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Unsullied-Non-Knowing: The Essence of Discovering What Matters Most

September 11, 2013

By TLC Founder William Steele, PsyD

James Dyson, the creator of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, powerful fans and other household appliances, is an engineer and a billionaire. He credits his success to the principle of hiring “unsullied” people because he says, “I want us (our team) to approach projects as knowing nothing but willing to experiment on something” (10 questions, Time, August 19, 2013 p. 60). In essence he is defining curiosity. In “Working with Grieving and Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Discovering What Matters Most Through Evidence-Based Sensory Interventions” (Steele and Kuban, 2013) an entire chapter is devoted to curiosity and the value of being a non-knowing practitioner as a means to encourage children to take us deeper in the world and the ways they experience themselves and their world as they know it. Hughes (2009) wrote, “When curiosity is directed toward the child’s experience rather than toward the factual events in his life and when it is conveyed with both affective and reflective features, the child is likely to go with the therapist very deeply into his or her life story and experience a co-regulating of emotions related to what is being explored and the meaning given those events” (p.169).

Being curious does not come natural to many practitioners simply because they have been taught to be the knowing practitioner, able to determine what is best for struggling children rather than allowing children to teach them what matters most in their world. Unfortunately, in the clinical setting, county and state regulators and reimbursement entities insist that we plan ahead and devise our treatment plans following the initial intake interview. It forces practitioners into being the all knowing, being confident about what is best for children following such a very brief period of time. Padesky wrote about therapists who are too confident with where they are going. He stated, “(They) only look ahead and miss a detour that can lead to a better place.”

girldrawIt always amazes me, when conducting trainings, how difficult it is for practitioners to be naturally curious. For example, when I assume the role of a child who experienced a house fire and ask participants what they’re curious about regarding that house fire, rarely does anyone ever ask, “Are you OK and did anyone die?” If you were a close friend, your initial natural curiosity would be immediately directed at wanting to know if I was OK and, if so, you would immediately want to know if anyone died or was seriously hurt. Similarly, after drawing a picture of what happened and presenting this to participants they will begin by asking, “Tell me what this is about.” When I respond that my grandma is dying, rather than asking questions about her dying, such as, “What she is dying from or how long she has been dying?” they immediately redirect their questions to the other elements of the drawing. In essence, they immediately begin to look ahead, trying to make sense of what this all means, rather than being curious about where I initially take them — to grandma dying.

Dyson also stated in the same interview, “We don’t use technicians because it’s in the building, which is a mundane thing to do, that you really start to understand what you are doing.” Curiosity really is the cornerstone of building an empathetic relationship in which children feel we are attuned to their world. Once they experience this, they then reciprocate by taking us further into their worlds in ways that allow us to better understand what matters most to them, not what we think will matter most. What matters to children is not how technically efficient our clinical skills are but how much time we spend in their world, not as knowing clinicians but as curious witnesses, building an understanding of what we must provide to be helpful.

Hughes, R. (2009). Attachment Focused Treatment for Children. In Kerman, M. (Ed.). Clinical Pearls of Wisdom. New York: Norton 169-181.

Padesky, C.A. (1993). Socratic Questioning: Changing minds or guiding discovery? A keynote address delivered at the European Congress of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, London, 24, September.

Steele, W., & Kuban, C. (2013). Working with Grieving and Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Discovering What Matters Most Through Evidence-Based Sensory Interventions. New Jersey: Wiley

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol Ann Oleksiak permalink
    September 17, 2013 8:32 pm

    Dr. Steele, I really enjoyed your blog today. It was so interesting to me because today in group case consultation, I wondered if the clinician could help the parent be curious (watch, wait and wonder) with their toddler child in play.
    Thank you for your words today.
    Carol Oleksiak

  2. October 7, 2013 4:02 pm

    I found your post fascinating, I am not an art therapist, teacher, pychologist or practitioner but an artist who is devoted to art and healing and bettering the quality of life for children and all people who live in the remote north near where I live. I recently had the opportunity to sub (you can do this in the north even if you are not a teacher) for a teacher who works with one student and was asked to do art for this student who has learning difficulties. I may not be trained or have the technical language to explain what happened when this student and I worked together but it was “magic” . She lead the process and I followed but,she shared her world with me and the learning process was flowing. I landed on your site looking for ways to enhance my education in some way where I could do this process again. Still not sure how to do this living in the remote north and not having a university degree. Thanks for your post…. very affirming.

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