A Practice Dilemma for Self-Study when helping

My practice involves helping.

The questions I ask, of my practice, to proceed into self-study, include:

1. How do I improve my practice?

2. How do I help you improve your learning?

3. How do I live my values more fully in my practice?

(from Jack Whitehead see http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/ )

I am beginning to recognise a persistent dilemma in undertaking this kind of self-study.

When my practice is with others, the process of my gathering data, for my focus, runs counter to ‘being there’ (presence a la John Heron), and being there for the process of helping.  And yet, unless I can know more about my practice, about the nature and quality of my helping, how can I work at improving it?

For the one I help, it is their objective that is their primary focus.  Asking them for information about my inputs is a distraction from that objective.  When that is the case, to proceed with my agenda destroys the helping relationship, shifting the ground.  When my focus moves from helping, I cease to be there, and cease to be effectively there for the one I am intending to help, and to keep on helping, and by being focused on their primary concerns and focus.

I can engage in relatively contemporaneous post-activity reflective work; gathering and documenting observations of the helping event.  I can engage in post-action reflection, and document that.

When the helping relationship is ongoing, I can work with my post-activity reflective work, and undertake some pre-activity reflective work as I design my likely inputs, and I can document that.

I can engage in reflection-in-action, and especially when the action involves writing a response.   It is more difficult to capture reflection-in-action in a live and synchronous interchange.  That is when ‘being there’ is much more significant.

But asking for evaluative input, from the person being helped, long after the event of helping, when the pressure of their immediate and primary task concern has abated, is likely to be asking for what is not remembered, and if remembered is now far from being relatively contemporaneous.  It may be coloured by layers of interactions since.

How then to find out the efficacy of my helping, from the other’s viewpoint (member checking aspect of validity)?

What does the literature have to tell me about this dilemma?

When I first noticed some of the dimensions of this dilemma, it was in respect of my professional development activity design.

(p.48-9 of my thesis


During that process, a number of challenges to, and dilemmas of, the design and its assumptions arose.

  • [do people change, if and when they know their behaviour and what and how to improve?]
  • [is self-disclosure of, for, and by the practitioner ethical, or does it amount to a power play involving ingratiation?]
  • [when does a practitioner introduce challenges to assumptions?]
  • [if a practitioner has a mental model that goes beyond evidence-based research, because it has been framed in a different knowledge system, but appears relevant to the problem, when and how does the practitioner introduce such a frame, so that it too can be open to consideration and examination?]

My second recognition of some of the dimensions of the dilemma related to trying to establish a cooperative peer research team. Here I noted (p.53)

Concurrent with the preparations to contact a group and begin the professional development activity, I explored the potential to participate, as a peer, in a group, with others working in a like area.   It was, for me, a matter of congruence.   I needed to be doing what I was asking others to do.   I needed to find out, by doing, where it was easy for me, and where it was difficult for me.


While looking for such a group I was also aware of a dilemma: if my thesis was soundly based, then such a group would also need to build self-awareness, and in that group.   For me to bring my material to such a group of peers would need me to move out of the peer role for at least the input of the relevant self-awareness materials.

When I first recognised the dilemma, in practice, I noted (p.152-3)

One change that developed during the activity was the awareness of being there (Heron’s indicator of whole person facilitation engagement (Heron, 1999)) and adding that to my focused reflective categories.   To ‘be there’ I needed to disengage from my previous practice of in situ, in vivo, notetaking.   My experience of operating as a participant-observer in the action design included the training and testing of my memory and recording capabilities.   I reached the point where I recognised that my increased capabilities, together with being there, were sufficient to capture the material that is significant for ongoing practice issues, providing that the necessary records are made as soon as possible after.   I could ‘give myself’ to being there, attending with all my being to the moment and the interactions, and very little would be lost in the later recording.   Indeed, when my attention was distracted from being there, I often did not retain a good recollection of the distraction, let alone the other interactions operating at the same time.