(A historical review of a theoretical concept/idea in working with families and couples)
13 April 2007
Counselling and Care Centre, Singapore
The Institute of Family Therapy, London, UK
Validated by Middlesex University, London, UK
As a learning therapist, I am often being reminded of the concept of neutrality when reviewing one’s relationship with the clients. This gives rise to my interest to review the development of neutrality in the field of family therapy, its relevance in clinical work, and its value and limitations. To trace the origins of the development of neutrality, one would have to begin with the Milan systemic family therapy. The Milan associates have been well known for many of its intervention techniques. Towards the end of 1970s, Gianfranco Cecchin and Luigi Boscolo observed, in their training, that their students were curious about the therapist’s behaviour in session. The focus on the therapist then gave rise to the publication of the team’s article, “Hypothesizing-circularity-neutrality: Three guidelines for the conductor of the session” (Selvini et al, 1980). In this article, the Milan team defined neutrality as “a specific pragmatic effect that his other total behaviour during the session exerts on the family (and not his intrapsychic disposition)” (Selvini et al, 1980:11). Lynn Hoffman (1987) mentioned that the three guidelines addressed by the article represent an attempt to translate the implications of Bateson’s idea of cybernetic circularity. In the case of neutrality, it translated Bateson’s idea into a basic therapeutic stance. On one hand, it means that the neutral therapist positions himself in relation to the different family members such that at the end of the session, the family members are unsure which side the therapist is on. It would appear that the therapist is allied with everyone and no one at the same time. On the other hand, Hoffman offered another slant in explaining the concept. Instead of viewing neutrality as being non-positional, she suggested that the concept speaks of multi-positional. By taking the positions of the different family members, the therapist gains the way to stay on top and above the family. In other words, the neutral therapist is able to take a meta-position in the session. As a result of being neutral, when there is opposition view being raised by a family member against another, the therapist is able to manoeuvre in such a manner that he is not caught in any coalition within the family. If the concern of staying clear of alliances in the family is the intent of being neutral, one wonders if it is connected to the issues of transference and counter-transference as postulated by the psychoanalytic therapists. Transference refers to the patterns of experience that the client brings and enacts in the therapy whilst counter-transference refers to the involvement of the therapist in the relationship and the emotions, attitudes and patterns of relating that the therapist may begin to feel and enact in the context of the therapeutic relationship (Flaskas, 1996:39). The psychoanalytic therapists have cautioned against being caught in issues that are brought about by transference and counter-transference and be mindful of them in session, in order to stay clear from being drawn into clients’ struggles and losing one’s sense of objectivity. In this case, it appears that to be neutral in session has the similar intent, that is, to possibly avoid such issues. Tying it to Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, one can also find traces of neutrality being discussed in the context of therapist-client relationship. Bowen cautioned the therapist to avoid being drawn into the family emotional system, guard against taking sides in disputes or become overly sympathetic with one member or angry at another. In Bowen’s theory, the...