Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Pictures We Paint

I've been thinking further about the issues I raised in 'The Poet Doesn't Invent, He Listens"

In that post I tried to explain the importance of listening well, and of being accurate and respectful in how we reflect that listening.

I illustrated that post with this picture by Jean Cocteau: "Beauty and the Beast", and promised to talk further about some of the questions it evokes in me.

It's a powerful and quite disturbing picture. Many people violently dislike it, others find it intriguing. I think part of Cocteau's intention behind the image was an attempt to illustrate his maxim that "artists make beautiful things ugly".

What I'm getting to, is the point that people who work in health and social care services routinely paint pictures of the people we support too. These pictures are given all kinds of names like "assessments", "pen pictures", "incident reports" "support plans" and "care plans". The brushstrokes such pictures use tend to be devaluing labels and diagnoses, and while art is about capturing both light and shade, such pictures all too often focus entirely on the negative aspects of people's lives. Their weaknesses, their inabilities, their needs, their challenging behaviours. They fail to capture key aspects of who the person actually is to the people that love and care about that person. It's as if the artist instructed by Cromwell to paint him 'warts and all' had just painted the warts. They thus make beautiful things ugly with all the routine banality of bureaucratic paperwork.

The language we use about people reflects deep assumptions. We brand people as 'service users', a term that reflects their role as consumers of services and resources, but ignores their role as potential and actual contributors to society.

There's a theory that what we inquire into expands. The harder we search for faults and inadequacies in ourselves and each other, the more we find. The reverse of this is to inquire into people's gifts, strengths and virtues,  what people like and admire about that person. By mindfully searching for these, we can also help other people find them, and see the person in ways that they might not have managed to before.

I think it's interesting that Cocteau places himself in his picture, engaged in the act of painting, as well as the sitter, and even the person viewing the picture. I think he's arguing that every picture reflects the artist as much as it does the subject - the portrait is something that has been co-produced by the painter and the painted, and also by the person who is viewing the portrait because of the interpretation they bring to the image.

John O'Brien made a similar point in one of the trainings I was privileged to attend. He mentioned the tendency for person centred plans to reflect aspects of the person facilitating them, plans facilitated by a particular person might focus much more tightly on getting a person into paid employment, reflecting the importance that that particular facilitator attaches to employment, without any conscious direction by the facilitator. 'What do you think of that?' John asked. It's hard to give an answer, it seems like just something that happens, but it must be welcomed if a passion to find some of the potential and capacity that exists in a person helps overcome a little of the underestimation that has been built into every previous picture we've painted of that person.

Cromwell demanded that he be painted 'Warts and All'
What if the artist had only painted the warts?

People who aspire to person-centredness in their practice therefore need to think about the pictures we are painting of people with our own words, and the techniques we are using to create those pictures. We need to ask, "Who is this picture for?", "What aspects of the person do we wish to discover?", "can we discover this person's gifts and strengths and lay them out for others to find?" It does not mean ignoring people's support needs, it means searching for what makes the best support, support that enhances people's gifts, that matches up with what is important to them, that reflects the direction they aspire to in their lives.

When we go back to the reports that were written about people 20, 30 or 40 years ago we wince at the language and the devaluing assumptions that riddle these outdated portraits and dread to imagine the grey and restricted institutional lives these descriptions condemned people to. We pass judgement on the people that wrote them, forgetting that they were simply reflecting the training they received and the values that motivated services at that time.  How do the words we use impact on the lives of people we support today? How will the plans and descriptions we're writing with people now reflect on us in years to come?

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