Report on Workshop by Dr Karl Tomm

On May 13th last, some 60 family therapists from all over Ireland gathered at the Davenport Hotel in Dublin to engage in a two-day workshop lead by Dr Karl Tomm.

Mara de Lacy welcoming Dr Karl Tomm

Familiar to all of us for his seminal work in developing particular styles of therapeutic engagement, for example, interventive interviewing and the use of the’ internalised other,’ Karl presented an enthralling, challenging and, as many of those present will attest, a very moving learning experience.

As director of the Family Therapy Programme in Calgary, Canada for over 35 years, Karl is internationally recognised not only as a family therapist, innovator, theorist and trainer, but also as a leader in facilitating dialogues among many of the world’s family therapists.

It was this facilitative quality, an embodiment of connection, coherence, openness and compassion that made the workshop such a significant and memorable event for those present.

The first day of the workshop was devoted to an exploration of how to open spaces for reconciliation through apology and forgiveness, themes that have a particular resonance not only in our personal and therapeutic contexts, but also in the wider contexts of national identity and international relationships.

As well as presenting theoretical frameworks within which to consider these themes, Karl also shared aspects of his clinical work with us, honouring the experiences of two clients whose stories had informed his understanding of the challenges involved in reaching a position where an apology can be made and accepted, forgiveness granted and reconciliation achieved.

Karl encouraged us to view reconciliation as ‘an interpersonal achievement,’ quoting the poet William Blake who wrote ‘Mutual forgiveness of each vice/Such are the Gates of Paradise.’

Our second day together focused on deconstructing shame and guilt, with Karl guiding us through a process of reflection and a sequence of questions that could shape a creative and effective therapeutic conversation. This culminated in our viewing a video tape of a couples session recorded, with the couple’s permission, at the Calgary clinic.

It proved an extremely valuable learning experience, an opportunity to witness a synthesis of theory and practice in a therapeutic space where each person was heard and validated, Karl privileging the voices of the clients, helping them to express the hitherto unspoken and affirming their resilience.

While it could be suggested that the themes with which we engaged over the two days emanate from the darker reaches of the human psyche, with the attendant assumption, therefore, that a pall of gloom hung heavy over the participants, I am happy to report that the opposite was the case.

Thanks to his energy, curiosity, humility, humour and candour, Karl created a space for us where light was shone on challenging material, where his and our experiences were illuminated by engagement and reflection. There was space created for understanding and confusion, for sadness and laughter, for the expressed and the unexpressed.

There was space to learn in the quietness of ones own mind and in the challenge of group discussion, space to reflect on personal and professional issues, space in which to construct new stories.

Appreciation must go to our colleague Mara de Lacy for creating this opportunity for us and to Karl Tomm for coming to Dublin and sharing his experiences with us in such a meaningful way.