Earlier this week, I shared our most recent podcast episode in several online groups. Almost immediately, the content was challenged by someone who had obviously not listened to the episode because our guests are still in graduate school. Most of the remainder of the comments were positive and supportive. Ironically, part of the episode described ways in which the profession shuts down ideas that dissent from tradition!
This is not to say that differing opinions are unwelcome, but our process in giving and receiving those opinions gets in the way of reaching any sort of conclusion. Therapists are given little training on how to dissent, and even less training on how to receive dissenting viewpoints. As highlighted by the commenter in the online group, we fall harder into shouting our opinions of being right and righteous than we do in accepting opportunities for education. One of the problems of this is the cult-like mentality of the psychotherapy schools of thought that Dr. David Burns wrote in one of my favorite criticisms of our profession. Not only does this get echoed in any online conversation, but becomes the basis for shutting down others who don’t engage in the groupthink.
This approach to find the “one true way” gets distilled down into therapist training where any sort of dissent is not only discouraged but also shamed, leaving students unable to voice their ideas and concerns and leaving little room for appropriate dissent to further better and refine the theories and approaches that we take to our clients. Subsequently, researchers, educators, supervisors, and licensees echo the screams of “their way of doing”, which furthers the distillation of practice. Looking at many of the online therapist forums, dissenting opinions are often barbs focusing on showing rightness rather than contributing to a shared professional value. This is cult-like behavior. We can’t welcome professionals to think critically when we immediately close the door on them.
Ultimately, we are led into a position where the thought leaders that we choose to follow become unquestionable. You must adhere to the protocol or else. Say “yes” or be passed over for future opportunities. Many fall in line and continue to perpetuate the principles. Many eventually decide to create our own variations of theories, practices, and ways of doing business. But is it even necessary to go through this process? Can we speed up this part of therapist development?
Part of the problem may lie in the very nature of the people drawn into our work. David Burns’ blog covers the narcissists in our field quite well, but there are many people in this profession as well that are not rewarded with positions of power because they don’t speak up when having differing viewpoints. They tend to remain quiet, whether it be introversion, based in trauma, or an unwillingness to battle the outspoken ones. Their silence is not a tacit approval of the conversation, nor is it a disagreement either. Educators and leaders are not always particularly effective at providing the opportunity for them to speak up or the support to know that the ideas will be challenged instead of the person.
We are also not taught how to receive critiques and criticisms. At the university where I teach, each syllabus must include a policy on “Respectful Discourse”. It speaks to the idea of presenting ideas in a non-offensive way. While the spirit of this is well-intentioned, it’s not so certain that this is actually accomplished because we don’t teach students to look for the argument to add to the position or steer in an additive direction, we merely assume that people will figure it out on their own eventually.
Dissenting is about presenting issues in an additive way, however the competition to be right is divisive. Our arguments become stronger when they take in critiques and criticisms, answer questions that challenge our ideals, and face others with differing viewpoints with an open invitation to challenge our positions. However, our training sets us up to follow the leaders of our respective school of thought and fail to convince others through shouting and quickly typed out messages of disagreement. Rather than inviting, and receiving, criticism to better our points, we see each other as adversaries rather than trying to better our positions as a field. If we were our own clients, we wouldn’t stand for this kind of disagreement, and we shouldn’t tolerate and encourage it within our profession. Until then, we continue to see each other as Haters and Trolls.