The Interview
Graeme Summers

On friendship, co-creativity and play

Interview with Graeme Summers by Silvia Baba Neal

The IARTA Conference is a great opportunity to meet authors whose work has has shaped how I think about TA theory and how I work. This interview dates back to the launch of Co-creative Transactional Analysis: Papers, Responses, Dialogues and Developments.

I was a little nervous approaching Graeme, hoping that I had a firm enough grasp on the more abstract concepts described in the book, in order to sustain an intelligent conversation with him. We talked about his relationship with long-term collaborator Keith Tudor, the origins of the original article on co-creativity, and the importance of flow and playfulness in therapy.  

Silvia: I am always interested in the context from which a book emerges. Why do the authors set out investigate a certain subject and write in the way they do. I loved the introduction of your book [Co-creative Transactional Analysis: Papers, Responses, Dialogues and Developments] because it gives me a good idea of what was happening in your career as a transactional analyst at the time that you started thinking about writing it. Tell me a little bit about yourself at the time when Keith approached you with the idea of writing the article “Co-creative Transactional Analysis” [originally published in the TAJ in 2000].

Graeme: It wasn’t even as clear as Keith approaching me. Part of the context, of course is that Keith and I have been friends for a long time. We did some training together, ran children’s groups together, so we had an on-going friendship. Keith’s suggestion came out of a conversation rather than a formal approach. I think we’d always chewed ideas over together.

More specifically for myself – I had been doing a foundation year training in Edinburgh [in preparation for TSTA] and I had been teaching some core-constructs to foundation year students. It was really something about the process of gathering my thoughts for that, sharing the ideas and getting people’s feedback. My sense was: We’re a bit over-focused on pathology. That was a predominant impression and thinking: You know, it’s so easy to go down this pathology route. Everyone’s got their own injuries, everyone’s got stories they tell about what's wrong with them. Is that necessarily the best way to go? Is it the only thing we should be focusing on? And then an awareness that even then there were lots of different models, different ideas about ego-states. So I asked myself: Do you teach them all? Do I have a preference? What does that look like? There are all sorts of complexities once you take one ego-state model: So what does that say about transactions and games?

For me it was probably more a search for identity really, getting to know my own mind and being interested in what made more sense to me and what does that look like if you hold that as a consistent frame across the four constructs [ego-states, transactions, games and script]. For me it was just part of my development as a trainer and being immersed in the material and wanting to draw out strands that I felt were meaningful to me.

Keith had a parallel journey, so we were both in this together chewing stuff over so the article really came out of those conversations about what seemed to make most sense to each of us, and finding overlaps. Of course, Keith even then was an experienced writer and passionate about writing, whereas I was more confident to talk than to write but I picked up the challenge and off we went. I think that’s the backdrop.

Silvia: So there were two issues that prompted you to investigate: the first one was the fact that TA language felt geared towards pathology and the other issue was the existence of multiple ego-state models.

Graeme: Yes, the multiplicity and lots of inconsistences within that – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I think it was more a search for picking out: Of all this stimulus what do I pick out as threads that make most sense to me and how might Keith and I articulate that and perhaps also excitement about some emerging themes. I was very interested in Erskine’s model [of the Adult Ego state]. I liked that a lot and it seemed somewhat at odds with the traditional TA – the idea that you might not so much be interested in healing your Child or changing your Child ego state but actually you might be interested in shrinking it!  The idea of shrinking Parent and Child was Erskine’s. We built upon that idea to propose the expansion of Adult and took it in our own direction along with some interesting ideas from Jim and Barbara Allen about constructivist perspectives.

The ideas of possibilities felt for me more rooted in present-centred and perhaps future-centred than locked in past probabilities. Both of us got captivated by that language and wanted to build upon the work of Jim and Barbara Allen’s work and unpack that across concepts. Jim and Barbara spoke mainly about scripts and we wanted to see: Can we map this out in terms of the four constructs? Would that make sense to do that? So it was a mix; pathology was one but also the idea of possibilities, the whole idea of expansion. We were both excited about that language.

Silvia: When I first read your  article published in 2000, I appreciated that you emphasised that the concept of Ego-states is a metaphor. Before that, the Ego state model was presented – - and I suppose it was to do with Berne’s project and desire for Transactional Analysis to have scientific credibility – it was presented as a model with a privileged relationship with the reality of personality development. Berne’s tactic was to make reference to Penfield’s research, which gave his speculations a sort of scientific sheen. I thought it was useful to make the point that we are talking about a metaphor – because this opened up the possibility to play with theory.

Graeme: I quite like the idea of juxtaposition. We could be talking about serious and important things, we can be exploring phenomena that matter for people and we can also be playful. It doesn’t mean that we undermine our credibility. In fact I always think that scientific method is based on educated guesses. Scientific theorising is based on: This our best guess at this point in time, given what we know. This is how we try to make sense of it. It’s provisional- by design it’s provisional. I like that rather than definite: This is how it is and this is how it isn’t. We’re always playing with constructs and sometimes in our search for some kind of certainty we lose sight of that.

Silvia: If I think about the needs of the transactional analysis community as a whole I can understand why having and sustaining metaphors that such an integral part of our inheritance and the language that makes us distinctive, that makes us stand out as a particular interpretative community – I can really see how for that reason one cannot do away with the original metaphor. So I like the fact that you hold onto this metaphor, but you also deconstruct it, play with it and take it in new directions, stretching it, like a child would do with play-dough. It gives the rest of us permission to be playful and to question.

Graeme: I hope so! And for me it’s also part of – I think TA will always stay relevant as long as we can be reflexive, as long as we can flex, as long as we can play, as long as we can say: That’s a new interesting development in the field! How can we relate to that? How can we make sense of that in terms of our TA ideas? How do we change the way in which we think about some of our TA ideas as an on-going process of updating. The question for me is: What is TA? Is TA a fixed ideology and set of constructs, or is it a flexible, adaptive body of theory and a community of thinkers who can keep integrating and keep adapting, keep questioning, keep searching and certainly that involves deconstructing and rebuilding and playing and I love the idea of the play-dough! I think it’s a lovely metaphor! Of course that’s what we must keep doing. Sometimes, in our search for certainty we want to ossify things.

Silvia: I remember that around 2003 a big debate was initiated around the question: “What are the core concepts of transactional analysis?”, and a whole issue of the TAJ was dedicated to this. It was fascinating for me reading these articles to see that a number of authors were very invested in the idea of going back to the roots – particularly those who had been there at the beginning of the TA movement, who understandably felt that this was very much their baby and wanted to preserve it in a particular form. There were other voices arguing, just as you are, that we need to incorporate new ideas and new developments, we cannot frieze the field at a particular stage. Do you think those concerns are still around or do you think we’ve moved past them?

Graeme: I think that was quite a generational debate, a generational process, but I think that, much like any other discipline we have those processes that are emotional as much as intellectual. My impression is that we’re moving actually. And I’ve witnessed at the TA Conference in San Francisco. Keith brought along Claude Steiner and they ran this workshop together. That was a really wonderful experience. The theme of [theoretical] difference was raised then and my sense was that it was a tolerable difference and I guess that we’re going to be busy with this in an on-going way in the TA community. How do we honour the founders of TA – Berne and the significant early theorists and promoters of TA - and keep it fresh and alive and welcoming of new ideas.

My sense is that we have the balance about right. I like that. I personally have not experienced any hostility. It was curious because Keith and I sent a draft of our original article to Jim Allen, who was very generous in his feedback and encouraging of us and also a little warning saying: “You know, I got some serious flack when I first put out some of my constructivist ideas. You might get the same.” As it happened, we didn’t. I suppose I would think about that as a generational process.

I personally don’t feel the need to demean anybody, or any of the earlier ideas because we stand on their shoulders and I think that we’ll keep evolving. I think the TAJ is interesting. I don’t find it traditional and I find it open to different ideas. People are integrating in their writing all sorts of different fields and finding ways of relating that to TA and evolving ideas, probably asking as many questions as offering answers. I like that; for me, that’s a lovely openness.

Silvia: My interest is in research. What I’m curious about is: What is the relationship between the models that we create and the ideas we have about how to practice and what actually happens in the therapy room. If I were watching a co-creative transactional analyst at work, what would that look like? How does co-creativity translate into practice?

Graeme: That’s an interesting question. I would be interested to know some people’s answers to that question too!

Silvia: You say in the book that you don’t want to be too prescriptive. You said that when it came to co-creativity in transactional analysis therapy you wanted to use a broad brush and let practitioners make these ideas their own. So that’s quite interesting, because it means that people might take your ideas on board and how they use them will be particular to each individual.

Graeme: I would hope so! Obviously, I would hope that people would do that in a way that would also be ethical, doing that in an informed and considered way, with supervision. I was listening to a podcast the other day and a supervisor was saying: “One of my interests as a supervisor is people working within the limits of their competence.” I was questioning that. I was thinking: “I’m not sure I agree with that.” I think that people should be working at the edge of their competence. How else are you going to learn and how else are you going to develop? There’s something interesting for me about: How do people work at the edge of their competency? Strengthening learning, developing and managing the ethical tensions of that learning process. I can’t see how you can learn anything without doing something new. So that’s an interesting question for me. It’s probably easier to research something if you say: This is how it is! You develop a protocol and then you measure the effectiveness of that protocol. I am not suggesting a protocol. (Laughs)

Silvia: Which makes it more exciting and challenging, doesn’t it! But do you think that if you were to watch someone or listen to a tape that you would be able to recognise when some was working from a co-creative stance? And what would you be looking for?

Graeme: Not necessarily. I think I might more readily recognise the co-creative perspective. That could be influenced by our work [on co-creative TA] or not – because there are many co-creative perspectives out there, we’re just exploring it from a TA perspective. Someone else might be drawing on systems theory, Gestalt and other contemporary perspectives. I might be more able to recognise it in terms of talking with the practitioner about what they are thinking about and what they’re interested in. It might be more evident in their reflection on their work. I don’t think it’s necessarily evident in behaviour.

Silvia: That’s interesting!

Graeme: I might behave in a way that might look directive or like a one-person psychological approach but I might still be thinking in a two-person co-creative way! I might be thinking that, at this point in time, we’re more likely to build relationship if I take a more directive role. And that’s certainly true in the coaching world that I’m in. If the expectations are clear that I would be directive, I might temporarily move into that because I think that’s the best way of building a relationship.

Silvia: That’s a very good point. It reminds me of the challenge of working with a client who expected me to take on the role of the expert and I was very defensively clinging onto my idea that I was going to work two-person mode and it didn’t work very well because she just wasn’t ready for that and the rationale for doing that did not make sense to her.

Graeme: From a co-creative perspective we could say that your expectations were too separate.

Silvia: That’s correct. And I was quite rigid. What you talk about in your model is the importance of flow and playfulness – moving away from a very rigid stance where therapy has got to be done in a particular way.

Graeme: Winnicott talked about this really well, I think. He was really saying psychotherapy can’t happen without play. If the client can’t play, or is not up for that then you’re almost in pre-therapy work where it’s getting the client to a place where they’re ready to play, which I like, that’s a wonderful way of looking at it! The same could be said of coaching. If someone is looking for the right answer, or wanting expert opinion for whatever reason and they’re not up for exploring their own mind and play, then my job is to find a way of building relationship with them until they can get to that point, to play with different ways of being with that person and hopefully that then can form the basis of expanding our repertoire of being with another for the client, but it may certainly not start out that way. Otherwise I’m just imposing my frame of reference. That feels paradoxically like applying a one-person psychological approach to a two-person method!

Silvia: That’s right! (We both laugh) We had Martha Stark as a guest on two IARTA online colloquia. What I think is wonderful about her and what she did for our little corner of the psychotherapy world was to give us permission to explore different modes of psychotherapeutic action. We don’t need to be rigidly ensconced in one.

Graeme: I agree. I think she communicated that really well in lots of different ways. She is stating that over and over in her book [Modes of Therapeutic Action] that there are different modes of engagement and that they all have pros and cons; they all have strengths and weaknesses. I very much appreciate that and what I like is that Martha is making a distinction about what we might do as a behavioural mode and how we might think about it. You can engage in a one-person behavioural mode and still think about it in a co-creative way, to be curious about this co-created style of relating: this is what the client is bringing as an expectation, this is how I am responding to this invitation, whether it’s in a complementary fashion, whether it’s crossing it in some way. To be conscious of it and to be curious about it is for me a way of bringing the co-creative way of thinking about what you are doing, although your behaviour might look autocratic.