The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry. – B. F. Skinner
What does a therapist do?
If you watch Anger Management on Prime, as I do every once in a while, you’ll see Charlie Sheen in his group, and he’s always sat there with a large folder, taking notes.
But what’s he doing, what kind of notes would you take in that situation?
Okay, notes of therapy and consultation are going to be private – but there’s going to be something that interests you, some kind of trail that you’re going to follow as you try and understand what’s going on.
But this isn’t easy, so you have to also watch how you follow, what you do, how you think about the process that you’re following.
And you can’t do all this in your head, so it makes sense to write it down as you go along.
Write down everything because you can then look at it as a thing in itself, and you can ask yourself what you were doing and whether it worked or not and why you think it did or didn’t.
And then, of course, you write those bits down as well.
Let’s look at a real psychologist’s notes – and fortunately we have some from the influential psychologist B.F Skinner – in his book called Notebooks.
What’s usually most interesting in a collection of someone else’s notes is not the notes themselves but the introduction to the collection – the way in which they are presented and analyzed in the first place.
Some people are interested not just in the fact that there are notes, but in the form of the notes – are they in a bound book or loose notes?
From the introduction it looks like they are on pads, pages that can be pulled apart and rearranged in binders.
There were stacks and piles of notes and they are about “Everything”.
But then he wrote essays on 7x8inch spiral notebooks – hundreds of them.
And there are comments on what they are.
Note taking, we are told, is a technique you can use to “discover what you have to say.”
It’s an exercise, the writer’s mantra – “Nulla dies sine linea” – no day without a line.
The notes hold ideas, suggest analyses and experiments, contain facts and thoughts and plans.
In the world of Skinner, “Note writing is behavior”.
What does that mean?
The act of taking notes is not separate from the business of living – it’s a way of living in itself.
The only reason to take notes is if the behavior of taking notes has a positive effect on your life, if it reinforces and helps you to live better.
If you’re someone who wants to work better with others, to help others, to be useful to others – you have to do more than just present yourself, willing and eager.
We spend too much time in introspection, thinking about ourselves, what we can offer, what we can do.
It’s also easy to stay quiet, to let others talk about what they feel like inside, be someone who listens to their introspective thoughts.
But here’s the thing.
Both they and you are far more influenced by your environment and context than you perhaps realize.
The options you have, the choices open to you, the paths you can travel are to some extent already laid out in front of you, determined by what happened around you and what you have already done.
Skinner talked about this in terms of free will being an illusion, what you do depends on what you have done.
And, I suppose, what you can do, what you are able to do given the situation you are in.
And that seems to fit in with systems thinking and quality and all that kind of stuff – where you start to realize that what matters is not how enthusiastic or driven or motivated or pumped you are – but whether or not the system allows you to do something or not.
The fact is that whatever happens right now is the purpose of everything around you – POSIWID stands for the “purpose of a system is what it does.”
Everything around you works right now in the way it does perfectly because that’s the way the system is.
We have the political leaders we have and the kind of information we have and the kind of technology we have and the kind of relationships we have and the kind of interactions we have and the kind of workplaces we have because that’s the way the world is.
And if you try and change one thing then other things change as well and things move around and settle into whatever the new approach is and people do what they can in that situation as well.
None of which means you shouldn’t try to change things.
The point is that what you can change will depend on the environment you’re in, and so you need to look beyond yourself to your environment, ask questions about that environment and work out what your options are including strategies and tactics to change or replace that environment.
Revolution is always an option too.
The point about your notebook is that it’s a place to try all this out – a place outside your head that lets you hold the information and models and concepts you need to play with, the kind of thoughts you have to manipulate in order to make sense of things and decide what to do.
You need a place for “everything” that life throws at you, you need to be able to put things somewhere.
I find that things come so fast, however, that I fill books and books with notes – a reporter’s notebook, for example, will probably last me a month.
And that feels like I’m going to be swamped with stuff, but that’s okay too, it’s just life.
The point is what do you do next?
For example, I remember a particular incident, decades ago now.
It was in the time of dial up Internet, I recorded everything in my notebooks including the numbers of dial up Internet providers.
At that time you could call a particular number and your modem would connect and give you access to the Internet.
And then broadband came along and we forgot about things like that.
A few years passed, and then one day the broadband broke – we had no Internet – and that’s when you start to realize that information is like electricity, it’s hard to do anything without it these days.
So, I went back to my notebooks, dug out the page with the phone numbers and got us reconnected until things went back to normal.
So, your notebooks are a place to keep stuff you might need later.
The other way they might help is as a tool to help you live better – as mine of material that you can later work.
Some people own silver and gold mines but each of us can create our own mine, a mine full of knowledge and expertise and thoughts and feelings and research and data and facts.
Unlike a physical mine that someone can take from you and work for themselves, these repositories of knowledge, these mines of lines, that you’ve collected over time are personal to you, unique to you – it is the labyrinth of knowledge you have constructed to which only you have the map.
And so we need you to work with us – the people on that chair want to work with that particular therapist and over time, their connection becomes stronger.
And I think that’s what we really want from work and relationships as well, stronger connections over time, a better understanding of each other and where we are so that we can do more.
And that folder seems critical, the notebook seems essential to the process, a way of holding all that, holding what you do every day.
But, of course, once we have the notebooks – the mines – we have to work them.
We have done something today – but what are you going to do the next day?
Let’s look at that process of working what we have in the next post.