of intepretations of interpretations.
We participate in what we think or believe we understand or know.
When in a dialogue, each speaker's response is the product of what he or she belives to be perceived.
Therapists curiosity invites client curiosity.
The therapist's self is dialogical and relational, linguistically and socially created (Anderson, 2005, p. 499).

Human systems are language, meaning-generating systems; that is, we create meaing with each other.
A therapy system is a meaning-generating system in which the client and the therapist create meaning with each other.
Any system in therapy is ne that has coalesced around some "problem".
We call those people we talk with in therapy, including ourselves, problem-organizing, problem-dis-solving systems.

In her book, Conversation Language and Possibilities, Anderson (1997) described six main assumptions of her approach
to collaborative therapy. The assumptions are as follow:
  1. Human systems are formed through language and meaning.
  2. Reality is created through social context.
  3. Our thoughts are composed in relation to our selves and our social context.
  4. Our reality, meaning, and experiences are created through our interactions and conversations with others.
  5. Language gives meaning to our lives, and to the world we live in, and serve as the key to enter the social world.
  6. Knowledge is acquired through our interactions, language, and experiences.

Collaborative Therapy involves a mutual, participatory process of conversation. It values, invites,and incorporates the client's perspectives of what is important to him or her in daily life. Collaborative therapists recognize that the client is the expert regarding knowledge of the client's life experiences. Collaborative therapists work with the consumer's resiliency and desire for healthy, successful relationships and quality of life (Anderson, 2007b).

Distinctive Features of Collaborative Therapy (Anderson, 2007b, pp. 54-55):

  • "Collaborative theapy is evolving, dynamic, and nonformulaic: It is based in a reflexive process in which its assumptions inform its practice, and its practice informs its assumptions.
  • The focus is shifted from the individual or the family to person(s)-in-relationships: The approach is based in an ideological shift that has applicability across people, situations, and contexts.
  • Its application extends beyond the therapeutic encounter: The approach has utility in systems and contexts other than therapy. Therapists take the assumptions of collaborative therapy and the philosophical stance to other systems that they often work in.
  • (E)valuation becomes part of everyday practice: The practioner and client (e)valuate their work together as they go along with each other. What they learn is used to inform their work, appreciating and building on what is useful and reconsidering what is not.
  • Therapist burnout is reduced: Therapists report renewed appreciation and respect for their clients and renewed enthusiasm and energy for their work.
  • Clients and therapists have a sense of freedom and hope: Clients have a sense of belonging to, participating in, and owning their therapy. This, in turn, invites shared responsibility for the process and the outcome.
  • Relationships with colleagues are enhanced: Therapists report that as they live the philosophical stance with their colleagues, as they do with their clients, they are better able to appreciate, be curious about, and be open to differences."
  • As collaboration happens, ideas come to light and multiple perspectives can be voiced in a collaborative manner.

II. Contributors

Harlene Anderson
Harlene Anderson

**Harlene Anderson**

CT applied family systems and family therapy, instead of the popular social theory purported by Talcott Parson, which applied cybernetics to social theory (Anderson & Goolishian, 1986). Anderson and Goolishian, related that this theoretical application layered the structure and roles of social systems, like an onion, where each layer is in subordinate, hierarchical balance with one another as a whole system, creating a sense of equilibrium or homeostasis. This equilibrium suggests there is some knowable objective reality and any potential pathology can be found and treated in hierarchical correlation within the social system (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988).
Anderson and Goolishian (1986) noted a change in social theory began with the introductions of the German social theorist, Niklas Luhman, who placed emphasis on the collaborative action and discourse in the construction of social systems. Subsequently, family therapy instead began focusing on human problems rather than attempts to understand patterns of human systems (Anderson & Goolishian, 1986). Collaborative therapy stemmed from a conceptual collage of postmodern bio-psycho-social theories (Anderson, 1995). Anderson and Goolishian (1986) trace these changes initially through first order cybernetics, second order cybernetics, constructivist theory, quantum theory, and structure determinism toward viewing humans as language- and meaning-generating systems. Where systems are created through communication and dialogue rather than layered social structure. Anderson (1995) draws together other influential theories such as; language domains, narrative theory, postmodern feminist theory, hermeneutics, and social constructionism. In her more current writing, Anderson (2007) refers to these influences under a postmodern umbrella, where language and knowledge create meaning through interactions.

Harold Goolishian and Harlene Anderson represent the primary voices of CT from the initial implementation until its present form today. In 1988, Anderson and Goolishian developed a major premise of CT from their understanding of the nature of language as a meaning-generator a concept known as “not-knowing” (Anderson, 2005). Not-knowing was developed as a way for Anderson and Goolishian to work more effectively with clients and their subjective realities, where the goal of therapy was seen to open space for new meaning through dialogic conversation (Anderson, 2005). Partial to facilitating conversation is assuming the belief that the therapist does not have some objective knowledge of the client and could never understand the client fully without the expert understanding of the client as the expert of his subjective reality (Anderson, 2005). Anderson writes that the not-knowing position includes authentic, active, and respectful listening, where the therapist posture is tentative and open to the subjective reality of the client (Anderson, 2005).

Another important contributor includes Tom Andersen, who developed the concept of the reflecting team, for theoretical use in CT and as adapted from the Milan approach where a therapeutic team would meet with the family (Andersen, 1987, 1992). Members of the therapeutic team listen to the interviewer and the family, from behind a one-way mirror, as the therapeutic conversation unfolds (Andersen, 1987). Andersen’s (1992) concept of the Milan approach included shifting from the either/or position to the both/and stance, offering a more tentative approach to problem-solving that includes generating new ideas as might be useful for the therapeutic conversation. After an agreed upon time has lapsed, such as 40 minutes, the team members reflect the various and multifaceted ideas that were generated during the listening phase. These ideas are discussed as a way for generating new meaning towards problem understanding and its subsequent resolution. The family and the interviewer then listen to the team’s reflections from the session. Reflections are offered as tentative ideas rather than objective truths or advice giving and offer a more open and ‘public’ therapeutic language than ‘private.’ Opening therapeutic talk from private to public offers a way to maximize dialogic conversations that are relayed in the client’s language rather than the ‘academic’ language of theory or negative connotations that may be inherent to more private therapeutic dialogue. Although, the main goal of the reflecting team is to generate new meaning and ideas that the client may or may not relate to any reflected ideas.

III. Theory Conceptualization

A. Problem Formation

Because meanings are social constructions viewed by each person with a particular and individual lens, there is potential for language to be misunderstood and "myths" (p. 499) created because the meaning of the language can get lost in the discussion as there are different ways for interpreting the same dialogue (Anderson, 2005).

Anderson (1992) stated that problems exist in language and represent a diminution to an individual’s sense of personal agency and liberation due to self-limiting narratives. Anderson and Goolishian (1986) defines problems as existing only if there is linguistic complaint. Problems are formed when belief systems about the situations in an client’s life cause discomfort because of the limited meaning that has been created in problem-saturated systems such as school, work, family, and peers. As Collaborative theory stems from family therapy, it will attempt to include any persons who are most concerned about the individual’s problem. These persons might include school counselors, teachers, friends, parents and/or other family members. Collaborative therapy begins by gathering data on the problem-determined system’s (e.g. family; Anderson & Goolishian, 1986) views, definitions, and theories of the problem. In this way, the therapist becomes a participant in the problem, co-creating both the definitions of the problem and it’s subsequent resolution through dialogue. Through this process of co-creation, it is important to note that the therapist is not in a position to lead conversation toward a preconceived notion of definition or resolution, rather to illicit client elaboration toward gaining an understanding of problem definition. It should also be noted that problem definitions can be fluid and in multiplicity.

B. Problem Maintenance

Problems are maintained when an individual’s understandings about how to interact with people are “stuck.” Therapeutic conversation provides ways to open space to creating new meaning and new stories by exploring and expanding the breadth of the ‘not-yet said’ (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). An approach to this kind of exploration was developed as the not-knowing position, where the therapist’s attitude is that of genuine curiosity of the individual subjective worldview of the client (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). This approach represents a respectful and active listening that facilitates mutual understanding essential to dialogic conversations (Anderson, 1995). Anderson (1995) considers this a natural way of interacting and being in relationship with an individual and characterizes the process as C therapy: connecting, collaborating, and constructing.

C. Problem Resolution

Problems are resolved through conversation, when clients begin to talk about their problem differently. Conversation facilitates change by creating and defining new meaning in a person’s belief system. Conversation helps move meaning from pathology to more normal as well as from general to more specific. From this view, problems exist only in and through language. The goal of therapy is to talk about problems differently through the process of exploration and in a relational manner. Dialogic conversation gives way to problem ‘dis-solving’ where language becomes a modicum for change by creating new meaning through dynamic interaction (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). This process is the product of a genuine relationship between the client and therapist that includes respect, mutual understanding, honesty and openness to the subjective worldview of the client.

IV. Therapeutic Process

The process of therapy is a therapeutic conversation, a dialogue, a "talking with."
In this process, the therapist and client engage in a mutual puzzling and search for understanding of the "problem" and its "solution" as the client defines it. Anderson (2007a) describes this process as an interactive endeavor for shared meaning.
We talk with the client about their concerns, learn about their views, and create through learning an "in there together" process that leads to new meaning, new narrative, and new agency.
A central element of a therapeutic conversation is what we call conversational questions.
Conversational questions always come from a postion of "not knowing" from a need to know more about what has been said.

A. Therapist's Role

  • The expertise and responsibility of the therapist is to create a space in which the therapeutic process, the therapeutic conversation, can occur and to facilitate that process. This is accomplished by establishing and fostering an environment that naturally invites collaborative relationships and generative conversations.
  • This is a non-interventionist position.
  • The therapist and his/her context is as much a part of the therapy as the client and the client's context.
  • The therapy system and therapeutic process are a non-hierarchical, collaborative structure, and effort.
  • Therapy is an interactive, circular process in which the realities and expertises of both the client and the therapist are respected, recognized, and utilized.
  • Both the client and the therapist equally participate in the creation of the therapeutic reality (the diagnosis and cure).
  • The therapist invites the client into a mutual, shared inquiry of the client's concerns. The inquiry is initiated by the therapist entering the relationship as a learner of the client's life experiences and the client as a teacher. As the client teaches and the therapist learns, what is familiar to the client gets talked about in unfamiliar ways that create news meaning for the clientThe discovery of what is unfamiliar leads to further curiousity and anticipation (Anderson, 2007a).
  • The therapist respects and relies upon the client systems' capacity for self-agency, for self-creation of alternative solutions to its own dilemma.
  • The therapist's role is th influence a context or a space for change rather than to specify a change in "objectively" perceived facets of behavior, interactional patterns, or dysfunctional family behaviors.
  • The therapist is an expert in creating and facilitating a conversation that opens up the opportunity for new aspects of the client's meaning system to emerge and excites shifting of views and behaviors.
  • Change in one part of a system can affect an opportunity for change in others. Change is the expanding, shifting, or loosening of ideas (and behaviors) through narrative.
  • Anderson, (1997) stated that the role of the therapist does NOT include the following: a narrative editor, a tabula rasa or blank screen, a negotiator or referee, or an interventionist.
  • The therapist's stance is one of "multi-partiality" (partiality= preferred), or being on everyone’s side, by being adequately supportive without sharing one or another partner’s consensual reality. Involves opening space for client to say what they need to say. It is an alternative to “listening defensively” – knowing what other person is going to say and getting ready to correct it. This is based on a the premise that we can never fully understand another person; at best, we can only attempt to understand what they just told you (Source: Video from Class).
  • Collaborative Therapists actively attempt to not actively instruct – Collaborative therapy is a process of question after question in which the therapist and client are joined in a search for understanding (Source: Video from Class).

B. Interventions

  • The therapist keeps inquiry within the parameters of the problem(s) as described by the client(s).
  • The therapist entertains multiple and contradictory ideas simultaneously.
  • Choose cooperative rather than uncooperative language.
  • Learn, understand, and converse in the client's language.
  • The therapist is a respectful listener who does not understand too quickly (if ever).
  • Ask questions, where the answers require new questions.
  • The therapist takes the responsibility for the creation of a conversational context that allows for mutual collaboration in the problem-defining, problem-dis-solving process.
  • Maintain a dialogical conversation with him or herself.

C. Assessment

Interviewing and asking questions are characteristic of Collaborative Language Systems.

It does not have nor require a normative assessment. Rather, the assessment is conducting through the discussion. The therapist finds the problem by communicating about the problem and considering the language that holds the system together. The problem is assessed when recognizing the language people use around the "problem" that creates the problem.

D. Treatment Planning

V. References

Anderson, H. (1992). Collaborative language systems: Toward a postmodern therapy. In R. Mikesell, D. D. Lusterman, & S. McDavid (Eds.), Integrating Family Psychology and Systems Theory (pp. 27 – 44). Washington: APA Press.

Anderson, H. (2007a). Dialogue: People creating meaning with each other and finding ways to go on. In H. Anderson & D. Gehart (Eds.), Collaborative Therapy: Relationships and Conversations that make a Difference (pp. 33-41). New York: Routledge.

Anderson, H. (2007b). The heart and spirit of collaborative therapy: The philosophical stance - "A way of being" in relationship and conversation. In. H. Anderson & D. Gehart (Eds.), Collaborative Therapy: Relationships and Conversations that make a Difference (pp.43-59). New York: Routledge.

Anderson, H. (2007c). A postmodern umbrella: Language and knowledge as relational and generative, and inherently transforming. In H. Anderson and D. Gehart (Eds.), Collaborative Therapy: Relationships and Conversations That Make A Difference (pp. 7– 20). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

Anderson, H. (2005). Myths about "Not-Knowing." Family Practice, 44, 497-504.

Anderson, H. (1997). Conversation, language, and possibilitie: A postmodern approach to therapy. New York: Basic Books.

Anderson H. & Goolishian, H. A. (1986) Problem determined systems: Towards transformation in family therapy. Journal of Strategic & Systemic Therapist, 5(4), 113.

Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. A. (1992). The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy. In S. McNamee
& K. J. Gergen (Eds.), Therapy as Social Construction (pp. 25 –39). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Anderson, H. & Goolishan, H. (1988). Human systems as linguistic systems: Some preliminary and evolving ideas about the implications for clinical theory. Family Process, 27, 371-393.

Andersen, T. (1987). The reflecting team: Dialogue and meta-dialogue in clinical work. Family Process, 26, 415 – 428.

Goolishian, H. & Anderson, H. (1990). Understanding the therapeutic process: From individuals and families to systems in language. In F. Kaslow (Ed.) Voices in Family Psychology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

VI. External Links

Homepage for the Houston Galveston Institute

Useful Collaborative Therapy Articles:

Chaveste, R., & Molina, M. L. (2013). Of Crabs and Starfish: Ancestral Knowledge and
Collaborative Practices. International Journal of Collaborative Practice, 4(1), 20–24
The authors in this article present their Collaborative stance as used in the Kanankil institute. A Mayan based institute, the writers express that the roots of Collaborative run deep into history. Thus, the collaborative posture is not only a theory, but a way of living. Living and practicing through this stance, the practitioner sees situations and relations in a not knowing stance. Being in a not knowing stance, one does not assume but rather attempts to understands the situation. The authors further explain the “withness” posture. When a person, and more specifically a collaborative therapist, takes the “withness” posture they subsequently create a non-hierarchy environment during session. It is proposed that rather than taking an investigator or interpreter posture, the therapist metaphorically walks alongside the client during session. DH

Fernandez, E. (2013). Invitation to Therapeutic Writing: Ideas to Generate Welfare.
International Journal of Collaborative Practice, 4(1), 25–44.

Fernandez (2013) provides extensive research from various contexts that support the idea of using expressive and reflective writing as a therapeutic tool. The author specifically mentions the benefits of writing in session from a narrative and positive psychology lens. Additionally, this article focuses on writing from a collaborative stance. As noted in the article, collaborative therapy stems from a philosophical stance that one’s life is created and takes place through dialogue. Dialogue is considered verbal, non-verbal or written communication. Thus, through therapeutic writing, the therapist aids the client in developing both a fluid story and identity. The author provides some questions and exercises that can be located throughout the article, which invite the reader to experience the process of writing therapeutically. For example, “Do you feel that emotions paralyze you? Can you put them into words?” (Fernandez, 2013, p. 34). DH

Exeni, S., Loots, G., Losantos, M., Montoya, T., & Santa Cruz, M. (2013) Applying Social
Constructionist Epistemology to Research in Psychology. International Journal of Collaborative Practice, 6(1), 29-42.

In this article, the authors explore how to further develop therapeutic abilities. Research suggests that reading literature can aid therapists in developing their therapeutic skills. The authors position themselves from a social constructivism stance, such as collaborative therapy, which suggests that truth is fluid rather than static. In other words, there are multiple truths within a given context and no truth is considered the real truth. The author suggests that lived experiences are as a true of a reality as the knowledge gathered through reading. Therefore, it is explained that through reading literature, one metaphorically travels and learns about life. Moreover, the authors make connections with literature to demonstrate how they have learned to enhance their skills as therapists through novels. DH

Carleton, D., Duvall, J., & Tremblay, C. (2016) Reengaging History with Harlene
Anderson: Nosey Rosie Goes! Part I. Journal of Systemic Therapy, 35 (4), 61-79.

The authors took a witnessing position in order to discuss, recall and bring to light the history of collaborative therapy through the eyes of Harlene Anderson. Through an interview with Anderson, she was able to recall significant relations, the ethics, philosophy and values that surround her and the collaborative posture. Anderson discussed the memories she recalls from her family and her childhood that greatly impacted her philosophy of not knowing. She explained how her professional identity has been heavily influenced by Gregory Bateson, The Milan group and early MRI. Furthermore, Anderson shared how she has developed an inquisitive curiosity for the unknown during her lifetime. According to Anderson, this curiosity can be further de-constructed through language and dialogue. DH

Carleton, D., Duvall, J., & Tremblay, C. (2016) Reengaging History with Harlene
Anderson: Nosey Rosie Goes! Part II. Journal of Systemic Therapy, 35 (1), 61-77.

In the second installment of the interview, Anderson continues to divulge on the history of Collaborative therapy, with emphasis on the 1970s when she was introduced to marriage and family therapy by Harry Goolishian. Anderson shared that once she began to work with Harry Goolishian, she became intrigued by family/relational therapy because it was a different approach from her training in assessments and diagnosis. Additionally, she explained the process of incorporating two therapists in session, which she was introduced to by the marriage and family therapy training of MRI. She further addressed the development and evolution of collaborative therapy over time. DH