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On refl ection and refl exivity as a triadic relational space: T eory invitations to creative and diverse refl ective practices in family therapy

Presenter: Carmel Flaskas Carmel’s plenary was the fi nal paper of

the conference. It was a rich theoretical presentation, demanding concentrated listening from the audience - potentially a challenge to those who had been at Buxton since Thursday night! However, Carmel’s warm and engaging delivery eased us into the complexities of her thinking, and allowed us to absorb the thought-provoking links she made. Carmel began by telling us, “How we

think about what we do in family therapy both refl ects and shapes what we do”. This fundamental refl exive relationship between thinking and doing was at the heart of her paper and she emphasised the connection between theory and the creativity of practice throughout. Carmel has had a long-standing interest

in the connections between systemic and psychoanalytic theory and practice. Her paper extended this interest by looking specifi cally at the familiar systemic elements of refl ection and refl exivity and, with reference to psychoanalysis, considering them as triadic and relational spaces that could invite more creative possibilities of practice. Exploring these elements in the history

of systemic thought, Carmel said that family therapy had always been concerned with complex relationships. Indeed, ‘fi rst- order’ theorists separated themselves from other contemporaneous psychologies by moving beyond a dyadic two-person approach, to an understanding of three or more. Later, the ‘second-order’ shift of emphasis from behavioral patterns to meaning and language meant that refl ection and refl exivity became central,


specifi cally to Milan, dialogical and narrative approaches. Carmel highlights a relationship of ‘thirdness’ in this, to be found in the layering of self-refl exivity on the part of the therapist, how this impacts on one’s orientation to, or ways of thinking about, the family experience, and then the emergence of a therapeutic space between therapist and family. Carmel also pointed out that focusing

on ideas of threes and refl ective practices resonated with, and made connections between, the diff erent generations of systemic-practice theory. Having described these strands in

systemic thinking, Carmel then went on to explore a broad range of ideas from psychoanalysis. First, Peter Fonagy’s work on

mentalisation and the current research on refl ective functioning within attachment theory were cited as ways of emphasising the capacity to think about, make meaningful and hold-in-mind, our selves and others in the context of relationships. Carmel then drew some threads from the

relational traditions within psychoanalysis. She described the original Freudian Oedipal story and Winnicott’s later work on the transitional space between, as ways of encapsulating ideas of ‘thirdness’. The contemporary works of Ronald Britton on triangular space of thinking and Jessica Benjamin on aspects of intersubjectivity and ‘thirdness’ were outlined as modern developments of these ideas. In highlighting psychoanalysis’s

concerns with ‘thirdness’, relationships and relational understanding, Carmel drew our attention to its shared territory with systemic thinking and argued for the potential richness of this crossover.

Bringing our attention back to the

practice of family therapy, Carmel said there is already a connection between the lived experience of actual three’s (or more) and the creative triadic space of reflection. This is brought into being by means of circular questions, reflecting teams, and witnessing groups, for example. She also suggested our curiosity about the lived experience of actual three’s invites triadic and relational reflection, as do other contemporary creative practices which include play, drama, art, writings and imaginings. These, in turn, feed into our practice theory. Importantly, Carmel underlined the value of the creative possibilities of our therapeutic practice, reminding us not to underestimate the richness of the immediate and specific therapeutic relationships in the room. In conclusion, Carmel argued for a

cross-border, inclusive approach to theory and practice, one which encompasses ideas both from outside the systemic fi eld and from inside its historical body of knowledge and experience. Carmel’s detailed paper explored the intersections between thinking and doing. In this, she suggested that psychoanalytic understandings of refl ection as a triadic and relational space can usefully off er family therapy an orientation that embraces a range of practices, and re- asserts an appreciation of the diversity and creativity of our everyday in-the-room practices. Carmel’s paper will be published as an

article in the Journal of Family Therapy in 2012.

Heather Townsend Context February 2012

On refl ection and refl exivity as a triadic relational space: Theory invitations to creative and diverse refl ective practices in FT

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