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One on one... with Sue Llewelyn

‘We underestimate the power of listening’

17 March 2015

One right decision
Becoming a clinical psychologist, which has given me a hugely interesting professional life. I have worked both as a clinician, which has allowed me to get to know about the lives of people from all parts of society, and as an academic, which has given me the chance to think, research, teach and talk with people from all over the world about mental health, and how best to help people when things go wrong for them.

One wrong decision
Not paying enough attention to things I found difficult, like some of my statistics lectures and the finer points of IT. There is also so much in psychology that I did not learn properly, and that would have enriched my understanding of life. This also applies to other areas too, as I wish I had spent more time learning about history, music, science and literature.

One guiding principle from psychology
Very simple, the power of positive reinforcement. It always amazes me how, despite what we know in theory, in practice we tend to underestimate the power of listening to people,encouraging them, valuing them and thanking them. My own research on what is helpful in psychological therapy highlighted the importance for clients of discovering a new understanding, made possible within the context of a supportive relationship. As a teacher and trainer I have always also tried to work from strengths and to building confidence to learn amongst my students.

One lesson learned the hard way
No matter how much you want to help someone, they have to learn to help themselves; you can’t do It for them. That applies to trainees, students, clients, colleagues and family.

One regret about clinical psychology
That we are somewhat professionally isolated; we think too much of ourselves, and insist on the special-ness of our viewpoint. We would have so much more influence if we worked more closely with colleagues like nurses and medical colleagues, seeing their problems as our problems and bringing in psychological thinking as a core part of health care.

One psychologist you admire
So many to choose from… In the early years of my career I was hugely influenced by David Smail, who showed how important macro social forces are in promoting unhappiness, and how corrosive the forces of inequality and engineered envy are for human happiness. But I must also give mentions to Glenys Parry, who helped me start to understand gender issues; Bill Stiles, who inspired me into the wonderful world of psychotherapy process research; and John Hall who has nudged me into several sensible career directions.

One underrated psychologist who has influenced you
George Kelly. His personal construct theory is a truly psychological theory that pre-dated cognitive psychology but that had the potential to integrate emotion and cognition. Sadly it has had less exposure than it deserves following Kelly’s untimely death in the 1950s. But his ideas have a place in CAT, which I subsequently found to be a really helpful integration of therapeutic approaches.

One thing you are proud of
Having had an opportunity to do what I really wanted to do in Oxford, which was to build a team and a postgraduate training course that would act as a secure and safe base from which staff and trainees could develop (using a ’Good Enough’ model). People would enjoy their work, take risks, have fun but always act with zero tolerance of disrespectful or unprofessional behaviour. I firmly believe that unhappy and stressed staff can’t provide consistent or quality care for patients, so I wanted to build a place where we could help people develop their potential without being frightened, shamed or blamed. That is also what I have tried to do in my NHS organisational work, by improving team performance and strengthening collaborative leadership.

One memorable patient
I recall working for months with a family who had not been able to bond emotionally with their fourth baby boy (when a baby girl had been desperately wanted). The team provided scores of hours of clinical input, all to no avail. The problem was, however, quickly resolved after the baby was entered by the mother into a seaside beautiful baby contest, and won, easily beating the 10 other baby girl contestants. Taught me humility about my therapeutic reach!

One hope for the future
Having worked in the NHS/university sector for 40 years I am looking forward to discovering the other parts of life that I have sadly neglected in trying to be a good psychologist, like music, literature, science and history.

- Sue Llewelyn is Professor of Clinical Psychology and Fellow, Harris Manchester College, Oxford University