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PNMJ13-5Celebrating the Craft at Symposium

By Richard Simon

This year, 3,000 practitioners came to our annual Symposium to explore the fundamental question: are we any closer to unraveling the mysteries of psychotherapy than when Freud became the first therapist to complain about client “resistance”?

Have you wandered into the wrong hotel ballroom? You’re looking for the psychotherapy conference you registered for, but this dimly lit space with the jazz trio playing on stage and the moody stage lighting seems more like a hip, after-hours club than a place where you go to earn CE credits. Besides it’s only eight o’clock in the morning. What’s going on here?!

What’s going on is the annual Psychotherapy Networker Symposium. Over the 36 years of its existence, this Symposium has earned a reputation as the profession’s most spontaneous and stimulating gathering by combining inspiration and learning in ways unheard of in the normally straitlaced world of professional conferences. Its 125-member faculty connects bestselling authors, distinguished researchers, and stalwarts of the therapy workshop circuits with street drummers, artists, dancers, and professional entertainers. The last thing anyone expects of you here is to act like a stiff therapist tied to your appointment book. Instead, you can open up to whatever fun encounter, new idea, or exciting conversation comes your way. You can engage with dynamic speakers and kindred spirits, dance to Latin rhythms with your morning cup of coffee in hand, and spend four days roaming the halls of Washington, D.C.’s most elegant art deco hotel with the unbridled abandon of a high school student between classes.

This year’s Symposium, The Therapist’s Craft: Healing Connection in a Digital World, brought together 3,000 mental health professionals for something increasingly rare these days—a no-holds-barred, face-to-face, nonvirtual experience celebrating the much-beleaguered profession of psychotherapy. The conference was organized as an exploration of therapy, not as an art or science, but as a craft. But what exactly does craft have to do with therapy? Before the gala musical opening performance in which he warned the audience he’d be unleashing his “inner Beyoncé,” longtime Networker Editor and Symposium MC Rich Simon offered his take on the Symposium theme.

Every year at Symposium time, we at the Networker find ourselves asking the same fundamental question: what is therapy, anyway? Is it an art or a science? Are we any closer to unraveling its mysteries than when Dr. Freud first moved that old chaise lounge from his attic to his office and, soon thereafter, became the first therapist ever to complain about his clients’ “resistance”?

Some would argue that we’ve come a long way since Freud. They believe that therapy is becoming an increasingly more rigorous scientific enterprise. Yet, as more and more metanalyses are done of widely varying clinical approaches, something disconcerting to lovers of scientific predictability keeps turning up. There is, it seems, surprisingly little difference between different therapy models in producing clinical success. So what is it that makes the difference? With all due credit to the therapeutic acumen of James Carville and his crew, here’s the bottom line: it’s the relationship, stupid!

We called this year’s meeting “The Therapist’s Craft” because we think that, despite the fancy credentials we like to use on our business cards, this Symposium is best thought of as a gathering of craftspeople. We’re not experts in knitting or pottery making, but in the highly interactive craft of healing conversation—the kind of conversation that, if repeated over and over, builds a relationship, which can itself lead to a subtle but real transformation in the lives of our clients.

A craft is basically the conscious, intentional pursuit of certain, often complex and difficult, skills and their practical application with a specific end in mind. In a sense, all artists and even scientists are craftspeople. They’ve spent years honing the kind of practical expertise without which most great visions—artistic or scientific—can’t be realized. It isn’t magic, nor is it simply a matter of learning a manualized procedure by rote. A craft requires both skill and awareness, both routine behaviors and imaginative power, both applied intelligence and the capacity for intuition.

This has all been brought home to me over the last couple of years through my own late-life experience of learning a new craft—or rather, learning an old craft better. I was always reasonably competent at basketball, even without any real coaching, although LeBron James definitely had nothing to fear from me. At this stage of my life, however, as my wife Jette will readily tell you, I probably shouldn’t be playing the game at all, out of respect for my aging joints and other increasingly imperfect body parts.

Nevertheless, a couple of years ago, I fell in love with the Dallas Mavericks during the NBA playoffs. In my new starry-eyed adoration of this team, I got to thinking that maybe even I could become a better basketball player. And, of course, I heard the underlying drumbeat of so many things in my life these days: if not now, when? So I submitted myself to a 26-year-old, wise-beyond-his-years coach named Andrew.

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