Cooperative Inquiry

Co-Counselling: an experiential enquiry (2)

J. Heron and Reason, P., Co-Counselling: an experiential enquiry (2), Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, 1982.

CoCoInfo Tags: 

  • Research



Brief Chronological Account of the Inquiry


  • What Makes Me Notice I'm Restimulated, In Pattern?
  • A Hierarchy in the Management of Restimulated Distress
  • Tactics
  • Strategies
  • Belief Systems

What We Got out of the Project

An Assessment of the Validity of the Project

Procedural Criticisms


PDF icon Heron-Reason CoCoCI-2.pdf139 KB

Co-Counselling: an experiential enquiry (1)

J. Heron and Reason, P., Co-Counselling: an experiential enquiry (1), Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, 1981.

CoCoInfo Tags: 

  • Research
  • Cooperative Inquiry



Co-Counselling Research Project

Chronological account of the project

The maps

What we learned about co-counselling

Learnings about experiential research

An assessment of the validity of the project

Next steps for collaborative experiential inquiry

Nest steps for research into co-counselling


PDF icon Heron-Reason CoCoCI-1.pdf320.33 KB

A short guide to co-operative inquiry

P. Reason and Heron, J., A short guide to co-operative inquiry, 2002.

CoCoInfo Tags: 

  • Cooperative Inquiry
  • Social Skills

What is co-operative inquiry?

Co-operative inquiry is a way of working with other people who have similar concerns and interests to yourself, in order to

  • understand your world, make sense of your life and develop new and creative ways of looking at things
  • learn how to act to change things you may want to change and find out how to do things better

We usually think of inquiry and research as something done by people in universities and research institutes. We think there is a researcher who has all the ideas, and who then studies other people by observing them, asking them questions, or by designing experiments. The trouble with this kind of way of doing research is that there is often very little connection between the researcher's thinking and the concerns and experiences of the people who are actually involved. People are treated as passive subjects rather than as active agents.

We believe that good research is research with people rather than on people. We believe that ordinary people are quite capable of developing their own ideas and can work together in a co-operative inquiry group to see if these ideas make sense of their world and work in practice.
A second problem with traditional research is that the kind of thinking done by researchers is often theoretical rather than practical. It doesn't help people find how to act to change things in their lives. We believe that the outcome of good research is not just books and academic papers, but is also the creative action of people to address matters that are important to them. Co-operative inquiry thus embraces what is called action research. It is also concerned with revisioning our understanding of our world, as well as transforming practice within it.

In co-operative inquiry a group of people come together to explore issues of concern and interest. All members of the group contribute both to the ideas that go into their work together, and also are part of the activity that is being researched. Everyone has a say in deciding what questions are to be addressed and what ideas may be of help; everyone contributes to thinking about how to explore the questions; everyone gets involved in the activity that is being researched; and finally everybody has a say in whatever conclusions the co-operative inquiry group may reach. So in co-operative inquiry the split between 'researcher' and 'subjects' is done away with, and all those involved act together as 'co-researchers' and as 'co-subjects'.

Some examples of co-operative inquiry groups

A group of general medical practitioners formed a co-operative inquiry group to develop the theory and practice of holistic medicine. They built a simple model of holistic practice, and experimented with it in practice, exploring a range of intervention skills, power sharing with patients, concern for the spiritual dimensions of doctoring as well as attention to their own needs as medical practitioners. The experience of this study contributed to the formation of the British Holistic Medical Association. This study was taken forward when a group of general and complementary medical practitioners worked together to explore how they might effectively work in an interdisciplinary fashion.

A group of obese and post-obese women explored their experience together, looking in particular at how they were stereotyped in society, and how it was difficult for them to obtain appropriate attention from doctors and other medial people. This is one of several inquiries in which groups of people with a particular physical or medical condition have worked together to take charge of how their condition is defined and treated. Two black social work teachers established inquiry groups of black social work students, practitioners and managers to explore their experience. They looked at relationships between black people at work, particularly the experience of black managers and subordinates working together; and how a creative black culture could be generated.

Several inquiry groups have met to explore ritual, mystical and subtle experience in an attempt to create forms of spiritual practice which are appropriate to present times.

Several groups have formed to explore questions of gender, in particular experience of women and men at work. One inquiry looked at how black women might learn to thrive, as well as survive in British organizations. Another explored the experience of young women managers in primarily male organizations. And another is looking at whether men in organizations need to explore questions of their gender in the workplace.

How a co-operative inquiry group works

Co-operative Inquiry is a systematic approach to developing understanding and action. And while every group is different, each one can be seen as engaged in cycles of action and reflection which go something like this.

1. The first thing is to bring a group of people together who have a common interest. In phase one a group of co-researchers come together to explore an agreed area of human activity. In this first phase they talk about their interests and concerns, agree on the focus of their inquiry, and develop together a set of questions or propositions they wish to explore. They agree to undertake some action, some practice, which will contribute to this exploration, and agree to some set of procedures by which they will observe and record their own and each other's experience.

For example, a group of health visitors in south west England were invited by one of their colleagues to form an inquiry group to explore the sources of stress in their work. After much resistance to the idea that they could be 'researchers', the group decided to explore the stress that comes from the 'hidden agendas' in their work - the suspicions they had about problems such as depression, child abuse, and drug taking in the families they visit which are unexpressed and unexplored.

2. In phase two the group apply their agreed actions in their everyday life and work: they initiate the actions and observe and record the outcomes of their own and each other's behaviour. They may at first simply watch what it is that happens to them so they develop a better understanding of their experience; later they may start trying out new forms of action.

The health visitors first explored among themselves their feelings about these 'hidden agendas' and how they managed them at present. They then decided to experiment with confronting them. They practised the skills they thought they would need through role play, and then agreed to try raising their concerns directly with their client families.

3. In phase three the co-researchers become full immersed in their experience. They may become more open to what is going on and they may begin to see their experience in new ways. They may deepen into the experience so that superficial understandings are elaborated and developed. Or they may be led away from the original ideas and proposals into new fields, unpredicted action and creative insights. It is also possible that they may get so involved in what they are doing that they lose the awareness that they are part of an inquiry group: there may be a practical crisis, they may become enthralled, they may simply forget. This phase is in some ways the touchstone of the inquiry method, and is what makes it so very different from conventional research, because here people are deeply involved in their own experience so any practical skills or new understandings will grow out of this experience.

The health visitors' experience of trying out new ways of working with clients was both terrifying and liberating in ways none of them had expected. On the one hand they felt they were really doing their job; on the other hand they were concerned about the depth of the problems they would uncover and whether they had adequate skills to cope with them. The woman who had initiated the project in particular was anxious and had disturbing dreams. They found they had to keep in good contact with each other to provide support and reassurance as they tried out new behaviours.

4. Phase four, after an agreed period engaged in phases two and three, the co-researchers re-assemble to consider their original questions in the light of their experience. As a result they change their questions in some way; or reject them and pose new questions. They then agree on a second cycle of action and reflection. They may choose to focus on the same or on different aspects of the overall inquiry. The group may choose to amend or develop its inquiry procedures - forms of action, ways of gathering data - in the light of experience of the first cycle.

The health visitors came back together and shared their experience, helping each other understand what had taken place and developing their strategies and skills at confronting hidden agendas. After several cycles they reflected on what they had learned and wrote a report which they circulated to their managers and colleagues.

A co-operative inquiry often engages in some six to ten cycles of action and reflection. These can take place over a short workshop or may extend over a year or more, depending on the kind of questions that are being explored.

The kinds of knowledge a co-operative inquiry group can create

Co-operative inquiry involves at least four different kinds of ways of knowing. We call this an 'extended epistemology' - epistemology meaning a theory of how you know, and extended because it reaches beyond the primarily theoretical knowledge of academia.

Experiential knowing is through direct face-to-face encounter with person, place or thing; it is knowing through empathy and resonance, and is almost impossible to put into words.

Presentational knowing emerges from experiential knowing, and provides the first form of expression by drawing on expressive forms of imagery through story, drawing, sculpture, movement, dance and so on.

Propositional knowing 'about' something, is knowing through ideas and theories, expressed in informative statements.

Practical knowing is knowing 'how to' do something and is expressed in a skill, knack or competence.

In co-operative inquiry we say that knowing will be more valid if these four ways of knowing are congruent with each other: if our knowing is grounded in our experience, expressed through our stories and images, understood through theories which make sense to us, and expressed in worthwhile action in our lives. You can see that this was so for the health visitors in their work together.

Other ways to improve the quality of knowing and action

You will see by now that co-operative inquiry is a radically different way of doing research. It is based on people examining their own experience and action carefully in collaboration with people who share similar concerns and interests. But, you might say, isn't it true that people can fool themselves about their experience? Isn't this why we have professional researchers who can be detached and objective?

The answer to this is that certainly people can and do fool themselves, but we find that they can also develop their attention so they can look at their beliefs and theories critically and in this way improve the quality of their claims to knowing. We call this 'critical subjectivity'; it means that we don't have to throw away our living knowledge in the search for objectivity, but are able to build on it and develop it.

We have developed a number of procedures that can be part of a co-operative inquiry and which can help improve the quality of knowing. These are some of them.

1) Research cycling. It should be already clear that co-operative inquiry involves going through the four phases of inquiry several times, cycling between action and reflection, looking at experience from different angles, developing different ideas, trying different ways of behaving. The health visitors went through four or five cycles as the experimented with different ways of relating to their clients.

Research cycling can be convergent, in which case the co-researchers look several times at the same issue, maybe looking each time in more detail; or cycling can be divergent, as co-researchers decide to look at different issues on successive cycles. Many variations of convergence and divergence are possible in the course of an inquiry. It is up to the group to decide which one is appropriate for each piece of research.

2) Balance of action and reflection. Too much time in reflection is just armchair theorizing; too much time in action is mere activism. But it may be important, particularly in the early stages, to spend considerable time reflecting in order to gather together experience; and it may be important later to concentrate on trying out different actions to see how they work.

Each inquiry group needs to find its own balance between action and reflection, depending on the topic being explored.

3) Developing critical attention. Co-researchers need to develop the ability to look at their experience with affectionate curiosity with the intention of understanding it better. They need not to be so attached to what they have been doing that they cannot be look at it critically. The process of research cycling is a discipline which helps people develop this ability.

As the group matures it may be helpful to use constructive challenge in order to hone people's critical attention. For example, in the Devil's Advocate procedure each person takes a turn in saying what they believe they have discovered, and other group members challenge their statements, trying to find other explanations for their claims, or evidence which shows their claims are not based in experience.

4) Authentic collaboration. It is really important that members of a co-operative inquiry group develop ways of working which are collaborative. You can't really call it co-operative inquiry if one or two people dominate the group, or if some voices are left out altogether. This doesn't mean that everyone has to have exactly the same role: it may be that one person in the group has more knowledge of the subject, another knows more about the inquiry method. But it does mean that specialist knowledge is used in the service of the group.

In order to develop equal contribution within a group it may be useful to rotate formal leadership round the group; to have 'rounds' in which everyone can have a say about the topic being discussed while the rest listen; and regular review periods where all group members can say how they feel about the way the group is working.

It is also important to note that there may be people outside the inquiry group who are affected by what it does; while they cannot be full co- researchers, they too should be approached in the spirit of co-operation and dialogue.

5) Dealing with distress. Co-operative inquiry can be an upsetting business. If the co- researchers are really willing to examine their lives and their experience in depth and in detail, it is likely that they will uncover things they have been avoiding looking at and aspects of their life with which they are uncomfortable.

Indeed, many inquiry groups are set up to explore these kinds of issues. So the group must be willing to address emotional distress openly when it arrives: to allow the upset persons the healing of self-expression, which may involve the release of grief, anger or fear.

Further, it may well be right for a group to spend time identifying the emotional disturbances within the group which have not yet been expressed, and providing space for this to happen. If the group does not pay attention to distress management, it is likely that the findings will be distorted by the buried emotions.

6) Chaos and order. Clearly co-operative inquiry can be seen as an orderly process of moving through cycles of action and reflection, taking account of experience in one cycle and applying it to the next. And so it is.

But co-operative inquiry is also about intuitive discovery, happenstance and synchronicity. It is sometimes about throwing all caution to the winds in a wild experiment.

The best inquiry groups find a balance between chaos and order. If the group is really going to be open, adventurous and innovative, to put all at risk to reach out for the truth beyond fear and collusion, then once the inquiry is well under way, divergence of thought and expression is likely to descend into confusion, uncertainty, ambiguity, disorder, and perhaps chaos, with most if not all co-researchers feeling lost to a greater or lesser degree.

There can be no guarantee that chaos will occur; certainly one cannot plan it. The key validity issue is to be prepared for it, to be able to tolerate it, to go with the confusion; not to let anxiety press for premature order, but to wait until there's a real sense of creative resolution.

Practical issues in setting up an inquiry group

Inititation. Most inquiry group are initiated by one or two people who have enthusiasm for an idea they wish to explore. They are quite often engaged on a research degree and are attracted to co-operative inquiry as a means of doing research; but they might just as well be members of an interest group - a patient's group, a women or minority person's group, a professional interest group - who see that co-operative inquiry might be a way of moving forward their interests.

Establishing a group. The initiators first task is to gather together a group of people who will be interested in joining the project. Sometimes the group is self-evidently formed, but more often it is recruited by some form of circular letter: for example the black social worked mentioned above invited social work managers, practitioners and students to a meeting to discuss mutual interests and propose the establishment of inquiry groups. Groups of up to twelve persons can work well. Below six is a little too small and lacks variety of experience; above twelve needs time and maybe professional facilitation to manage.

Contracting. This is possibly the most important aspect of the establishment of a group: it is really important that as far as it possible people have an opportunity to define the inquiry agenda and establish the process of the group. But this does not mean that they have to start from a blank sheet: usually the initiators put forward some proposal in a letter inviting people to a meeting to discuss the possible formation of a group. The meeting can explore the following agenda:

a)Welcome and introductions, helping people feel at home

b)Introduction by initiators: what we are interested in researching

c)People discuss what they have heard informally in pairs, followed by questions and discussion

d)Introduction to the process of co-operative inquiry

e)Pairs discussion followed by questions and discussion

f)Decision time: who wishes to join the group?

g)Practical discussion: dates, times, financial and other commitments.

It may be that I full discussion of items a) to e) is as far as a group can go in one meeting, and a second meeting is needed for decision making and practical arrangements.

Devising an overall research plan. Most groups agree to a programme of meetings arranged so there is sufficient time for cycles of action and reflection. A group wishing to explore activities that are contained within the group, such as meditation skills, may simply meet for a weekend workshop which will include several short cycles of practice and reflection.

But a group which involves action in the external world will need to arrange long cycles of action and reflection with sufficient time for practical activity. The holistic doctors group met to reflect for a long weekend after every six weeks of action on the job. The health visitors for an afternoon every three weeks or so. An inquiry into interpersonal skill met for a weekend workshop at the home of two of the participants and then for a long afternoon and evening every month to six weeks, finishing with another residential weekend workshop.

Roles. It is helpful to agree early on how roles will be distributed. If the initiator is also to be group facilitator that should be made clear. It may be helpful to identify who has skills in group facilitation, inquiry facilitation, management of differences, working with distress, and so on and share out roles appropriately. Decide if you wish to be fully democratic and rotate leadership, or if you would prefer one or two people to facilitate on behalf of the group. And so on.

Ground rules. You may wish to agree ground rules, particularly to preserve confidences within the group.

Writing. It is helpful to decide who the audience for your research is early on. Is it just for yourselves, or do you wish to influence some outside persons? If you are want to produce a written report or article, it is worth discussing who will write it and on what basis. Do all members of the group have to see and agree it before it can be sent out? Or is it acceptable for one or two people to write their own report based on the group experience?

We have found it helpful to adopt the rule that anyone can write whatever they like about the group, so long as they state clearly who is the author and whether other group members have seen and approved the text.

Further Reading

Heron, J. (1989). The Facilitators Handbook. London: Kogan Page. A useful discussion of choices in the facilitation of groups.

Heron, J. (1992). Feeling and Personhood: psychology in another key. London: Sage. Background theory and philosophy to co-operative inquiry, with an account of feeling as the foundation of participative knowing.

Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative Inquiry: research into the human condition. London: Sage. The latest comprehesive account of the co-operative inquiry method. Covers everything from philosophical underpinnings to the details of practice. Best read as a handbook dipping into the chapters that seem most helpful.

Randall, R and Southgate, J. (1980). Co-operative and Community Group Dynamics.....or your meetings needn't be so appalling. London: Barefoot Books. An excellent discussion of who to help develop creative group discussions in cartoon form-may be difficult to get hold of.

Reason, P. (ed). (1988). Human Inquiry in Action. London: Sage. A useful introduction to the method and contains some good examples of collaborative research.

Reason, P. (1994). Co-operative Inquiry, Participatory Action Research & Action Inquiry: three approaches to participative inquiry. Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman K Denzin & Yvonna Sessions Lincoln, Thousand Oaks: Sage. Sets co-operative inquiry in the context of other participative research methods.

Reason, P. (ed.) (1994). Participation in Human Inquiry. London: Sage. Discussion of the nature of participation followed by six examples of collaborative forms of research. Some good examples of co-operative inquiry described in some detail.

Reason, P. and Heron, J. (1995). Co-operative Inquiry. In Rethinking Methods in Psychology, edited by R. Harre, J. Smith, and L. Van Langenhove. London: Sage. An introduction which might be good to circulate among potential inquiry group members.

Reason, P. and Rowan J. (eds). (1981). Human Inquiry: a sourcebook of new paradigm research. Chichester: John Wiley. The original handbook: rather out of date but with lots of useful ideas and practices.

Towards an Integration of Counselling, Clienting and Meditation

M. Wilks, Towards an Integration of Counselling, Clienting and Meditation, University of East London, London, 1998.

CoCoInfo Tags: 

  • Session Contracts
  • Meditation
  • Research
  • Transpersonal
  • Cooperative Inquiry



1.0 Literature Review

1.1 Co-counselling

1.2 Meditation

1.3 East/West Psychology

1.4 Integrating Meditation with Psychotherapy

1.5 The Transpersonal Perspective

2.0 Methodology

2.1 Positioning of the Researchers

Positioning of the Author -- This Researcher's Investment

Positioning of the Co-researchers

2.2 Theoretical Discussion

2.3 Enabling the Inquiry

3.0 Results

4.0 Discussion

4.1 The Results

4.2 The Process of the Inquiry

The First Meeting - Contracting In

Engaging with the Inquiry

5.0 Conclusions



1) Articles, leaflet, handouts & Co-med pamphlet

2) General Correspondence 

3) Reports 

4) Glossary

 Link to Dissertation

A co-operative inquiry into Co-Counselling as a personal Development Method

J. Nichol, A co-operative inquiry into Co-Counselling as a personal Development Method, University of London, London, 1993.

CoCoInfo Tags: 

  • Cooperative Inquiry
  • Free Attention
  • Catharsis


The work has three objectives.  The first is to evaluate co-counselling using an experiential research model known as co-operative inquiry.  The second is to reflect on the research process itself, and to look at the ways we think about knowledge and construct patterns of meaning.  The third is to place the enterprise in the context of fundamental beliefs about health and health development.  The study as a whole is therefore a personal document rather than a collective one: it is not a report from the inquiry group on its findings.

About the method

 Co-operative inquiry is concerned with the subjective experience of human beings in the process of supported change and development.  It is also democratic; the subject of the research is not distinguished from the researcher – differences of power and status are removed.  So are the pretensions of the researcher to be a disinterested party somehow outside the process.  Rather, the research adopts the stance of critical subjectivity, insisting that valid inquiry is based on a very high degree of self-knowing, self-reflection and co-operative criticism.  The inquiry under consideration was based on six key criteria:

  1. Avoid reductionism by using the lived experience of the whole person in the research, including their own capacity for self-determination
  2. Avoid scientific rituals and mannerisms which appear objective whilst neglecting to question their own fundamental assumptions
  3. Generate an open and democratic relationship between the researchers and subjects, making subject co-researchers and researchers co-subjects.
  4. Honour feelings and intuition and allow people to reflect on and tell their own stories
  5. Acknowledge the provisional and relative nature of ‘reality’ in human experience (the map is not the territory).  At the same time strive to recognise and thereby create in that experience elements of underlying pattern and form.
  6. Retain the scientific ideal of a critical and public knowledge, generated through the disciplines of rigorous self-reflexivity and rigorous group process (i.e. the proposition-experience-review cycles of co-operative inquiry

The group and its work

 A total of fifteen people were contacted in September and October of 1992.  Eight agreed to take full part in the inquiry and another four to take part in a preliminary questionnaire and review of the questionnaire responses.  They were all people who had at least two years experience of CCI co-counselling including some role in teaching and all had significant experience of personal work outside the co-counselling arena.

The first task of the participants was to respond to an open-ended questionnaire about their involvement with co-counselling.  The second was to study the full set of responses to get to know more about each other’s perspectives, to identify pertinent issues for the inquiry, and to offer specific suggestions about the inquiry programme.  The final activity was the inquiry itself, which took place over the weekend of 5-7 February at the Bonnington Centre in Vauxhall.  The Friday evening was reserved for group building; the substantive inquiry ran between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the Saturday and Sunday and was videotaped on camcorder.  Some uncertainties and changers of plan meant that four women and five men took part in the group building session and first day of the inquiry but that one of the men was not present on the Sunday.  The group generated, explored and reviewed three propositions relevant to the overall subject – one concerned with free attention and the other two with aspects of discharge.  In each case, the group spent a period of time refining a specific proposition to act as a focus for the inquiry, then devised an experiential process to test (or explore) the proposition, and ended with a review of what had been experienced and learned.  The three propositions were:

  1. It is possible to identify different qualities of free attention that are enabling to the client in different ways
  2. Discharge is an effective psychosomatic process for coming into the present
  3. A complementary process of co-counselling discharge and meditation is a way to access a fundamental distress around identity/ego

The inquiry data are therefore as follows: replies to questionnaires, notes offering suggestions for the inquiry programme, the complete set of videotapes and written transcripts, and my personal memory of the experience as a participant.  My own work used a mix of five research methodologies:

  • An historical account of the development of co-counselling in the context of humanistic psychology
  • An analysis of questionnaire responses
  • Co-operative inquiry using a quasi-experimental approach
  • Co-operative inquiry using hermeneutic methods (identified as intersubjective discussion amongst a community of concerned interpreters)
  • Discipline reflection on my own experience

Setting the scene

The completed questionnaires provided a fascinating insight into respondents’ introduction to co-counselling and the part it has played in their lives.  Eight of the twelve respondents first learned about co-counselling through personal contact – five from friends and acquaintances, two through existing groups (women’s and men’s consciousness-raising) and one from their therapist.  Of the remaining four, two had enrolled in classes with co-counselling specifically in mind,, and the other two with something else in mind (pastoral skills and assertiveness) at least in the first instance.  The specific impulse to do co-counselling varied from ‘curiosity’ to ‘desperation’Most people were primarily interested in the opportunity to do personal work; the learning of counselling skills took second place. 

The responses make it clear that co-counselling has been a transformative experience for almost everyone in the group.  They have become different people as a result of their involvement with co-counselling.  The participants in the research report that their ordinary experience of the world, their practices, their values and beliefs have undergone a permanent shift as a result of the co-counselling process.  The essential changes have been emancipatory and empowering; to this extent co-counselling is already being vindicated as a significantly beneficial personal development method.

At the same time co-counselling has not been a complete system of personal development for anyone in the group.  Given that the group was partly recruited for its experience of other ways of working, this is hardly a surprising discovery.  But it is interesting that nine of the twelve participants took up their other work after co-counselling because of developmental needs which co-counselling itself was not able to meet.  For two of these nine people, the new work has been in other forms of counselling and personal change work; for another two, it has been the practice of meditation; for the other five, it has included both.  Of the three people whose other work began after they started co-counselling, two were on spiritual paths which included the practice of meditation, and the other was involved in bodywork.  None of these activities has been abandoned in favour of co-counselling; for all participants in the research, co-counselling has been a piece in a larger developmental jigsaw.

The questionnaire replies emphasise a very high value placed by participants on the peer principle within co-counselling practice.  There is unanimous support for the idea of reciprocal exchange within the co-counselling partnership with clients in charge of their sessions, supported by counsellors whose main job is to give free attention.  There is more difficulty with the practice of the peer principle in the development of the Community as a whole.  Drawing on the experience of the London Community over a ten year period, participants report a feeling of frustration and disappointment.  But there is no suggestion that the idea of an autonomous, self-managing Community is a bad one: the complaint is that it is undeveloped and that issues about leadership and decision making need to be addressed more consciously and intentionally.  In this respect the problem is perceived to be a limitation in the way the peer principle is actualised, not in the principle itself.

Concerning the issues examined in depth by the inquiry – free attention and discharge – the questionnaire replies reveal very high levels of appreciation for the free attention concept and related ideas of present time awareness and unconditional positive regard.  By contrast – and perhaps surprisingly for a group of experienced co-counsellors – there is a marked ambivalence around the co-counselling orthodoxy which holds that discharge is the primary engine of transformation.  These issues are discussed at more length in my report on the inquiry work itself.

Creating an agenda

Participants were first asked to make suggestions for inquiry topics in the questionnaire and then to look at the full set of replies and construct agenda which reflected the concerns which seemed to be coming through.  This resulted in a total of eleven possible agenda items, of which four were suggested by more than one person:

  • Aspects of co-counselling and the spiritual (eight people)
  • The role of discharge in co-counselling (six people)
  • Interpersonal and group processes in co-counselling (four people)
  • The role of free attention in co-counselling (two people)

The feedback was given to inquiry members and used in the process which generated the actual agenda on Friday evening.  The final list was presented to the group for reconsideration on Saturday morning:



            AS HEALING

            AS ALTERED STATE





The inquiry group worked through the topics in roughly the order listed.  The whole of the first day was spent looking at free attention and the whole of the second day exploring discharge.  Both topics were covered in a way that kept the possible relationship between co-counselling and meditation in mind, though in the event there was no long session which combined co-counselling and meditation as a working method.  Given the choice to prioritise the work on free attention and discharge, there was no time to work on the group and Community issues also listed in the agenda.  The result is that the group went some way towards addressing the whole of its agenda around individual co-counselling work, but did nothing to address collective issues at either group or Community level.

Inquiry into Free Attention

The proposition agreed after an initial discussion was:
It is possible to identify different qualities of free attention that are enabling to the client in different ways.

The exercises and working method chosen for the experiential phase reveal the group’s understanding, at this early stage, of the meaning of co-operative inquiry.  There is a clear sense of the exercise cycle as an experiment designed to establish truths about free attention, rather than a heuristic device providing a structure for open exploration.  This sense is reinforced by the decision, when the exercises were set up, to split the group into two pairs working experientially and five observers.  The experience of the people working would be checked by another set of people looking at the process from the outside – an obvious concession to the style, if not the substance, of conventional science.

The exercises were as follows:

  • A conventional free attention contract
  • A session in which counsellors gave poor attention
  • A session which was preceded by a period of meditation
  • A session in which counsellors closed their eyes followed by a session in which clients closed their eyes
  • A session in which clients and counsellors gave each other free attention and shared passing thoughts followed by a session of silent mutual free attention
  • Sessions in which clients received silent free attention from the whole group

In the review of the exercises, there was general agreement that the baseline free attention session had been successful.  Both clients had used their counsellor’s attention to work and to get into discharge.  Moreover, the effect the of the withdrawal of that attention had been so marked, especially in one case, that in spite of the crudity of the exercise, its results were seen as significant.

It was agreed the free attention session following the period of meditation had a different quality from the original one, as if something had been added.  There were several possible reasons for this.  The client might have changed through their own meditation; the counsellor might be offering a different quality of free attention; counsellor and client might be in closer rapport because of the shared activity of meditation.  It was therefore not possible to say that the counsellor’s attention offered a different kind of enablement to the client, but it was possible to say that the process as a whole did.

The unsighted sessions provoked considerable discussion, but it was felt that the exercise itself was too artificial to draw any sustainable solutions.

Mutual free attention was seen as outside co-counselling.  Where there was permission to express thoughts, the process was seen as both exciting and as potentially dangerous.  It had the power to enable both intimacy and abuse.  In terms of the overall inquiry topic, the boundaries of co-counselling, with the defined roles of counsellor and client, could be thought of in this context either as a limitation (inhibition) or as a benefit (protection).  But it was clear that this form of free attention had a quality that could enable interpersonal exchange, the growth of intimacy or shared present time awareness.

Mutual free attention without words, whilst also outside co-counselling, was seen as more compatible with the tradition and, like meditation, something that could be assimilated into the culture.  All participants found it a profoundly healing experience with a character unlike any of the other exercises. Quite clearly, it was a quality of free attention which enabled something different to the free attention in session work.

Group attention was confirmed as especially powerful compared to individual attention, capable of enabling dynamic forms of work.

Overall the idea of free attention was recognised as having implications beyond its technical appropriateness in the counselling role, raising a number of questions about states of consciousness and states of relationship.  There seemed to be a clear link with rapport, as defined in NLP practice, and mindfulness, as understood in certain forms of (largely Buddhist inspired) meditation.  The free attention idea was seen as something very precious within co-counselling, and also as an element of the tradition which could be independently usable.  In relation to the practice of co-counselling itself, the inquiry group agreed that the preparation for paired group work would benefit from short periods of meditation and mutual free attention.

Inquiry into Discharge

The central method of the co-counselling tradition, the discharge and re-evaluation process, was the focus of considerable thought both within the completed questionnaire responses and within the inquiry weekend.  The questionnaire brings out the fact that the ability to discharge is a valued skill: it is accepted as a way of achieving emotional release in a context of respectful attention and making a cognitive link with what is being released.  As such, it is seen as contradicting the kind of cultural incompetence which teaches people to fear and repress emotional expression and deny its worth and transformative power when such expression occurs.  It is a way of being emotionally literate.

What many of the respondents question is the continued regular long-term practice of the discharge and re-evaluation process once this lesson has been learned and practised over a period of time.  Once feelings have been reintegrated into the psyche and some major work on personal distress patterns completed, does the method retain its full value?  The belief of most participants in the research is that it does not and that it tends to become subject to a law of diminishing returns.  More specifically, respondents suggest that discharge can become the source of an addiction to a somatic buzz, or an attachment to the very distress which it is intended to lead the co-counsellor away from, thereby losing its effectiveness as a vehicle for change.  Seven of the eight people who have been involved in co-counselling for ten years or more, including all of the accredited teachers in the group, report this experience – which in effect puts their experience at odds with orthodox co-counselling theory on this point.

The inquiry’s consideration of discharge began with a test of the ten minutes mini session as a form of emotional house-cleaning, using the proposition:
Discharge is an effective psychosomatic process for coming into the present.

The word ‘psychosomatic’ was included to register the group’s understanding that a true catharsis requires a mental component (e.g. a sense of loss) as well as a physical one (e.g. sobbing).  This time there were no observers – everyone was involved, and seven out of the eight people did discharge work in their sessions.  Of the six who talked about it afterwards, all experienced greater vitality and an enhanced present-time awareness as a result of their sessions, albeit two only marginally.  However, the group decided to categorise this process as ‘maintenance discharge’, a valuable resource in personal management, carrying a state-altering potential in the short term, but not a transformative or developmental experience.  This was distinguished in particular from the major, spontaneous catharsis that can be triggered by conditions of acute personal distress and shake up a person’s whole identity.  The group’s thought was that the latter process was extremely valuable but tended to diminish both in intensity and significance with increasing experience, probably because the ego becomes immune to it.

Consideration of the relationship between ego and consciousness lead to the formulation of the inquiry’s third proposition:

A complementary process of co-counselling discharge and meditation/contemplation is a way to access a fundamental distress around identity/ego.

The proposition arose because two people believed that co-counselling commonly had the effect of building up the ego and its preoccupations in a way that ran counter to the true evolution of consciousness.  But they also suggested that it had the potential to work beneficially, by challenging ego as a limiting self-construct and thereby opening a path to transpersonal illumination.  Some people thought that this might be accomplished through discharge work alone: others believed that it might best be approached through a mix of discharge work and meditation.  The central idea accepted by the group in this discussion was that people forge their identity in early childhood in the context of distress, some of this being inevitable to the process and some being imposed externally.  Personal identity therefore becomes narrowly ego-bound and defended, both repressing the body and feelings and denying the potential for transcendence.

The experiential work undertaken to explore this proposition comprised one long session by one individual, supported by the rest of the group.  By this stage, the group had moved away from a quasi-experimental model of working.  The kind of concepts being scrutinised were obviously not amenable to this approach and its implied hope of discovering a fixed truth by broadly empirical methods.  The enterprise became an attempt by the group to discern a coherent pattern in its shared experience rather than a collection of evidence designed to establish a correct theoretical perspective.  Having said that, the session did seem to most members of the group to validate the capacity of regression work to uncover a fundamental level of distress out of which the limited vehicle of consciousness we call personality is developed.  However the discharge work was incomplete, being more than the usual maintenance discharge and less than a cathartic transformation; meditation was not used.  Furthermore, although the session was successful in terms of psycho-archaeology, identifying and making conscious the roots of this distress, it did not in itself create any real change in my perceptions (I was the client) either at the time or in the longer term.

The questioning of the discharge and re-evaluation process in this research has led me to conclude that CCI is impoverishing itself for want of any credible mechanism for revising theory.  CCI has inherited RC theory and, having added a few additional ideas during its first days as a separate Community, it is now (1993) theoretically static.  This has been the case since at least 1979, when I joined.  Community members have permission to work in other ways when they contract to do so, but this does not feed back into the formal theoretical position of the organisation or influence the way in which co-counselling is taught, since obviously everyone needs to be introduced to co-counselling through the same core curriculum.  In particular, there is no platform to launch a critique of the total commitment to a discharge and re-evaluation approach to the work.  There is no institutional forum even for a discussion, since there are no appropriate institutions – no real CCI.  Consequently the experience of people who move beyond (or at least away from) this model as their predominant way of working cannot be recognised or validated and the Community itself, stuck in a kind of 1970’s time warp, may begin to decay through its inability to reassess and develop theory in any recognised collective way.

CCI and radical humanism

One of the arguments of the overall research is that CCI co-counselling can be located within the mainstream of the humanistic psychology movement, and that this movement itself has a set of common perspectives which add up to a coherent view of health.  This humanistic idea of health is focused on the developmental needs of the person – whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.  Indeed the person is a single system, so even these distinctions should be treated with caution.  The basic pre-condition for health is that the human organism should be allowed to change and develop in those ways that are natural for it.  The problem as perceived by humanistic psychology is that human beings in present day society tend to be at a relatively low point on the continuum because their socialisation has brought about distortions in development leading to the creation of false and maladaptive ways of being.  This being so, the tendency of the distress distorted collective is to hold individuals firmly in their own distress distorted place. 

This places humanistic psychology in one of the four warring camps (academically called paradigms) mobilised around a particular set of beliefs around mental health promotion.  These are;

  1. Functionalism                         
    This adopts an objective approach to knowledge and an acceptance of social norms.  It is the stance of Western medicine, where mental illness is diagnosed and treated primarily as an organic condition, of behaviourist psychology and the Department of Health.
  2. Interpretive analysis              
    This approach continues to accept social norms, but validates forms of learning derived from the subjective experience of individuals; mental health is achieved through the conscious unpacking of internal conflicts.  This is the approach of psychoanalysis and some other therapies.
  3. Radical humanism                 
    The honouring of subjective experience is taken further.  Society is now seen as a source of disempowerment and as stunting the development of human potential.  This is the perspective of humanistic psychology and of CCI.
  4. Radical structuralism             
    Social oppression is seen as fundamental and as objectively determined.  Ultimately, mental health requires the ending of all systemic oppressions.  This is the stance of Marxist mental health and RC.

It is noteworthy from the research that the more successful energies of CCI seem to be in the individual work rather than the collective life of the Community.  If CCI is a radical humanist movement, where is its radicalism?  The simple answer is that it retains radical beliefs; in particular, it sees the peer principle as fundamental both to the counselling process and to the development of the Community.  It also sees distress as flowing as much from the success of our initial socialisation as from its failure. 

There is a more complex answer, which I think has two elements.  The first involves the admission that there has been a real falling away from radicalism at the level of external politics.  The ideas behind CCI were developed in the 1940s, 50 and 60s.  CCI itself (as of 1993) is the product of the last 20 years and shares their history.  Within this period, activities such as counselling and the exploration of individual, group and organisational dynamics have become widely acceptable in a variety of personal and professional contexts.  Meanwhile on the wider political stage there has been a dramatic shift to a more individualistic and less socially responsible ideology and practice whilst at the same time state institutions have become less participative and more authoritarian.  In a climate where personal development, at least for middle class people, is in some sense rewarded and collective efforts are blocked or punished, it is not surprising to find that co-counsellors are better at therapy than they are at community building.

However there is a more positive side to the introspective mood of CCI co-counsellors in the current historical phase.  This lies in the opportunity to revisit the roots of the political problem in another way, and draw out some political implications from the inquiry group’s consideration of ego.  Egoic consciousness confers many benefits: rational comprehension, formal operational thinking, self-reflexivity, the potential for mutual recognition and esteem, a discriminating and internalised morality and a legally recognised self-consciousness.  But it is also a vulnerable construct, guilty in its emergence, open to anxiety and aware of its mortality.  Such a combination of superficial mental competence and underlying terror leads to necessary distortions – competition, inequity and exploitation at the level of material and emotional-sexual relations, and a drive to rob others of equal recognition and esteem by forcing one’s own ego to be number one.  One view of what happens in the best and most developed therapy is that we break out of the imprisoning shell of the ego, shedding the fundamental fear and attachment that drives distorted desire.  Working on the issue of ego may seem like a rarefied and other-worldly activity.  Yet it could be placed at the heart of sane social change.


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Catharsis in Psychotherapy

P. J. Hawkins, Catharsis in Psychotherapy, University of Durham, UK, Durham, 1986.

CoCoInfo Tags: 

  • Research
  • Cooperative Inquiry
  • Catharsis

The historical context of catharsis in psychotherapy is discussed, with particular reference to drama and ritual. 

The 'cathartic technique' of Freud and Breuer is then presented as part of the continuing development of approaches that advocate feeling-expression as a way of promoting personal change. The contemporary approaches considered include Reichean Therapy, bioenergetics, primal therapy, and re-evaluation counselling. Heron's theory of catharsis in human development is emphasized, and is central to the two experiential research enquiries presented later. 

The evidence for the efficacy of catharsis is reviewed from the perspective of the various 'schools' of emotionally-expressive therapy, and reference to the the psychosomatic and bereavement literature is also made. Two research enquiries are presented which investigate the effects of catharsis on human functioning.

A new paradigm experiential approach was adopted in which co-researchers engaged in a collaborative enquiry. 'Inside' measures of subjective experiencing, contingent upon emotional catharsis, were gathered through self-report, as well as 'outside' measures of blood pressure, pulse rate, and personality functioning.

Results suggest that physiologic tension decreases following somatic emotional catharsis, but that longer term changes in psycho-somatic functioning require the development of insight into the genesis of the 'symptom', as well as complementary therapeutic strategems. It is further suggested that the development of insight is contingent upon historical somatic catharsis.

The results also show that where cognitive catharsis occurs without affective release, in increase in psycho-physiologic tension is effected, as shown in both the physiological measures and subjective experiencing. Finally, the implications of catharsis for therapeutic practice are discussed.