The Policeman Approach to Philosophical Counseling

by Morten Fastvold

In this fascinating and poignant article the Norwegian philosophical practitioner Morten Fastvold analyses two completely different ways of doing philosophy (be it with children or with adults): the caring approach and the policeman approach. The former tends to see the other person as a fragile, insecure self basically in need of empathy, care and understanding in order to develop philosophical thoughts in a later stage. The latter turns this upside-down: let's investigate closely the actual words the persons utters, and just for a moment forget about the psychological complexity that may lie beneath his words! Let's make the person responsible for his words, let him work and "sweat" a little in an attempt to spell out the implications of his statements!

In the adaptation of the article for the web, I have chosen to divide it into two separate parts although it was originally written in one piece:

Part One: Clarification of "the caring approach" and "the policeman approach"
Part Two: Extracts from a session with Oscar Brenifier—Discussion and Conclusion

Part One: Clarification of the "the caring approach" and "the policeman approach"

How to do philosophical counseling is to a large extent a question of attitude. What can the counselor permit himself to do towards his guest, what should he refrain from or even prohibit himself from doing, how should he describe the guest and the consultation situation in a metaphorical way—these kinds of questions will unavoidably influence the counselor in his practice, whether he is aware of it or not. Let us have a closer look, then, on the question of attitude, and on the possibilities and limitations connected to it.

First I will probe into the predominant attitude of the "beyond method" kind of counselor, as it is modeled in the education by The Norwegian Society of Philosophical Counseling and in a recent textbook (Svare/Herrestad: Filosofi for livet) on how philosophical counseling is to be performed. I will label this attitude "the caring approach." Then I will contrast this attitude with what I, maybe shockingly, will label "the policeman approach" to philosophical counseling. To my fellow students and my mentors it will come as no surprise that this "policeman approach" is propagated by our French colleague Oscar Brenifier, even if the label is my, and not his, invention. Oscar, however, put forward the good policeman metaphor during a philosophical counseling seminar here in Oslo this month [October 2004], where he also conducted a session which demonstrated how such an attitude might be employed in an actual practice. This session will be dealt with in my paper, as an exemplifying step in my discussion [see Part Two].

The quest for a trusting atmosphere: The caring approach

In Norway, the predominant attitude of the philosophical counselor is that of an attentive and empathetic conversation companion who is very intent on making his guest feel at home and at ease during the consultation. The counselor makes a little welcome ceremony out of offering his guest tea or coffee, he stresses the equality between himself and his guest by furnishing his office with two equal armchairs grouped in some 120 degrees angle to avoid the 180 degrees connotation of confrontation, and he speaks and behaves in a gentle and sympathetic manner in order to create an atmosphere of trust and security. "Please feel free to tell me whatever you want," is the message, and when the guest starts to talk, the counselor eagerly lets her have the scene all by herself. Questions are mostly intended to encourage the guest to go on, or to elaborate on certain points, especially in the early stages of a consultation. "Can you tell me more about this?" is a frequently used and recommended question, accompanied by encouraging glances and nods, as the counselor knows the value of keeping his mouth shut most of the time and thus create the space necessary for his guest to think aloud in his presence. Often this is enough, we are told, as the guest will come to a deeper understanding of herself just by talking in the presence of an attentive conversation partner who abstains from putting forward his own concerns and worries. In this incongruity lies a crucial difference between a counseling and a talk with a friend, as you cannot expect your friend to give you as much space for yourself as a counselor will do.

Thus, the belief in the enlightening and clarifying power of thinking aloud in a philosophically trained person's presence seems to be pivotal in the current "beyond method"-influenced way of counseling. Which presupposes the caring attitude of empathy and trust in order to make the guest feel at liberty to reveal her thoughts and worries. From time to time the counselor might put forward a question that challenges the guest's way of thinking, or maybe a metaphor or an alternative standpoint which might open her eyes to (for her) new ways of seeing things. But this is done by way of improvising, and not by following some method, as every guest is a unique human being and every conversation is new and different from any previous conversation in the counselor's office. Prudence and attentiveness is what the counselor should strive for, and not for some methodological skills that would be too mechanical for the delicate task of doing philosophical counseling.

As the notion of confrontation is to be avoided right from the start, the counselor tends to back off if the guest rejects this challenge and becomes ill at ease. Even if a "beyond method" counselor is not prohibited from being insistent from time to time, he will generally refrain from being so. If his questions and challenges make the guest feel ill at ease, the counselor is likely to withdraw and try to restore the trusting atmosphere.

In short we might say that the guest is king, even if it is not good latin to phrase it in this way. But it cannot be denied that the counselor—guest relationship very easily gets a flavour of a servant—king relationship where the counselor becomes complacent in a submissive way. Even if an attentive and empathetic attitude does not necessarily lead to complacency and submissiveness, the danger—or maybe temptation—of falling into this trap is imminent. Especially when you are a newcomer in the field of counseling, and not really sure of where to draw the borders between attentiveness and complacency, and between empathy and submissiveness. To become upright, and not pleasing, as a counselor then becomes a major challenge. Which certainly is a question of personal judgment, far beyond method.

The vulnerability of the guest is often emphasized by counselors of the beyond method school, be it on an ontological "løgstrupian" or "levinasian" level, or on an anthropological level more in tune with the notion of the very fragile child residing in every human being. This latter notion is quite widespread among different psychotherapists, so it is no wonder that it has influenced the young, aspiring trade of philosophical counseling. Fear of doing harm to the very fragile child inside the guest then governs the counselors conduct, both for ethical reasons and for the more pragmatic belief that scaring off the fragile child-part in the guest will prevent her from speaking freely, and thus be counterproductive in the consultation situation. Then it is basically the fragile child-part that has to be addressed and befriended in order to create the much cherished trusting atmosphere. The guest has to feel very safe in your office; if not, she will not let go of her armour and let her soft underbelly come into the open, metaphorically speaking of course.

Interestingly enough the conception of a wicked world which necessitates a personal, mental armour if we are to survive, seems to be contained in the fragile child-part notion. Which reveals that the very "ethical" caring attitude towards a client or a guest presupposes a very pessimistic outlook upon the world we live in, as if it were a dark sea with ruthless predators that would eat us in one second if we had not developed a mental crab shell around our very soft self from early childhood on. To walk out in the open without wearing our crab shell would be an invitation to be devoured on the spot, so the psychotherapist or the philosophical counselor has to communicate very strongly that "I will not eat you, I repeat: not eat you, if you put off your crab shell here in my office, so please do it, as I am not a predator fish myself, at least not during working hours."

What is important to realize, is that such a narration belongs to the counselor himself, and not necessarily to the guest. It is a question of the counselor's attitude towards his guest and to the world at large, and maybe not at all about the guest's narration on her life and the world at large. What if the guest does not envisage herself as a scared and frightened little being inside a crab shell, but struggles with difficulties of quite another kind, not at all within the narrative framework of the wicked world conception? Then the very "ethical" caring attitude is exposed as a strong bias that incapacitates the counselor from dealing with his guest's problems in a fruitful way.

To challenge this "ethical" caring attitude we might just observe how children actually behave in daily life, be it in kindergarten or in school or in the playground or wherever it is. Then we might indeed spot a timid child, an introvert child, and even an alarmingly depressed child, but such children tend to be exceptions, and not the rule. Most children have a quite robust way of dealing with other people, they are not at all behaving like fragile little things threatening to break at any moment. They address one another in very direct and not particularly considerate ways, both verbally and physically—that's what we find charming with children. "They are so direct in their behaviour!" people often say. "So spontaneous!"

It is not until children become adolescents that they start to worry about what others might say or think about themselves, and become protective and choosy in their speech and behaviour. Which is a quite normal behaviour during the difficult and painful transformation from childhood to adult life. Life isn't easy, as we all know, and we all get some bruises from it, in different ways. We all feel rejected from time to time, sometimes we feel really hurt and vulnerable, and sometimes we might experience some really heavy stuff. All this is normal, if not unavoidable, it is simply how it is to live. Feeling responsible for oneself and being pleased with mastering new situation, despite some initial pain and flaws, is also a part of life, and is in fact what we encourage children to do, especially when they are adolescents. That is what raising children is supposed to be about.

So why, then, should the "feeling really hurt and vulnerable" situation be singled out as the paradigmatic situation that a philosophical counselor should adjust to, in order to get a consultation off the ground? Why should the "I feel very very hurt" experiences in the guest's history back to infancy be of such a major concern, a priori? Why should such a concern be regarded as a big support, and not as a big insult? ("Stop treating my as a fussy child, can't you see that I'm a grown up who have managed to survive quite well, despite the problems I have come to discuss with you?") These are hard questions on the caring attitude, proving it to be quite biased in a quite unjustified way. It is even dubious that this kind of "ethical" attitude is particularly ethical after all.

Maybe the "ethical" counselor will contend that he indeed has to take the worst possibilities into consideration a priori, as he never knows what his guest may have been exposed to in life. Maybe she proves to be a victim of some heinous deeds in her childhood or later on, and then it surely would have been right to approach her with the soft, caring attitude from the start. Even if this standpoint also might be contested, I will at the moment admit that people suffering from traumas due to severe negligence or misconduct from their parents or other "significant others" in their childhood might be dealt with in a different way than people with just "normal" childhood bruises. What this different way should be, does not necessarily coincide with the caring way of addressing people, and is a subject of its own, beyond the scope of this paper. Here it suffices to say that severely abused and traumatized persons probably are rare cases in a philosophical counselor's office, as we primarily address people who do not consider themselves in need of psychological care, but who rather look for an alternative to the psychotherapist. Why should we then fear the worst a priori, and treat each guest as a traumatized victim until the opposite is proven? Isn't such an attitude much too cautious, to put it mildly, if not directly counterproductive? I think that it is, both to the guest and to ourselves as would be counselors.

The quest for finding the truth: The policeman approach

Having been presented the caring approach as the only proper attitude of a philosophical counselor, we might find the metaphor of the good policeman searching for truth to be quite inappropriate as a description of our practice, if not totally irrelevant or even crazy. A policeman, even a good one, represents everything the caring counselor seeks to avoid: confrontation, an unsettling atmosphere, an insistent inquiry where questions are asked on and on until some hidden and often disagreeable truth is found. Why should a counselor embrace such an unappealing metaphor, and why should a guest agree to be treated as some suspect, and even pay good money for it? If the guest primarily needs sufficient space for thinking aloud in an attentive and sympathetic counselor's presence, any persistent questioning in search of some truth would be unnecessary at best and damaging at worst. What could then be the rationale for suggesting a policeman approach to philosophical counseling?

To get any further on this point, we have to question exactly this basic presupposition that people tend to find out things by themselves only by thinking aloud in the trusting space offered to them by the counselor. If this indeed is known to happen, as we from time to time may experience ourselves and with others, it is also the case that people just as well tend to shy away from their own thoughts, and especially from the implications of their own thoughts. As Oscar Brenifier repeatedly states, people are often afraid of their own words. People's unwillingness to stick to what they actually have stated, and to be confronted with their own words, is an amazing phenomenon that is revealed again and again in his sessions, even if this phenomenon is not described, and far less reflected upon, in our current textbook. Having experienced this phenomenon myself by being Oscar's guest several times, and having watched several of his sessions with other guests, I now believe that escaping one's own words and the implications of one's own thoughts is a very human tendency indeed, maybe even some aspect of the human condition.

This is not about the psychoanalyst's notion of repression, where a painful experience is repressed into unconsciousness, and where the patient resists its being brought back into the open; the guest's private life and biography is not the issue in Oscar's sessions. No, it is about general, philosophical ideas produced by the guest which are to be investigated in a purely philosophical way, until both the counselor and the guest reveal their implications. It is about helping the guest to give birth to his own ideas and to investigate the viability of these "offspring" in a very Socratic way, where "life" is supposed to be left out of the seemingly purely intellectual discussion, but where "life" keeps popping up, mostly as resistance and an urge to escape from this investigation of one's own ideas.

The question why the urge to resist and to escape from an investigation of our own words and ideas is such a very human thing to do, could be worthy of a philosophical dissertation. Here I will just consider it as a fact of life, which implies that the truth, or implications, of our own ideas are not at all clear to us from the start, very often because this truth reveals something about ourselves that we would rather not admit. We may feel betrayed or exposed by our own words and ideas in a way that counters our much cherished narration of ourselves and our life and of the world as such, where we usually put ourselves in a favourable light and play the part of the hero-hero or the victim-hero. This is probably why it may be painful to think things through in a philosophical way, at least in the short run. Hopefully the guest will benefit from this painful experience later on, when the new insights have been digested and are integrated in his global way of thinking, but this is another matter.

Focusing on our all too human propensity to defend our narration of ourselves and to resist what might force us to revise our narration, it becomes clear why a persistent policeman approach might be relevant in philosophical counseling. If you really want to help your guest to discover his own ideas and to think them through, you cannot allow him to escape when things get a little unpleasant. Then you cannot be "nice" by way of backing off, in order to restore the agreeable atmosphere which might have been established earlier on in the consultation. If you then permit the guest to speak freely, by allowing him to elaborate some point or by digressing, the guest happily will escape just like a fish getting off the hook.

This I have experienced myself in some student sessions where I tried to act as a counselor, Oscar style. At first it went nicely; the guest produced a question for our discussion, I made him conceptualise key words in the question, but as soon as I encountered the other's resistance, typically as a request to elaborate or digress, I could not really bring myself to deny this and granted his wish. Then the sessions became muddled and very un-Oscar-like, where the guest put forward more or less fragmented ideas and opinions, and where I succumbed to the role of the listener, feeling quite miserable as we had not really found out anything new or discerned any interesting implications of the initial question and the other ideas flying in the air. The guest surely felt pleased to have retained the steering wheel for the last half the conversation, despite the general confusion on the philosophical level. And despite his not really knowing if the session had helped him to clarify things in any way.

A lack of mastery of Oscar's method may of course account for much of this unsatisfying result. Not really knowing what to do next, what smart move I should have made, refrained me from being as persistent as I had planned to be. But this is not the whole story. Also the question of attitude seems to have been of great importance, as I, apart from my not finding the next smart move, did not permit myself to conduct the session in a persistent way. I backed off also because I tried to be "Oscar light", allowing for the caring attitude to reemerge as a kind of compromise. This, I later realized, is like trying to be "a little bit pregnant". This is also why I now make a dichotomy between "the caring approach" and "the policeman approach", as I don't find it possible to unite these two approaches, at least not at the same time in a counseling session.

This is not to say that a counselor cannot possibly find a way to alter between these two approaches: by for instance being caring in one part of the session and policeman-persistent in another part of it. That might be a question of personal style and propensities. Being Oscar's guest in Paris, both I and Oscar found it useful to reflect upon what the investigation had revealed, and we talked freely about that for an hour or so afterwards. Then Oscar put the policeman approach away, even if he never became caring, which was fine with me. He was just himself, with a friendly, straight-forward attitude where he related to me as a responsible, grown up person in no need of attentive care, despite the rather bumpy course of our current session. Both then and in hindsight I am totally happy with his not putting on a very caring attitude and asking me "How do you feel now?". That would have been odd indeed.

The reason why Oscar will not include listening to people's tales about their private life in his sessions, is, as he revealed as a public secret after his foyer session at the Copenhagen Bildung conference, that he finds such talk boring. (His official reason: "I'm no psychologist, so I cannot deal with private and emotional problems.") This is of course no philosophical argument, just a statement of personal propensity. Listening to people's story of their life is simply not his cup of tea. If other philosophers like to indulge in the "cultivated conversation" style of counseling, he will not launch any crusade against them, even if he does not find such conversations very philosophical or very helpful. He will rather do philosophy together with his guest, by way of investigating their ideas, instead of merely exchange opinions and ideas, which is not doing philosophy as he sees it.

On the question of attitude, I interpret Oscar's challenge to be like this: When you want to philosophically investigate your guest's ideas, you have to switch to the policeman approach and stick to it. Don't try to compromise, and don't get qualms about being persistent instead of caring, Norwegian style. Be aware of your attitude and allow yourself to be the good policeman in search of the truth, asking questions again and again until the truth finally is revealed.

Page created: 06.11.04. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:33.