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Blaming events (N = 25) were identified in seven interviews conducted by prominent theorists who espouse a constructionist or narrative approach to family treatment. Congruent with this perspective, we used conversation analysis (Gale, 1996) and the grounded theory method of constant comparison (Corbin & Strauss, 1990) to identify the therapists' behaviors and strategies following blame expressed by family members. Results indicated three core categories or themes of therapists' responses to blame--Ignoring/Diverting, Acknowledging/Challenging, and Reframing--subsuming 17 individual codes (e.g., challenging all-or-none thinking, highlighting neutral information, interrupting, focusing on competence). The most frequent code was focusing on the positive.
Constructionist and narrative approaches to family therapy seek to engage clients in a joint project to think and talk about their lives in ways that highlight possibilities, rather than fixed clinical "realities," and solutions rather than problems. At least theoretically, therapeutic conversations (Gilligan & Price, 1993) vary in their specific practices, but share a focus on generating new ways to imagine and image the interpersonal worlds of family members. The conviction that it is therapeutic to construct new narratives is based on the philosophical assumption that reality is created by language and interactional habits in families, treatment systems, and the culture at large (McNamee & Gergen, 1992).
In this study, we defined blaming events as episodes in a therapy session during which a family member makes negative attributions about the abilities, traits, intentions, and motives of one or more other family members. In essence, these events constitute a certain kind of narrative about the problem, one that highlights fault.
In the present study, our aim was to identify and systematically describe the ways in which expert constructionist and narrative therapists handle the expression of blame in family interviews. We sampled seven, full-length interviews by different therapists, and focused specifically on their responses to blame. The study was discovery-oriented in that we did not try to fit the therapists' responses into predetermined categories. Rather, we allowed the raw data to reveal categories of therapist behavior that followed clients' expressions of blame.
Therapist Responses to Blame
Acknowledging/Challenging: In contrast to the first category, the second category is acknowledging or challenging the blame. Five codes comprised this category: (a) identifying blame as a topic for discussion, (b) putting the problem in the context of a relationship, (c) challenging all-or-none thinking about the blame, (d) questioning the blamer about the other's perspective, and (e) speaking for the client in response to the blamer. While not ignoring or merely diverting the blame, the therapist's behavior either actively avoids agreement with the blame or challenges it. In Interview B, the therapist confronted a mother during an episode in the session where she was criticizing her daughter's attitude toward school. In another interview (A), the therapist began the session by asking what everyone in the family would like to discuss. Rather than becoming sidetracked when two individuals began to blame one another, the therapist cut short the discussion by calmly acknowledging the issues on both sides.
Reframing: The third category, reframing, had five codes which were located in three of the seven interviews. These codes were (a) focusing on competence, (b) focusing on the positive, (c) using metaphors, (d) redefining or reinterpreting, and (e) expanding the theme to bring in a new perspective. In one interview, when the parents criticized their daughter for not responding to questions from the therapist, the latter pointed out a possible positive motivation for her silence. In another interview, the therapist used refraining to highlight a child's competence following her mother's criticism.
In each of the events we studied, the therapists responded in some way to the clients' expressions of blame. What happened next? We observed no uniformity in the clients' responses to the therapists' interventions. In most cases, after the therapists responded immediately to the initial statement of blame, there was no further blaming in the remainder of the interview, but in other cases, family members continued to blame one another for several successive speaking turns. In the latter situation, the therapists tended to shift from one category of response to another. In one event, for example, the therapist shifted from acknowledging the blame to refraining it as a "conflict" between two family members. In another event, the therapist began by challenging a mother's dichotomous thinking; when she did not stop blaming her daughter, the therapist shifted the topic altogether. Although the focus of this research was on the therapists' responses to blame, and not on the clients' reactions to these interventions, we noted that in four interviews (A, B, C, and G), those in which the blaming events occurred early in the session, no blaming was observed beyond the first 1/3 of the interview. Although it is not possible to determine whether the therapists' interventions were indeed effective in halting the blame, it is interesting to note that (a) these four interviews had the greatest number of blaming events, and (b) the therapists in these sessions used the greatest number of responses (range 4-9 different codes). By contrast, in the three sessions (D, E, and F) in which blaming did not begin until the second half of the inter-??? view, the therapists used only one or two different kinds of responses.
From a narrative perspective, helping clients construct new linguistic habits around blame may well be more complex than a blame/intervention/nonblame sequence of events. Because the process of narrative therapy unfolds more slowly than in more directive approaches, it requires analyses of events that are extended further in time. This means considering even lengthier episodes within sessions, as well as data from more than one session.
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