In this blog, which is likely to be the first of many on the subject, I’m going to focus on getting an understanding of what we mean by environment, system, culture or field, that is, the context of peoples’ lives. I want to do this because I find it hard to grasp this context in a concrete meaningful way when considering my own life, the lives of others, and particularly as a practitioner working with clients. I have an understanding of the meaning of the words – system for example – but I don’t find that this understanding carries me very far forward in practice, or they lead to some uncomfortable places. For example, the ‘system’ often leads to a view of people as simple ciphers of their place in the system.
There is no doubt that the Western (‘Cartesian’) tradition of separating the ‘individual’ from their ‘environment’, construing each as a separate distinct realm, makes it hard to really grasp how they are ‘joined’. A bit like humpty dumpty; once broken apart how to put them back together again? The usual formulation is something like ‘the individual and their environment’, leaving all the unknowing and mystery about what is involved in the ‘and’ that joins the two, which is of little value in practice. One consequence of this is that each realm can be treated separately. For example, the ‘psychological dimension’ addressed as if it is somehow something internal to the individual, a realm distinct from the external world, which can be addressed separate from and ‘in addition’ to that world.
One philosopher who sought to overcome the Cartesian ‘subject/object’ divide was Martin Heidegger, whose primary notion was ‘being-in-the-world’, the view that a person’s ‘being’ arises from and is inseparable from the world, in which they dwell. The notion of ‘world’ is understood here in a particular way, as one of involvement, for example, as a coach in the world of coaching, as a teacher in the world of education, as a football player in the world of football, as a manager in the world of the NHS. In this understanding the concerns, ambitions, intentions, capabilities, possibilities of those involved are inseparable from the circumstances themselves. As such there is no psychological dimension to be studied separately from involvements in such worlds.
In Being and Time Heidegger (1978) gives an extraordinary analysis of our being-in-the-world which is practically helpful in understanding and working with people in their everyday situations. Amongst all his writing there are two key concepts that I want to focus on here – familiarity and withdrawal. And I want to do this because I am using these concepts every day to bring understanding and orientation to my work with clients. To set the scene for these two concepts something must be said about Heidegger’s view of how we know about and operate in the world.
The concepts arise out of Heidegger’s account of how we know about the world in which we dwell. Western traditions tend to prioritise cognition/thinking as fundamental to the way we understand the world. Heidegger rejects this, arguing that we mostly know about our world through absorbed involvement in the everyday practices of our culture, practices that we are socialised into from birth. This knowing is know-how, a tacit embodied capacity to skilfully deal with everyday life. Situations ‘call-out’ the required response – I pull out my phone and do the right things to respond to a call; I drive to work chatting to my passenger, driving skilfully on ‘automatic pilot and arrive at my destination with hardly a thought about how I got there; I get into a lift and stand the right distance from those around me, shifting appropriately to the new right distances as others people get in – again without any thought about it all. In this view cognitive/thought is not primary, I do not first think and then do, rather thinking is founded on know-how; it sits on top of/is based upon our tacit knowing.
Familiarity is the term Heidegger uses to capture how we find our way around in a world that we skilfully engage in through know-how. His use of the word is also a great example of ‘phenomenology in practice’, by which I mean a term that captures our direct everyday experience and whose accuracy can be checked against that experience.
The dictionary says this about familiarity:
Familiarity, this close acquaintance and mastery, allows us to sum up the everyday situations we encounter and act appropriately without having to think about what to do. I go to the cash machine, card in hand, do what I need to do to get money out, maybe get a print out of my balance, and do all this with hardly a thought about the whole process. Maybe I’m talking to someone as I do it. The significance of familiarity is hard to grasp because it is so all pervasive and yet taken for granted. We simply ‘know our way around’ our familiar world. The importance of familiarity is highlighted by its absence, for example, travelling to another country, a culture with which we are unfamiliar, and the disorientation, difficulties and anxieties that can arise even doing the simplest thing, like using public transport, ordering food in a restaurant, or crossing the road where our ‘instincts’ are likely to lead us astray.
Heidegger’s analysis of familiarity has an additional vital aspect; one you can again check out phenomenologically – i.e. in your own experience. He says that familiarity involves a withdrawal of the ‘world’ we are involved with: the world becomes ‘transparent’ to us, and necessarily so if we are to operate effectively in it. As I focus on writing this blog, my intention is on getting the ideas right for you the reader. As I do so I pay little mind to the wider world I’m involved with – the room I’m in, what is happening outside my window, the computer I’m using, and so forth (unless something happens that interrupts my work such as a computer malfunction). The ‘thick’ wider context of involvements become inconspicuous. The gestalt notion of figure/ground is a way of understanding this idea of withdrawal. As I attend to something I’m involved with, making something figural, the rest of the situation, in all its complexity, ‘withdraws’, goes into the (back)ground - present but not in awareness.
I find the analysis of familiarity and withdrawal so helpful because it speaks directly to the struggle that I have that is the origin of this blog, i.e. grasping the relationship between the person and their world. Our familiarity, by its very nature, means that the world of our involvements – all the relationships, the equipment, the environmental surround – withdraw; they become inconspicuous, ‘invisible’, transparent, the (back)ground out of which particular figures capture my attention.
Familiarity, withdrawal and my practice
The notion of familiarity informs my understanding of what we are doing as practitioners. In coaching the mantra is ‘ask not tell’. The message is that clients have their own answers to the ‘questions’ they bring to the sessions. But how come they have the answers; what is the source of their understanding? Is it some kind of ‘inner wisdom’ they were born with? Well the source is their familiarity with their world; their background, tacit, inarticulate know-how that is the basis of the everyday involvement with people and situations. As practitioners our role is help raise clients’ awareness of what the client knows but cannot yet tell; bring forth what has withdrawn: disrupt their taken-for-granted familiarity of their involvements to allow re-evaluation of themselves and their situations.
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior