Getting from five to six…in the Ireland-Romania family therapy training project
Feedback. The Magazine of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, Summer 2003, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 26-28
Dr. Zoltán Kónya, Dr. Ágnes Kónya
In May 1995 a family therapy training programme began in Romania, conducted by Patrick Sweeney and Colette Richardson from Ireland. In September 1997 a group of 12 Romanian trainees visited Dublin to participate in a two-week intensive clinical practicum at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, supervised by Nollaig Byrne and Jim Sheehan. In October 1997 a group of participants initiated a family therapy service in the city of Cluj, Transylvania. Two trainees, Ágnes Kónya and Zoltán Kónya, are answering Jeremy Young’s questions.
Question: How did you come to be interested in family therapy?
It all began in July 1993, at a conference on pastoral counselling held in a small Transylvanian town. I happened to arrive to the conference by an accident – later on I learned that accidents have played an important role in the development of family therapy in other parts of the world too! By another accident I joined the workshop on families, presented by two Irish family therapists, Colette Richardson and Patrick Sweeney. By yet another accident Patrick and Colette ran short of an interpreter and asked me to take over translation. This was how our relationship started.
The audience consisted of a mixed group, from high school students to psychologists, priests, pastors and university teachers. I liked the way Patrick and Colette organized the conversation: “Everybody’s voice is going to be heard” – this stance represented a difference that made a difference in this context. I was also impressed by the way they shared the task of conducting the workshop between themselves. They were responsive to feedback from the audience, not assuming that they already knew it all and not trying to elicit particular answers in order to make a point. They asked questions from a stance of genuine curiosity. As a result, people became curious about their own context, about the conference and about Romania.
This was the first time in my life I met a family therapist and, indeed, Irish people as well. I immediately felt that I loved the way they worked and that I would like to be a family therapist. I felt there was a good fit between my way of thinking and systemic ideas. These feelings have persisted ever since. It was at this conference that we made an initial plan for an introductory course in family therapy to be organized in Cluj.
The other major stimulus has been the Dublin experience: we could see how family therapy is actually done and that it works. This experience made us even more interested. On our return to Romania we then had the courage to start seeing families.
Q: From your perspective, what was the training experience like – thinking of both the positives and the negatives?
I had been used to teaching from a position of knowing-it-all, with information flowing only one way, following a pre-set agenda and using “negative feedback”, criticism or blame. The family therapy training was refreshingly different from this. Patrick and Colette were respectful and curious about our ideas, our thoughts and needs and adjusted the process accordingly. Everybody felt included and an important contributor to the teaching-learning system. I could personally experience that it is much easier to learn and change under a positive connotation.
There was a whole lot of new information, but it was delivered in a way that we could make use of it. The training seminars had the effect of making us curious about family therapy and with a curious mind it was then easy, a really enjoyable experience, to read the books and articles recommended by the course teachers. Because of the geographical distance we could only meet with the trainers once or twice a year, but in the same way as a long interval between sessions may be useful in therapy, the interval between the meetings gave us time to reflect on the previous seminar, to read more and to experiment with the new ideas in practice.
As to the negatives, the language differences between trainers, on one hand, and students and client families, on the other, involved difficulties. Most of the ideas connected with family therapy have been generated and evolving in the English-speaking world. Also, most of the recommended literature was in English. As a result, those trainees who spoke English well were at an advantage, while those whose English was not so good gradually dropped out, particularly at the stage when reading and essay writing was required. Translating these books and articles is difficult partly because so much has been written and partly because different languages create different worlds – something important may be lost through any translation. It may be easier for family therapy students to learn English than to translate the relevant readings to Romanian or Hungarian. This is a question we don’t have an answer to at this moment.
One aspect that could be termed “a negative” was the little personal contact with the course teachers. Thus we could not benefit from as many hours of watching trained therapists at work and of live supervision as trainees in Ireland or Britain would do. This is a disadvantage we attempted to compensate by more team discussions and reading. Inviting experienced local psychotherapists as supervisors did not seem to be a solution, as the systemic / social constructionist language we speak is very different from their approach to therapy.
Q: Have there been tensions or misunderstandings between yourselves and your trainers because of different cultural outlooks?
I suppose for somebody coming from a culture where most systems are well organized, transparent and functioning it is difficult to understand that in our culture none of these features exist, and that the rules that do exist may rather hinder than help the work we want to do. It is not simply a matter of establishing a new structure, like a family therapy association, but you have to become part of the already existing health and social care systems, adapting to its rules and these rules are often unclear or look crazy through western eyes – and eastern eyes as well. In our language we have a phrase: “it is difficult to get from five to six”. We often have difficulties getting from five to six not only administratively, but also in many aspects of everyday life.
Half of the trainees were Romanians and the other half Hungarians, members of the largest ethnic minority group representing 7% of the population in Romania and 19% of the population in Cluj. All Hungarians learn to speak Romanian in primary school but few Romanians ever learn to speak Hungarian so the language of any joint event is Romanian. It was an extraordinary thing that a group of professionals came together with the common purpose of training in family therapy and using English to communicate with the trainers and each other. I am Hungarian and feel less competent when I have to talk in the language of the majority, but the training provided me a context of competence. While having to speak English, my Romanian colleagues could also get a taste of what it feels like making yourself understood in a language different from your mother tongue. In this context, I was not pleased when the trainers encouraged us to use “our own language” in the small group discussions. They only wanted to be helpful, but put me back in a context of incompetence, as in the small group I was supposed to speak Romanian.
Q: How well does family therapy seem to fit into the culture of Romania?
I think Romanians in general have a great respect for authority. Dominant stories about the helping professional being a person who has superior knowledge and the power to tell people how to think, feel and behave correctly are maybe even more solidly entrenched than in other parts of the world. From this perspective the more respectful and collaborative stance of a family therapist is an important alternative story. It is our experience, that people who have all their life been the targets of blame and criticism welcome positive connotation and being respected for who they are.
This question reminds me of an exercise our training group did during our introductory course, one that helped us experience the way in which talking about something creates reality. We were divided in two teams. One team generated arguments to support the idea that there was a good fit between Romania and family therapy, while the other came up with arguments for the opposite – why it is not a good idea to introduce family therapy in our culture. There was then a heated debate between the two teams. After about ten minutes our teachers asked us to stop and, with great laughter, we changed sides, putting ourselves in the shoes of the other party and continued the debate from that position.
The arguments for a good fit between family therapy and Romania included:
· there is a great need for conjoint therapy, because there are difficulties in communication, particularly between generations
· Romanians are courageous people, able to face new, challenging situations
· people are looking for solutions
· family therapy is a possibility for professionals to rediscover the value of teamwork
· collaboration among family members needs to be promoted
· family therapy may be an answer to the high rates of divorce and violence
· we need to learn taking responsibility – family therapy allows for this
· family therapy is relatively cheap – even Romanian families can afford it
Some of the counter-arguments were the following:
· Romanians are afraid of change, will avoid coming to therapy
· people don’t want to make efforts, they want magic
· people don’t have the courage to expose themselves as a family, they cannot open up during a conversation
· they are too much preoccupied with their everyday problems, don’t see therapy as a possibility
· having a philosophical background of fatality, therapy makes no sense – people just wait for their fate to catch them
· prejudices are too strong, they cannot be perturbed
· information about the accessibility of family therapy services would only be received by those well functioning families who don’t need it anyway
· the only people who would benefit from therapy would be the therapists
· this is an ambitious but naïve project…
In retrospect, most of the above have proved valid to some extent. Families come to our counselling centre and successfully manage the challenges involved: speak in front of the other members, answer unusual questions, accept being videotaped and the presence of a – sometimes international and multilingual – team in the room. On the other hand, the number of families coming for therapy has not dramatically expanded in the six years since we started, though there has been a steady increase from one year to the next.
I think systems thinking, the idea that what one member of the family does will have an effect on all the others, makes sense for most people in Romania. We constantly feel this interconnectedness, the fact that we depend on the others. For example, when somebody in a block of apartments does not pay for their water or heating, the whole block may be left cold or without water for months.
On the other hand, Romanians are very communicative and good at sharing their difficulties. People are still generous with their time, compassionate and helpful, especially in times of trouble. I have recently experienced this as my mother spent some time in hospital. There were eight people in one ward, all curious, sensitive and providing emotional and practical support for one another. When there are lots of natural therapists around, therapy provided by “experts” may not be something essential.
Q: How has undertaking family therapy training influenced your outlook on life and on your own culture and professional practice?
I feel less attached to my own ideas. I hope I’m more open to new ones and more relaxed about being unsure. I am sometimes able to look at my own culture with the eyes of a curious visitor – this is particularly so during the times when Patrick and Colette visit Romania.
In the training process we received no message suggesting that we should change in any particular way but were given a permission to either remain the same or change - everybody in their own good time. My ideas about change itself have changed: I still believe that change is possible, but I have learned that it is sometimes slow, unpredictable or invisible. The training experience has helped us live together with Romania so far, to be more tolerant and have a more positive attitude not only toward a family, but also toward a country or culture. However, to be able to maintain this attitude I feel we need to keep a “meta-position” that requires a continuous exchange of ideas and experiences with people from other countries – particularly from Ireland.
Ágnes Kónya was trained as a family doctor, Zoltán Kónya is a paediatrician. They both have been organizers and participants of the training programme and are currently working as counsellors at AGAPE Counselling Centre in Cluj (email@example.com)
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