Why Neuroscience for Counsellors?

Rachal Zara Wilson is a counsellor, social worker and author of the new Neuroscience for CounsellorsWe caught up with her for a quick chat about the book and why she wanted to write about such a complex topic. 

1.  Who do you think would benefit from reading this book?

Definitely counsellors, but also any other therapists as well.  The book is designed so that it has sections where the neuroscience is explained, and separate sections for counsellors and other therapists with suggestions on how to use this knowledge for the benefit of their clients in the session room.

Families of people who are experiencing mental health dysfunction may also be interested in the knowledge contained in this book, and also in the implications for how they can support their loved ones.

2.  Why did you write this book? Wilson_Neuroscience-fo_978-1-84905-488-1_colourjpg-print

I’ve always been interested in neuroscience; the brain is so fascinating and amazing, and capable of so much more than we’ve always been led to believe.  And of course, as a counsellor working with people, how the brain works has always been top of my mind.  The final motivator was having a child who was experiencing problems with their mental health, and I guess I just hoped to find something that would help him and others in a similar situation during the course of my research.

3.  So what’s so exciting about what you learned?

Probably the most exciting thing would be the brain’s capacity to change itself, known as brain plasticity.  The brain isn’t static, it’s more like a dynamic organ that is constantly changing for better or worse.  And what we do plays a huge part in how it changes.  How much stress we’re under, what we eat, the quality of our sleep, whether we exercise and how much, our living environments, and the presence or absence of early trauma in our lives are some of the things that contribute to the way our brain functions, and to its capacity for change, or plasticity.  I guess the most exciting thing is that we have control over this plasticity to a large degree, and we can therefore improve the quality of our brain function, our health and our lives.

4. Why don’t we know this stuff already?

Because neuroscience is a field in its infancy.  There’s a lot of learning coming through, but much of it’s wrapped up in scientific jargon, making it inaccessible to those of us who are not scientists.  And because there’s lots of different levels of looking at the brain, (both micro and macro,) different neuroscience specialties do not always integrate their specialist knowledge.  I think the benefit of this book is that it integrates the neuroscience into an overall big picture, while also drawing on this resource to come up with practical ways for integrating it into therapy.  It hasn’t been done before because it’s new, because it’s complex, and because integrating neuroscience with counselling and other therapies requires a knowledge of both fields.  I believe that in the future, all practitioners providing talking therapies are going to need to understand what neuroscience offers our professions, or risk becoming irrelevant.

5.  Why put it in a book?

This knowledge is meant to be shared.  All counsellors and therapeutic practitioners want best outcomes for their clients, and the more knowledge we have that can help people make positive change in their lives, the better.

6.  Is it complicated?

The neuroscience is complex, but the book is designed so that people who just want to know what it means for their practice can just read those sections, while those who want to understand how it all works can read up on the explanations for how all the scientific evidence fits together.  The book is written in the plainest English possible, and there is a glossary and diagrams at the back to help you fit it all together.

You can find out more about the book, read reviews and order your copy here.

Browse our latest collection of new and bestselling titles in counselling and psychotherapy

Here are our new and bestselling titles in counselling and psychotherapy. For more information on any of the books inside, simply click the title or cover image to view the full book page.

Teaser Tuesday-Social Interaction in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

The Early Identification of Autism Spectrum Disorders by Patricia O’Brien Towle is a unique visual guide aimed to equip readers with the skills to recognize autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children as young as 15-18 months old. It provides a systematic framework for understanding theTowle_Early-Identific_978-1-84905-329-7_colourjpg-web complex nature of ASD. From social interaction to communication to restricted and repetitive behaviors, each chapter focuses on key symptoms and uses photographs to illustrate and enhance understanding of presenting or absent behaviors. It is written in an accessible style and covers all of the core aspects of ASD, giving readers everything they need to be able to successfully identify the behavioral indicators of autism.

Chapter 4-Social Interaction in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Difference and delay in social development is at the absolute core of ASD. Some children show normal first-year social development and then start
to lose those skills in the second year, while other children evidence delays right from the start. The behaviors to be described and illustrated in this chapter fall into the following three general clusters:

  •  Social engagement and interest: How does the child show that he is interested in others and ready to be engaged? To this end, where does the child place himself physically so that he has the opportunity to get involved with others? How does the child use eye contact to signal interest in engagement, and monitor the faces of others to extract information about how the interaction may go? How does the child get social interaction going with others, and how does he respond when others initiate social interaction with him?
  • Emotional signaling: How does a child exchange purely emotional information with others, and signal her internal state?
  • Capacity for interaction: How easily does the child fall into a give-and take pattern across a variety of circumstances, from predictable and scripted routines to a free-flowing, reciprocal social interchange? Can he sustain an interaction once it is started?

Download the chapter 4 extract here.

Patricia O’Brien Towle, Ph.D., has 30 years’ experience with early childhood developmental disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders. She is a clinical child psychologist at the Westchester Institute for Human Development and assistant professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and public health at the New York Medical College. In addition to her extensive clinical experience, Dr. Towle carries out research on the prevalence and developmental course of ASD, supervises psychology interns and post-doctoral fellows, and gives presentations to professionals and parents nationally. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

Teaser Tuesday-Requirements for Being a “Parent” as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA)

The Comprehensive Guide to Special Education Law by George A. Giuliani is a detailed yet accessible introduction to federal law as it applies to the rights of children with special needs. Written in a user-friendly question and answer format, the book covers all of the key areas of special education law including parental rights of participation, the legal right to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and related services, and the complex issues of discipline and dispute resolutions.

Who is a “parent” as defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA)?

Perhaps the most important element afforded under IDEIA is the right to parental participation at almost all stages of the special education process. To increase the odds that each child has a parent in the special education process, IDEIA does define the term “parent” but does so in a broad way. Under IDEIA, a “parent” means:

  1. A biological (natural) or adoptive parent of a child
  2. A foster parent, unless State law, regulations, or contractual obligations with a State or local entity prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent
  3. A guardian generally authorized to act as the child’s parent, or authorized to make educational decisions for the child (but not the State if the child is a ward of the State)
  4. An individual acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent (including a grandparent, stepparent, or other relative) with whom the child lives, or an individual who is legally responsible for the child’s welfare, or
  5. A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with 34 C.F.R. 300.519.

Download the Requirements for Being a “Parent” extract here.

Dr. George Giuliani works at Hofstra University, Long Island, where he is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, Health and Human Services and former Director of the graduate school program in Special Education. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at Hofstra University’s School of Law where he teaches the course, Special Education Law. Dr. Giuliani is the Executive Director of The National Association of Special Education Teachers, Executive Director of the American Academy of Special Education Professors, and President of the National Association of Parents with Children in Special Education. He has written many books on special education and he is a consultant for school districts and early childhood agencies. He resides in Melville, New York.

Developing essential skills for mediating across dispute contexts and cultures – An Interview with Tony Whatling

Tony Whatling is the author of the new book, Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide.  With over 25 years’ experience of mediation practice, he has published widely on the subject of mediation and is a professional practice consultant to a number of mediation services. He has designed and delivered training to over 1,000 Muslim mediators in the UK, Pakistan, India, USA, Canada, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Portugal, Syria and Afghanistan.

In this interview, Tony shares his experiences of mediating within different contexts and cultures, and explains why there is the need for a comprehensive guide to the skills and strategies in mediation.


You have worked in the field of mediation for over 20 years – what led you to become a mediator?

From the late 1960’s, I had a professional background in social sciences, social work practice, management and education, always with a part-time involvement in family therapy practice, throughout those different roles. As a tutor and head of a university department of social work education, I had always believed that, to maintain credibility, academics should not be detached from practice, so looked for a part-time role locally.

At that time family mediation was beginning to evolve in the UK, and in 1984 a mediation service opened in the city and offered the first ever national training in family mediation. I was subsequently appointed and within two years became one of a small team of trainers to deliver training across the UK in the not-for-profit sector. I left the university some 18 years ago to become a self-employed trainer, and expanded my experience so as to also offer training in community/neighbour, health care complaints, victim/offender and workplace mediation contexts.

Why was it important to write a book about mediation skills?

Despite the substantial growth in literature related to mediation, conciliation, conflict management and alternative dispute resolution (ADR), it is surprising that a book which offers a straightforward, comprehensive handbook of mediator skills and strategies has not so far been written. Whilst referring to some skills, books with titles referring to ‘mediation skills’ more commonly cover theories about conflict, legal issues, and how to manage the mediation process and its stages, rather than the essential core skills and strategies used by practitioners. My decision to write the book was also heavily influenced by constant requests to do so from the very many people I have trained over the past two decades.

Can you give us some examples of skills that mediators routinely employ? Mediation is practised in many different kinds of settings – are these skills employed universally?

The good news for trainee mediators is that the key skills that mediators use are effectively the same as those used by councillors, therapists, managers, and HR staff – indeed anyone involved in what can be termed ‘people-working’ professions. They are essentially also what most people have developed as good quality interpersonal communication skills for everyday life: for example, active listening with understanding, paraphrasing, summarising, clarifying, empathising and using a range of different forms of questioning. The key difference is that mediators are using such skills for different outcome objectives than, say, a therapist, namely in helping disputants negotiate agreements and mutually acceptable settlements. Again, the good news is that these skills are entirely appropriate across all dispute resolution contexts. The procedural steps employed by a mediator will differ depending on the conflict at hand – for example, a spousal dispute versus a commercial or workplace dispute – but the skills are universal.

You make the distinction in the book between skills and strategies – tell us about this.

Typical dictionary definitions describe a skill as ‘the ability to do something well’ or ‘expertise or dexterity’, whereas a strategy is commonly defined as ‘a plan designed to achieve a particular long-term aim’.

Professionals firstly need to practice and develop specific core mediation skills in order to be able to apply them with a particular outcome in mind.

It is hard to conceive of any skill being used by a mediator that will not have some degree of either minor or major strategic effect. For example, the mediator will use the skill of active listening so that they fully understand the client, but also to demonstrate an interest in them as a person. In this scenario, the client hopefully perceives the mediator as both skilful and interested in them as a person. This in turn will also help towards developing trust in the mediator, and indeed the mediation process itself as a method of resolving the dispute. I give many more examples in the book of these core mediation skills and how they are applied strategically towards helping the parties involved to move through the mediation process. Purposefulness and intentionality therefore are the hallmarks of skilled practice.

You run skills training throughout the UK, but also around the world. Are there differences in the way that mediation is practised within different countries and cultures?

There are significant differences in the way that mediation is practised within different countries and cultures, and the most significant differences relate to the Western versus non-Western cultural context. Generally speaking, in Western, individualist cultures, conflict is regarded as an inevitable fact of everyday life and, in many cases, even as a necessary indicator of a need for improvement – for example, in unsatisfactory work-place relationships or with consumer products. Consequently, mediation has come to be regarded as a way to get things out into the open and on the table so as to solve problems and negotiate mutually acceptable settlements and agreements, usually with the help of impartial, trained mediators who are not normally known to the parties in dispute.

By contrast, in many non-Western, communitarian cultures, conflict is generally regarded as abhorrent, a threat to community cohesion and a matter of individual, family and community failings, and is therefore something to avoid, suppress or smooth over. Mediation in this context tends to be conducted by known and respected senior members of the community. Conflict management and negotiations are typically much less direct, take longer and may involve many more members of the extended family and community stake holders – usually with a strong emphasis on reconciliation and a ‘bandaging of the wounds’. Where such internal processes are unsuccessful, arbitration is historically more commonplace and again is provided by respected community and faith elders. Settlements determined by such processes tend to accepted by all concerned, regardless of who wins or loses, as an indication of the historical respect for the authority of the arbitrator.

What has been the most challenging piece of work that you have done which involved drawing upon all of your skills as a mediator?

Two particular examples stand out as the most challenging. The first was a family mediation involving a divorcing couple where the wife was terminally ill, with possibly weeks or at best a few months to live. She expressed very considerable anger with the surgeons, who had at initially thought that surgery had been successful – only to discover later that her illness had spread extensively. She was also still very angry with her husband who had left her for another woman prior to her diagnosis. We achieved little other than some plans for the next few weeks, as we had to end the meeting when her emotional and physical condition deteriorated to the point where she could no longer communicate effectively. I still believe that it was right to respect her wish to mediate. At an intellectual level it made sense, and yet emotionally – given the catastrophic losses that this woman faced: marriage, children and life itself – how could anyone be expected to cope with negotiating arrangements for a time when they are no longer here?

The other situation involved a couple in Syria and matters of family honour. Two members of the wife’s family had not only defrauded her husband of a substantial amount of money through business dealings, but had maligned his character within the close-knit local community. It would not be appropriate to give details, but after some eight years the matter had gone from bad to worse, despite many attempts at mediation and reconciliation. Given the family connections and long running emotional stress, the dispute now threatened the husband’s long-standing marriage, as well as his career as a very successful business man and academic. My female Muslim co-worker and I worked with the husband and wife for several hours, through intense heat and inadequate air-conditioning, on the day we were due to leave Syria after delivering a training programme. By the end, we felt that we had gone some way to helping to reconcile the marriage and the couple both expressed sincere gratitude, in particular for the fact that we had been the first people not to tell the husband to ‘forgive and forget’ or to get on with his life for the sake of his family, his children and community cohesion. We also helped to begin to formulate a plan in which a mutually trusted relative from the wife’s family might be sufficiently trusted on both sides, to convey an apology from her father to her husband – an option that would potentially enable both families to save face. The husband was fully prepared to write off the substantial financial loss, but had become obsessed – to the point of potentially serious mental and physical ill heath – with the damage done to his reputation as an honourable man. This situation brought home to me vividly just how very serious matters of shame and honour are in certain non-Western, communitarian cultures. When at one stage I asked the husband what he would do if an apology was not forthcoming, he thought long and hard before saying, ‘Then I will have only one remaining option, which is to kill them.’ He looked and sounded very serious.

I like to believe that he was sufficiently intelligent and aware of the legal consequences of such actions enough to not carry out that threat, and yet I was left in no doubt of the intensity of his emotions and beliefs. Whilst in many respects he had outwardly become very Westernised, his cultural values regarding family honour were still deeply embedded in his psyche. As someone brought up in a Western culture, I can potentially understand and indeed empathise with his wish to avoid dishonour and shame, and yet, personally upsetting as it might be, the actions I might resort to are incomparable across our different cultural worlds.

To return to your original question, such disputes inevitably test a mediator’s skills to the limit. They are also a powerful reminder of what I refer to in some detail in the book, namely that they should never be applied outside of a framework of appropriate professional values, attitudes and cultural sensitivity and awareness. Skills, strategies and professional practice can never be value-free.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social Care

Book cover: How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social CareTrish Hafford-Letchfield is Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Teaching Fellow in Interprofessional Learning at Middlesex University in the UK, and Les Gallop is an independent consultant and trainer with many years experience in social work, social work management and training.

In this interview they introduce their new book, How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social Care, a researched and practical guide to the fundamental skills and knowledge that a manager needs, underpinned by the values and ethics that are inherent to social work and social care.


This is the first book in the new Essential Skills for Social Work and Social Care Managers series intended to help managers in social work and social care. Can you tell us a bit about the series, the need for it, and what readers can expect from books that are featured within it?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: There are a lot of good quality books in our field which offer various critiques of management and models for thinking about how to be a better manager. I wanted to think about the actual skills that managers in social work and social care needed, for example, those which help people to practically grapple with the business aspects of management but which also pay attention to and value equally, the need to behave ethically in what can be very demanding environments. Managers that I have worked with in different settings often struggle with keeping up with new developments in management practice and particularly with having the time to think about their own learning and professional development. Becoming skilful as a manager does not always naturally emerge from one’s professional experiences although much of what we learn comes from what we do every day and the opportunity to reflect and consolidate those experiences. However, the need to develop more tailored or specific skills and to be a good manager might come to your attention for the first time when you move into a new management role or make a transition from one management role to another. Managers often acquire responsibility for managing others, without the benefits of formal management training, and they have to combine professional expertise combined with practice ‘know-how’.

This series Essential skills for Social Work and Social Care Managers aims to give front line or aspiring managers access to a practical quality guide to a range of different areas of fundamental management skills; areas that can often be taken for granted. For example, if you are about to go into a recruitment drive, you may want some tailored advice about how to write a job description or person specification, or if you are managing a difficult meeting, what are the quick tips to help you prepare? I hope that these short, handy but well researched guides are particularly tailored for those working in social work and social care environments or any environment with a core business of care.

So, the first book covers everyday skills such as time management, managing conflict and working effectively in partnerships. These are the background skills, so to speak. The second book in the series focuses just on project management and how to manage a project effectively, whether this is large or small. We anticipate further books in the series on skills in effective decision making, acting ethically and commissioning and contracting. I hope that people who have expertise and who are perhaps interested in sharing this with their colleagues as well as meeting the challenge of writing a book will come forward and submit a proposal for the series.

What do you think are the most common challenges for managers in social care?

Les Gallop: This is a question for our times. We live in difficult circumstances, with people in all social work and social care sectors facing uncertain futures. I want though to step back a bit from this and think about other sorts of challenges:

  • Dealing with targets: for many years and under various governments, managers have had to attend to ‘targets’ and all the associated activities, while at the same time recognising that even the neatest spread sheet about performance is not the same as performance itself. I love the quotation from Einstein, told to me by an old friend in management: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. Someone had better tell the government!
     
  • Remaining human: a silly thing perhaps, but pressure is relentless for a lot of managers, and it is easy to become jaded. Remaining human and keeping a sense of perspective (and humour!) is a real challenge but so important.
     
  • Reconciling demands: I have spent some time talking to managers recently about their work, and this challenge of keeping plates spinning, all of which are important plates, keeps them busy from the beginning to the end of most days. I’ve found myself comparing and contrasting it with my experience of management. It seems to me that theirs is a much more demanding world than I remember mine being, brought about in part by the target culture and by the increasing public visibility of social work and social care.

One thing remains, though, through the years: the sense of the sheer importance of social work and social care in any society concerned with inequality and social justice – and the healthy challenges that this brings about ourselves and our work environments.

How do issues for managers in social care differ from those faced by managers in, say, the financial sector?

Les Gallop: I’m sure that there are many overlaps between all sectors, given that management anywhere concerns ensuring that people work towards whatever are the organisation’s goals – I like the idea that the key task of management is to create an environment in which safe and creative work can flourish.

However, I do think that there are real differences between the various work places. In social work and social care, front-line staff are the service – whereas in the financial sector we can separate the person from, for example, the advice that they give. We discuss this in the book, using research by Bowen and Schneider on service organisations. They argued that the ‘products’ of such organisations are largely intangible, and service users will judge them therefore through impressions. A support worker’s performance will for example be judged by a service user partly in relation to their personal qualities. In many situations the act of providing the service and that of receiving it are simultaneous. The service user is an active contributor to this process. The Newly Qualified Social Workers with whom I have recently been working know this very well when a parent refuses to engage in discussion about a child’s well-being.

All of this means that in social work and social care organisations, supervision becomes particularly important. Front-line staff need support, motivation and time to reflect on how they work, along with some monitoring, in order that the vital exchanges between them and service users can be as effective as possible.

What originally spurred your interest in social care management?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: I fell in love with management theories when I did my first post graduate course in health and social care management in the early 1990s. It was the first time I had been encouraged to reflect on my management practice and think about the specific role I played and my own management style. I always believe that until relatively recently managers in our sector have been much maligned and neglected even though they have a professional practice background. When I went into higher education in 2003, I was asked to teach a module on management and organisations. I found that there was not a lot of diversity in the learning materials for social work and social care managers which meant going to the more traditional sources and adapting and tailoring them for my students. I haven’t looked back since.

Les Gallop: My decision to apply for my first management post had a lot to do with my manager at the time. I had come to appreciate what a difference she made to my work and that of my colleagues, as well as to the people who needed our service. In fact, I still see the first-line manager as the key person in determining the quality of service people receive. She brought a great mixture of challenge and support to her work and had an undying commitment to individual team development. I had supervised a few students and started to get a real buzz from seeing them develop in competence and confidence, and that added to my interest in management.

In terms of writing about social work and social care management, I did some writing for a university Higher Award in Social Work Leadership and Management. I came across Trish then, who was also doing some writing for the course. Students seem to appreciate it, and I realised more than ever how starved so many managers are of opportunities to think about their work. Ever since qualifying and having a positive experience of being managed I have valued opportunities for thinking about my work, and know how much it has helped me. So – when Trish asked if I would like to work with her on this book, I couldn’t say no!

What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced as a manager?

Les Gallop: Like all the managers I know, every day brought challenges for me. I suppose it is one of the reasons we do it, in spite of cursing it sometimes!

Perhaps though the biggest challenges are those where we have responsibility but little obvious power. I still feel the nerve ends twitch when I think of a situation where the large organisation I was working in was being divided. I had a lot of responsibility for sorting out how the staff in my service might be divided while not knowing about my own future. In the months of working on this there were a lot of tears. Some people had worked together for some time, and so established working friendships were about to break up. We did not know about whether there would be sufficient posts in the new arrangements to go round, and so individual futures were at risk. When we had little information about the overall plans, rumours would start doing the rounds to fill the gaps.

It strikes me that in these times of public service cutbacks there will be many managers going through similar experiences. I needed a lot of support to help me maintain a ‘public’ face of at least some dignity whilst thinking that this just was not what I had come into management for.

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: I am just about to take on a challenge in my own university where I have recently taken on some administrative roles with some delegated management responsibilities. That has definitely made me anxious about whether I will be able to practice what you preach? I may even have to turn to this book for my own advice!. It’s a scary thought that people may think I am not true to my own espoused values. I have always maintained some sort of management role since entering higher education within the voluntary sector which keeps me in touch with the real world. I hope that I am able to keep learning and that I can support others in doing so.

If you could offer just three pieces of advice to a social work manager wanting to improve their management skills, what would they be?

Les Gallop: I am not often the first in the queue when it comes to offering advice! After all, what might work for me might not work for others and vice versa. However I would, with some hesitation, suggest the following, which probably fits with what I have said above.

In order to develop our skills we need to have and to nurture good support systems, so identify sources of support. This sometimes will be people in similar posts whose views and approach you trust. A life outside work is another source of support.

I think then that I have discovered the simple realisation that we will never be the ‘finished article’. It’s a bit of a cliché perhaps, but a commitment to continuing professional development is what separates effective managers from those going through the motions.

My third thought is about self-awareness, as we argue in the book. We all find ourselves able to do some things better than others, and, given scarce time, managers need to work on those skills that are less developed, as well as honing skills that come a bit more naturally. This is why we wanted to give people a chance to do an audit of skills.

Trish, you have written a number of books, and are now the editor of a series of books for JKP – I imagine the advice on time management must come in useful when balancing a busy academic life with writing projects. How do you get motivated and find the time to write?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: Yes, a lot of people think that I am a workaholic and do nothing but write every spare minute of the day in order to produce the books I have managed to write. However, many are surprised to find out how many other things I manage to cram into my busy life, including my music and I always consider myself as a bit of a culture vulture given that there is always so much going on in London where I currently live. However, I am a great believer in Forsters principle of ‘do it first every day’ which means that I tend to write in small chunks but I also write very regularly and in a much focused way. First of all, I establish an overall plan in terms of the timescales and tasks required then I work towards that slowly and steadily. I do tend to write my goals down and plan quite well in most areas of work and I also move the goal posts quite a lot but I believe that by aiming high, it allows for a bit of manoeuvre or compromise. For me, a lot of the work is done in the mulling over and reading, which I do on the tube to work, and in the more unlikely places. Writing for me, is a habit and the more you do, the easier it becomes. My advice is that regular focussed action keeps an initiative alive or keeps you engaged with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of extended procrastination, like everyone else but I think it’s healthy to indulge in that, and for me, I need to feel the acute pressure on my time as a result of a good bout of procrastination and then the challenge to get on with it. It’s all about the balance and being honest with yourself. I would say, be kind to yourself and kind to others, we are only human after all!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Mediation Matters: Tony Whatling on Training Muslim Mediators in Afghanistan

A personal perspective from Tony Whatling, mediation consultant and trainer, and author of Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide.


Kabul revisited

The flight from Dubai to Afghanistan had taken us over the breathtaking panorama of the majestic snow-capped peaks and deep dark valleys of the Central Highland mountain range, which cover over 160,000 square miles.

It was late October 2010 and as we touched down at Kabul airport I reflected on my last training visit in 2004 and wondered what changes had taken place over that time. The excitement of my return to this wonderful country had been overshadowed by the news that, on that same morning, on the outskirts of Kabul a suicide bomber had taken the lives of thirteen NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and eight civilians.

Within three weeks of that dreadful event, many more innocent citizens – men, women and children – were slaughtered by more bombs as they celebrated the joy and excitement of the festival Eid Mubarak, in central Kabul.

Compared to 2004, it was sad to see that Kabul had become a city under siege. Every building of any importance was now hidden from sight and fortified with 20-foot high concrete walls, topped with razor wire. Getting into the hotel from the road took around 10-20 minutes every day as each steel barrier, followed by massive steel gates, allowed only one car at a time to pass through and be examined. They checked underneath the car, the boot and the engine bay. Once out of the car, bags were searched and checked by sniffer dogs before being put through airport-style scanners. All hotel uniformed guards carried machine guns at the ready with – rather concerningly – twitching fingers. Only main roads were surfaced, but all were inches deep in dust. There were many more cars than last time and driving was all based on a ‘he who dares, wins’ game of bluff and counter-bluff, with a terrifying lack of regard for the risks involved or for the lives of pedestrians attempting to cross the road.

It was all a stark reminder that, whether the disputes were between warring spouses, angry neighbours, work colleagues or nations, such conflicts would never be resolved by violence. Referring to a much-respected retired general, Britain’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan wrote: ‘Like most Afghans, he knew that the only answer was reconciliation between all the parties to the conflict. There had to be a new political settlement in which the Taliban, and the tribes and views they represented, were included, not excluded. Trying to defeat the Taliban by military force would never produce lasting peace.’*

Mediation for the people by the people

Over the past ten years, I have had the great pleasure and privilege of delivering a total of twenty programmes of family and community mediation training in eleven different countries, including Pakistan, India, Syria, Kenya, Portugal, the USA, UK, Canada, Uganda, Tanzania, and Afghanistan.

The training programmes are arranged by one particular Muslim group, which has faith communities in some 23 different countries worldwide. Most of those communities have now established dispute resolution teams, staffed by volunteer-trained mediators who are available to deal with disputes referred from within their particular local faith community group.

And so it was that I was returning to Kabul to train the latest group of carefully selected, newly appointed volunteer mediators from various districts in Afghanistan where this particular faith group has long-established communities.


Photo: Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.

Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.


For many of the 50 or so trainees, the learning challenges they faced were compounded by the physical discomfort of some 3-4 days walking, apart from the occasional luxury of a donkey ride to get to the training venue in Kabul. Much of their route – for example, from the northern mountainous Hindu Kush regions of Badakhshan – consists of little more than rough tracks. Some told of how the path had become closed behind them by ice and snow. Their safe return to loved ones and businesses was, as they put it with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, ‘now in the hands of Allah’.

For these people, who had lived through centuries of peaceful conflict resolution faith teachings combined with a tradition of voluntary service to their community, the personal risks involved were far outweighed by an awareness of the urgent need to connect faith traditions with contemporary dispute resolution practice.

New learning inevitably generates complex and challenging questions

One of the great pleasures of training such groups is the strong level of commitment, attention, and the high value which they attribute to any form of education and training. As a result, their acquisition of knowledge and skills tends to be much accelerated in comparison to their Western counterparts. This is all the more surprising since every sentence has to be translated, in this instance into Farsi.

Sadly, male trainees still outnumber women – one consequence of which is that men have to assume the role of women in role-play. This is always a source of great amusement within a group. In what other circumstances would you find a high-ranking officer from the department of counter-terrorism, a former mayor, a serving army general, judges and farmers, sitting cross-legged on the floor, acting out the role of a distressed divorcing wife?

The influence of the trainer in empowering trainees to stretch their boundaries never ceases to amaze me. To their credit, during the role-play debrief, these men frequently comment about the eye-opening insights they gained from this gender shift experience.

Here in Afghanistan, the training and learning challenges are complex, as participants struggle to make sense not only of the knowledge and skills they are gaining, but of the application of these to their non-Western culture and faith traditions.

It is very apparent that they are convinced by, excited about and wanting to apply these new ideas and practices. Yet at the same time there is an inevitable uncertainty and insecurity about the extent to which such practices will be acceptable within their more remote regional communities.

Evidence of this internal struggle becomes clear from the nature of the questions from – and often heated debates between – members of the group. Constant requests for help and advice are made about how to deal with the anticipated resistance to such ‘new ways’ being imported from the West.

This has been a common experience and preoccupation in the training of other groups for example in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Syria and, more recently with a group from Iran, where long-standing cultural traditions of dispute resolution are far more akin to arbitration.

In the more remote regions of these countries, disputes are traditionally referred to wise community leaders and/or groups of respected elders, who have the absolute authority to hear the case and determine the settlement. Regardless of the opinions of the winners or losers of this informal justice system, the judgement will be accepted and respected by all concerned. Consequently, introducing contemporary and non-authoritarian dispute resolution, by party empowerment and negotiation, challenges the authority of the tradition and risks a lack of respect for the authority, and therefore the status of mediators, regardless of Western contemporary beliefs in its efficacy.

Any response to such challenging questions must demonstrate a good level of understanding on the part of the trainer, together with all due respect for cultural and sub-cultural differences and traditions.

Whilst the questions may relate to the anticipated resistance in potential mediation clients, the underlying or ‘meta’ questions are also a reminder that the trainee, too, is a product of that same cultural environment.

The response of a trainer to the trainee’s uncertainty and doubts can be seen as a mirror image that reflects the doubts and uncertainties that clients may well bring to them as mediators. Trainers and mediators alike, on perceiving such doubts, must have the professional maturity to be able to steer into such confusion. Instead of trying to avoid it, they should share responsibility for their part in such uncertainty, rather than regarding it as the client’s problem. In other words, expressed or perceived doubts from trainees or clients should be encouraged, heard, understood and respected as normal at times of uncertainty and disequilibrium.

Is mediation an ‘idea whose time has come’ for Afghanistan?

Having referred earlier to the wise words of the former British Ambassador, I woke today to the news that, on the occasion of President Karzai’s meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister in London, it was announced that talks had now officially started between mediators and representatives of the Taliban.

My work in Afghanistan is related to one small Muslim faith community that is located within many larger and more complex historical faith, cultural and political systems. The work is a very minor contribution compared to the wider picture in this war-torn country. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt now that mediation and negotiated peace settlements are the only viable alternative, as for example we have witnessed in countries like South Africa. In such entrenched conflicts, we are dealing with highly complex and long-standing disputes involving deeply held values and principles.

When compared to disputes over substantive issues such as regional boundaries, electoral systems, or numbers of weapons, negotiated settlements will never be achieved by one side changing its position or values. Whilst we may all change and adapt our values as we go through life, we tend not to do that when in dispute. That is a time to stand up for them at all costs, regardless of risk to life and limb. The only way to achieve a resolution to such values disputes is when each side eventually comes to recognise the right of the other side to exist as fellow human beings – albeit having entirely different cultural and faith traditions, values and beliefs. Once that position is established, the respective factions can come together to negotiate practical measures by which they can learn to live side-by-side, regardless of their value differences – as is now happening with the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Such major international conflicts will not be concluded easily or swiftly, just because peace agreements are signed. In the cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland we may be facing decades of transition and yet, it would seem that once the tipping point is reached, despite attempts by minority groups to disrupt the accord, it is unlikely to revert to former states of all-out warfare.

Despite the marked differences between the advances of one minority Muslim group that I have had the privilege of working with, compared to the enormity of conflict in Afghanistan as a whole, the good news is that the skills and techniques that mediators bring are precisely the same.

Obviously very different procedural steps are needed when we compare spousal disputes with workplace, or commercial contexts with complex multinational conflicts. Nevertheless, the skills and processes of mediation are universal. So too are the essential principals that underpin the practice, such as voluntary participation, demonstrable impartiality as to outcome, joint party empowerment, confidentiality and fairness etc. – all of which are explored in more detail in the forthcoming book, Mediation Skills and Strategies.

Political leaders, community elected representatives and diplomats will inevitably take centre stage in such negotiations. Nevertheless we can only hope that they have the wisdom to ensure that highly-skilled, trained and respected mediators are ’embedded’ at every stage of the process. They must be regarded as integral to the process throughout. Their values, skills and strategies are substantially different from the key stakeholders – and should be respected as such.

My personal view, from experience over the past decade, is that, in terms of cultural credibility, such mediators should ideally be recruited from within the Afghan community and culture rather than imported from the West. It is likely that training will need to be imported initially but it must to be seen to be culturally sensitive to substantial differences between Western Individualist and non-Western Communitarian cultural attitudes to conflict and dispute resolution.

Tony Whatling
January 2012

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.


*Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (Harper Press 2011), 352pp.

A New Take on Language Function and Literacy: An Interview with Dr. Ellyn Lucas Arwood

Dr. Ellyn Lucas Arwood has established a reputation as an expert in how language is used for learning and how language and cognition interact, and is often referred to as a “lady before her time”.

Here Dr Arwood answers some questions about her new book, Language Function: An Introduction to Pragmatic Assessment and Intervention for Higher Order Thinking and Better Literacy.

How did this text came about?

As a speech-language pathologist in the late 1960’s, I wondered why some children could say a sentence but not ask to go to the bathroom; why some children could repeat by memory a complete commercial or word call printed text but not ask another child to play; why some children could score higher in expressive language than receptive language when the Western Psych model says that input comes before output. The structural approach to literacy that I was trained in did not make a lot of sense in practice. Teaching words, sounds, psychomotor skills, and behavior tasks provided children with progress on skills but not on thinking and learning. So, I began to read everything in any discipline that I could about how to help children understand what they read, speak from thinking ideas, and write about what they knew. I deliberately worked on a doctorate at the University of Georgia (USA) where I was allowed to enroll in courses that would give me the education in language philosophy, sociolinguistics, semantics, and pragmatics so that I could incorporate that knowledge into my practice. After doing a dissertation in speech act theory (1977) which demonstrates the importance of the listener in speaking with children severely impacted by a variety of disorders such as autism, emotional disturbance, behaviorally disordered, other health impaired, I went to work at Washington State University where I had the opportunity to teach others how to apply this knowledge.

At a presentation at the American Speech and Hearing Association, an editor came to me and ask me to start writing. Thus, I wrote my first book, Semantic and Pragmatic Disorders, in 1980. But the readership wanted more theory and I was not satisfied with my knowledge. I needed to know “why” some of what I did worked. I continued to write books, articles, and so forth to try to balance the theory with the practice; something that I personally believe is what we, as professionals, should be doing. When I accepted a job at Texas Tech University, I had the opportunity to study and do research in the area of pragmaticism while also working as a professor of speech and learning sciences. The notion of pragmaticism is that the synergy of the whole (mind, body, brain) is greater than the parts – and with that concept comes a theory of signs that allowed me to incorporate a knowledge of the level of thinking that goes with using the mind for academics, social issues, and behavioral constructs.

Throughout this entire process of building my knowledge, I never lost sight of the influence of the brain research. To me, it was obvious that the brain was the basis to all learning and that pure developmental models could not explain how a child learns to think. So, I took classes in brain research such as human brain dissection at the Kresge Institute in Louisiana and medical physiology at Louisiana State University. The brain research of the early 1990’s supported much of what I believed about the way children learn to think and use their thinking to function which added another layer to understanding how language functions. For the past 25 years, as a professor in education at the University of Portland (Oregon, USA), I have collected more data about thinking, added to my knowledge about learning, and refined the methods in practice. Now, it is time to get this knowledge into our community and schools, which are microcosms of how society functions. Thus, the rationale for this new book, Language Function.

Recent studies have shown that the majority of English speakers don’t “think in sound.” What does this mean?

Thinking is about ideas. Ideas that are in the form of mental pictures, movies, graphics, print are not in sound. These visual mental images are the foundational piece to being literate for most people. So, instead of sounds existing as the basis for better reading and writing, visual images are the basis for understanding the print, for seeing what is on the page, for writing ideas on paper, for increasing mental thoughts for better speaking, for understanding concepts of number for better math, and so forth. The majority of learners that I work with tell me about these visual mental images that they use for thinking. They do not use the sound of their own voice for learning new ideas….new ideas come from the changes in their previous visual images.

What are the implications of this for education?

The major implication is that we need to rethink what the basis of literacy is and then change literacy programs to match thinking.

I believe the most apparent challenge in education today that represents what I refer to as a “cultural-linguistic mismatch” is the fact that educators are exposed to lot of data, materials, programs, and training that says that sound is the basis to literacy. Suggesting that sound is the basis to literacy is logical since these educators live in a culture that uses English as the primary language of educating children in subjects, skills, and dispositions. English is a sound-based language where individual sounds can change the meaning. For example, in English, adding “s” to “dog” turns the word into a plural concept. So, culturally using the sounds that go with the alphabet makes sense to an adult who has acquired the sounds of English for speaking, reading, and writing, even though the educators may or may not be, personally, able to relate to using sounds for spelling to write or for reading a favorite novel. But, the data says to use sounds and the educator sees the logic and so the educator does so. However, huge numbers of children are not really successful so the educators try to modify the programs, materials, the amount of time, the number of students in the programs with fewer and fewer resources.

The educators today try to make the assumption that sound underlies the development of cognition work in order to help children become literate. Educators work extremely hard to make students successful in these programs but educators are constantly confronted with “unhappy” constituents–the public, the media, the test scores, their own family success or lack of success, their students’ families and so forth. The bottom-line, is that the programs, materials, and curricula that are sound-based do not match with the way the children think to learn. So, teachers work harder but don’t always receive the positive success they deserve. Older students work harder to produce the sound-based patterns for tests, homework, and so forth without the conceptual learning. Working harder but not smarter stresses everyone out – students, families, and teachers.

What is the connection between visual cognition and (anti-social) behavior?

All behavior communicates. The meaning of the behavior is interpreted by someone else. In this way, we learn the behavior of our dominant culture as a relationship between doing something and having someone else tell us what the behavior means. When others assign meaning to a behavior, the thinker has to be able to receive the message. If the person who assigns the meaning only uses spoken language that the learner does not understand, then the behavior has no meaning.

For example, if the child stands on the seat at a restaurant and the adult says, “Sit down” to a child who thinks visually, then these words mean nothing. So, the child not only stands on the seat but jumps up and down and starts making vocalizations that are loud. People sitting around the child are not able to talk with their families because the child is so loud. The child’s vocalizations are interrupting the behavior of others which is the essence of anti-social behavior; behavior that negatively affects the initiation and maintenance of healthy interpersonal relationships. Finally, the child’s family punishes the child by harsh words, a slap to the child’s behind, taking the child out and so forth. The child knows the family member(s) are not pleasant so the child cries but the child still does not know what the expected behavior “looked like”; what other people in the restaurant were thinking (their visuals of the child); how the child’s behavior made other people’s mental pictures go away and interrupted their dinner, etc. Learning to behave requires teaching in the way the child learns concepts. Visual thinking or cognition requires a visual assignment of meaning.

What strategies might you suggest specifically for those working with children on the autism spectrum?

Children with autism spectrum disorders typically use a motor (movement) access to their visual mental thoughts. So writing with visual-motor methods is great and, in fact, will help many children acquire speech production. They write to tell what they see on the page. But, all of the methods described in Language Function may be used successfully with children with autism spectrum disorders. There are many examples in the book that are from children diagnosed with ASD.

What is the bigger picture – how might literacy programs that match thinking benefit society?

The benefits are numerous; but, social competence for the majority of society would be great. In other words, having a society where the majority are able to initiate and maintain healthy relationships at work, school, and home because individuals are able to see how they fit or are successful as part of society would decrease the number who are dependent on others for survival including a decrease in incarcerated individuals; a decrease in anti-social behavior at schools and in the work place; a decrease in unethical acts of business in the marketplace and so forth.

This benefit will happen only if the majority of people are able to reach a concrete, rule governed, level of thinking that implies parallel levels of literacy. In other words, a thinker can only be ethical and moral if the thinker is able to accept the rules of others as the basis for thinking and behaving – only if “We” takes over the 3-7 year old “I” attitude in the workplace and in doing business with others. The “We” attitude means that “I do only what would also be of benefit to others as if I were in that other person’s shoes.”

Societies grow and develop just like interpersonal relationships. So, a healthy society is one where a majority of thinkers have increased their literacy and improved their thinking to function as a place for “Us;” a place where people care about other people and their needs. Most people say they “care” about others but without the literacy and thinking level increasing, the majority can only do their job at the level of regurgitating the rules, imitating tasks, and completing the prescribed task. Thinking out of the box, creatively solving a problem for a customer or helping create a solution requires higher order thinking and problem solving.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

Article: Managing Social Work and Social Care by Trish Hafford-Letchfield

Trish Hafford-Letchfield is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Middlesex University in the UK. Here, she reflects on the current context of social work and social care management, and what led her to write her new book, Social Care Management, Strategy and Business Planning (August 2010, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

Over the last few years I have read many books on management in social work and social care and these have provided an excellent treatise on the challenges faced by managers in trying to develop quality services in an ever increasing managerialist environment. Many text books in this area reflect the current debates going on in social care where the deployment of business sector principles within the environment of care have caused a number of tensions between ‘management’ and ‘professionals’, not least on how to do more for less and retain one’s integrity and values as a manager. Indeed, these were some of the themes that came out in the report of the recent social work task force. With the incoming coalition government, whilst we might not be sure what the future will bring, we know that things are likely to get tougher and more compromising. The challenge is how to progress our partnerships with users, carers and the community in an honest and integral fashion to develop appropriate and forward looking services whilst maximising use of scarce resource and delivering the governments policy agenda.

The introduction of market and subsequently business principles into care environments since the 1990s has meant that its associated language and terminology has deeply permeated current management ‘speak’. It has always intrigued me when working with leaders and managers in my role as an educator, mentor and manager, how easily these trip off the tongue or become part of our everyday language and applied to practice often in an uncritical way. I have developed and taught a number of leadership and management programmes which include preparation and reflection on the key roles and tasks undertaken by managers in social work and social care. Yet there are few texts that are specific to our unique environment. There has been a lack of appropriate literature in this area which speaks for the need for a sound knowledge base about the strategic and business planning aspects of a social care managers role and presented in a way that speaks directly to a managers own experiences and learning needs. This led me to develop such a text, one which aims to facilitate managers in engaging more confidently and knowledgeably with the practice aspects of strategy and business planning. Managers in social work and social care need to continue to be dynamic in its multi-layered approach to service development. Most managers have to learn the necessary skills and knowledge ‘on the job’ with little preparation yet have rich experiences to draw on from their prior experiences of direct practices.

Social Care Management, Strategy and Business Planning tries to bring these aspects together by firstly making the whole issue of business planning more accessible and friendly, but by also acknowledging the values and ethics inherent to managing care. In covering some of the theoretical concepts underpinning effective management of care services, it also incorporates a ‘how to’ approach around a range of different but hopefully, relevant topics. I hope people find it reflects some of the key critical debates and issues in social care as well as offering some very practical and helpful advice on how to tackle everyday tasks involved in managing a team, service or organisation. I have drawn on some of my own experiences in working in the voluntary sector as a senior trustee and as a management mentor but more importantly have engaged management practitioners from different areas of the field to comment on the topics and share their ‘top tips’ so to speak. No doubt in ten years we may be looking at a very different picture but managers are part of developing this picture so I hope this is apparent.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

Trish Hafford-Letchfield has spent many years managing adult services in a local authority and has remained in practice through her continuing involvement with the voluntary sector as a Trustee and management mentor. Trish has been involved with leadership and management education for several years. She has published widely in this area and has a specific interest in older people and equality issues in both education and practice.