Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

What Bowen Theory contributes to supervision and training?

by Jenny Brown & Linda MacKay

“To be more differentiated in the supervisory (or any) relationship it will require an individual to develop and to own their thinking rather borrow it from another.” 

It’s been fascinating to review the history of collaborative approaches in family therapy supervision and to position Bowen theory into this spectrum. There are many systems approaches that speak to the importance of respectful mutual curiosity in supervision rather than linear teacher- learner didacticism. The Bowen theory concept of differentiation of self (operating outside of the togetherness force) is central in its approach to training.  The emotional/relationship process between supervisor and supervisee aims towards an equal thinking collaboration – a meeting of experts in describing observations from life and practice.

This blogs shares some excerpts from our recently published article and highlights key learning for each author:

Jenny’s key reflections:

Social Constructionist approaches: Writing this paper gave me the opportunity to explore a range of collaborative approaches to the learning and mentoring relationship.  I was struck by the open relationship process that is encouraged through curiosity in post-modern constructionist approaches to supervision.  While these approaches, including narrative and dialogical therapies, creatively open up more flexible and less dogmatic thinking in supervision they seem to me to be based more on a philosophical position than a theory of human behaviour.  In a postmodern supervision session:

 “A variety of often contradictory views are explored in order to promote the therapist owning their own knowledge and being free to resolve their uncertainties in view of there being no correct way of understanding the case.  The supervisor stays tentative about their own knowledge and curious about the knowledge of the supervisee.

In social constructionist and narrative approaches collaboration is based in a view of multiple constructions of reality” (p. 326 ). 

Our article explored how the theoretical basis is different in Bowen theory even though the goal of an open equal relationship is similar:

“ Bowen theory the collaboration in therapy and training is based on respecting the process of a person differentiating.  To be more differentiated in the supervisory (or any) relationship it will require an individual to develop and to own their thinking rather borrow it from another…

“Rather they position themselves as one who invites the other to be an observer of him or herself in social relationship, to managing the anxious pull to seek consensus and to strive to be an independent thinker rather than one who follows group think. Bowen’s goal of inviting the differentiation (autonomy in connection) of both teacher and trainee translates into a collaborative equal supervision relationship where neither party functions for the other. Each is a resource to the other in sharing their observations of human behaviour and functioning in the same way a natural scientist would describe observations of other species” (pp. 328-329).

Here is a simple summary of where our thinking came out on the distinction between social constructionist and Bowen theory approaches to supervision and training:

“In social constructionist and narrative approaches collaboration is based in a view of multiple constructions of reality.  In Bowen theory the collaboration in therapy and training is based on respecting the process of a person differentiating.”

The following  is an excerpt from an example from my own experience of reviewing the supervision process with the assistance of Bowen theory:

“In supervising a group of mental health professionals a complex case with a symptomatic child had been described. …I began to ask questions about how they understood the development of symptoms in the system. ……………..As group members offered their ideas I began to ask questions that were endeavoring to guide them to a particular answer. ………..Some members of the group started to take a stab at answering my questions.  Others in the group became quiet.  ………….In reviewing the supervision process with this group I heard that supervisees experienced some aspects of supervision as quite anxiety provoking. They helpfully described that on some occasions it seemed that they were being quizzed by me to come up with the “right” answer. This was responded to my some people withdrawing and with their own thinking shutting down and a few others working hard to please the supervisor by giving an answer that they sensed I was looking for. I realised that they were describing dishonest questions…….Whenever the supervisor uses questions to try to elicit a particular response there is a pressure created that blocks genuine collaborative engagement of ideas.  I am grateful that that group members were able to identify this unhelpful process that sometimes crept into our supervision.  It has assisted me to stay alert to such phony questions.  I now ask myself if my question genuinely seeks to learn from the supervisee or am I coming more from my desire to teach them something ” (pp. 332-333).

Linda’s key reflections:

It was very challenging to thoughtfully review my attempts to operate from a more curious and collaborative lens with my supervisees and students. I am never more aware of this than with beginning therapists in supervision, who can so easily “hang onto my every word” in the anxiety of trying to intervene in complex cases. I also can so easily be caught in the trap of borrowing self from this emotional process, which of course only serves to highlight my own undifferentiation when I don’t stop to allow a space for the supervisee’s own thinking and to let them “to identify their inner conversations about their work with clients” (p. 327).

(I am now reflecting here what may be very obvious to many readers that in the lending of self, that is, overfunctioning for another, one also borrows self, in terms of how that may shore up the self of the lender. Supervisors such as myself are not immune from this!)

My biggest struggle as a supervisor and lecturer is not to be attached to learners taking on Bowen family systems ideas as the “best” way of thinking and working, even if I think they are! In the following extract from our article, you can see how I worked to get others to think the same way as I do which is an example of my fusion in action when consulting in relation to a suicidal young girl:

“As I observed this process during the consultation, I attempted to intervene to defend the therapist, acutely aware of her distress and attempt to defend the mother from her colleagues’ criticism. Similar to the example described by my co-author, I also asked questions that were not genuinely curious ‘finding myself’ attempting to mediate the degree of blame that had circulated, first to the therapist then to the girl’s mother. This lack of awareness was no doubt an indicator my questions were driven more by anxiety in the emotional system than a more differentiated and thoughtful stance. I asked the team members how much they considered an intense focus on a parent’s or therapist’s availability for a client ensured safety for the adolescents they encountered. This question was guided by one of Bowen family systems theory’s core concepts concerning the family projection process and the way intensely child-focused families may contribute to impairment of a child’s functioning ….. [But] It was also guided by the automatic knee-jerk reactivity of the moment, that is, by my anxiety about the level of distress I perceived was being experienced by the therapist and my underlying discomfort with the privileging of a different theory that I did not think was useful in this case(pp. 333-334).

To have been cognisant of how the triangle was being evoked with the team, the supervisee and the supervisor, questions would have elicited more thinking and less fusion would have been, as stated in the article,

“How do you work out what is too much nurturance or attentiveness? How do you think about how much is too little? What does either look like? What would be an objective measure? When certain cases raise your anxiety, what do you notice happens in response to team? discussions about such cases? How does that play out in a work environment? How does that play out individually? How might it play out with the family?” (p. 334).

What makes for enhanced functioning over the long term in our clients, supervises and ourselves? It is not rescuing and over-functioning for others when distress is high “without assisting them to be a separate and more solid self doesn’t elicit better longer term functioning” (p. 334).

Our paper is published in an edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy that is devoted to: Teaching, Training and Supervision in Family Therapy. This collection of papers explores a range of dilemmas and perspectives about the learning – teaching relationship.  The theme of finding a balance between supporting and monitoring as a supervisor makes its way into a number of papers. Bowen theory’s focuses on emotional process (sensitivities between people) rather than procedures and techniques.  Hence it provides a way of understanding the reciprocity in relationships that may enhance or impair individuals’ thinking and learning capacity. It is less about the type of questions used in supervision and much more about the supervisor’s awareness of their anxious sensitivities and their capacity to regulate them self in order to connect with the thinking of another.

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