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person’s application of a principle that makes it ethical, not the principle on its own. Indeed, this ethically driven change of

the meaning of systemic – from directive to collaborative – is the well-known core of family therapy’s history. Now, but not in earlier years, involving others – actually or in imaginary ways – is more reliably in the service of systematically sharing the therapeutic process and any decision making with clients. So it is intrinsically more ethical. However, we still have complicated

predicaments to navigate. For example, how far does the involvement of others go? Including others, and deciding whom, must always be a pragmatic rather than an absolute principle. T erapists direct at ention here, even if they don’t make the decision. When our inclusion is an imaginary one – “If X were here what might they say?” – we know that the actual person might say something else if they were present. But the at itude encouraged by imaginary inclusion is still a more ethical one. An obvious example: we would fail

ethically if – without thinking about the others – we only included views of people whose aim was oppressing others. A self-justifying abuser of a wife or children might want to bring in the views of his mates from the pub who agree he’s OK (gender intended). Systemic therapists may not presume to know best, but that does not mean the client always does: we might not stop with their choice of voices. In many cases, our client(s) may be less

obviously oppressive. A rich or racist or sexist or profl igate family could be seen as part of a less directly oppressive force over the poor, other races, women, or the broad sustainability of the planet and global well being. It would be unusual for a family therapist to directly invite the client to be concerned for these indirectly

Context February 2012

aff ected groups. But, in theory, the more we did that, the more ethical our systemic approach would be. Some of our ethical practice resides or

is encoded in our own dearly held values, culture, or our legal system. We like to talk, but silence may be golden too. Our systemic ethics can present us with knot y problems when we stretch it to involve those who hold diff erent values – e.g. where a family’s culture does not allow everyone to talk with an outsider. So, of course, in practice, systemic

ethics has pragmatic limits. Working with a family whose collective values are oppressive – e.g. greedy rich boss, parents imposing an arranged marriage – we might have to go along with their excluding the oppressed person or class. We might try to say something that extends their awareness or at itudes. T at may increase our ethical rating. Otherwise, we know that small steps are bet er than none. But, where a child or partner is being

abused, we simply do not integrate into our forward plan the abuser’s wish to continue the abuse. Here we think of the wider community’s views. If the abuser is our client then we will want to work with them to integrate the victim’s wishes and needs. Systemic ethics means we selectively

bring out and integrate some but not all other people involved, nor all their claimed needs and wishes. We also know abusive situations need to be checked out with our managers and may be further guided by professional codes and laws, and by supervision. Again, bringing in others improves our ethical decisions in diffi cult situations. So, being systemic and ethical requires

our direction too because we have to make judgements about what is never an absolute mat er. Usually, we are in the business of sliding the ethical scale along a bit in the right direction. Keeping the client engaged may be more important than absolute

ethics that loses them. Being systemicCOL is, by defi nition, always going to be the best way to be ethical. Other ethical values link with this – e.g. services that are socially inclusive and accessible to all.

Family therapy’s new direction So, there are serious ethical reasons why

family therapists have changed the meaning of systemic from directive to more refl ective and inclusive collaborative practice. But, there is trouble with an extreme focus on relativism, refl ection and avoidance of being directive in therapy, however powerful it can be not to presume. We may underplay or not see those equally important more directive aspects of our work noted above. We also direct other things as systemicallyCOL


we can, but without the same involvement of those aff ected. For example, designing publicity leafl ets; set ing appointment times; making our assessment and formulation to set up a workable relationship with clients; managing boundaries in and between sessions; taking action if the fi re alarm goes, or if someone is ill or drunk. And we also take the initiative when we suggest some of our special ways of working (including some of the old ones). We don’t impose them, for sure, but we don’t go through the whole toolbox to allow the client a supermarket choice. We choose what to suggest. Even more than this framework of less

negotiated structure, a general account of present-day systemicCOL

family therapy

(e.g. Rivet & Street, 2009) shows how much determined skill goes into every phase and moment of shaping the core space for therapy to work in. It is a diff erent shape than it was, but we take at least as much grip on that direction as did the early masters of systemicDIR

family therapy.

T erapy is not now directive of clients, but ethical therapy is still highly directional. T ese same recognitions apply to us as

a fi eld. We have promoted our refl ectivity and avoidance of presumption to a fault.


Systemic means much more – in the community and for other professions

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