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‘Profile is key to our influence’

Nicola Gale is the incoming President of the British Psychological Society.

03 April 2017

One inspiration
Some of our famous novelists were pretty good psychologists, and as an early avid reader of historical novels I was enthralled by their psychological studies of individual character, family dynamics, and structural relationships in society. Then on my path into psychology from business, as director of organisational development and training in a professional services firm, we knew what was often missing was listening, understanding and responding to the real story clients were telling. The work of Carl Rogers was a revelation to me, and using and training those client-centred consulting skills – rather than selling the pre-prepared system or solution – was invaluable in that context.

Equally important though are inspirations from other walks of life. I am a keen gardener, and gardeners will know it is the 200th anniversary this year of the birth of Joseph Dalton Hooker. He was one of the early and most famous directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a medical doctor, scientist, plant collector, traveller, political influencer and collaborator with Charles Darwin. The inspiration for me from these polymaths of an earlier era is the range of knowledge and intellectual capability they brought to bear on producing cutting-edge scientific research and advancing their professions.   

One moment that changed the course of my career
There have been several as my career morphed through accountancy, consultancy, organisational development and training, training in psychology on one of the first Society-accredited counselling psychology MSc and post MSc programmes in the mid-1990s, to the NHS and academic life. But starting to find the British Psychological Society interesting was the beginning of my path to being our President! When I was studying, I didn’t know what the Society did beyond being the place one sent membership applications off to; once qualified it seemed to have limited relevance. I had no sense it was something that I would become involved with. Then someone told me about a group of counselling psychologists working in organisational settings, and as I was clinical lead for an NHS occupational health psychology service, it grabbed my interest. Next, as Chair of Council, I worked with all our Branches, Divisions, Sections and Special Groups, and together we started making a real difference to our future.   

One challenge psychology faces
At the same time to both give our discipline away and differentiate ourselves so we are the go-to profession to solve complex problems. We want to make the public at large more psychologically attuned, so that (in the words of the impact statement that was developed by our Board of Trustees), ‘People are equipped with the everyday psychological skills and knowledge to navigate a complex world, knowing themselves and others better.  Everyone can access evidence-based psychology to enhance their lives, communities and wider society.’ To do this effectively, though, we need also to create some clear water in the minds of the public, policy makers, the media, in terms of what psychologists and our evidence-based psychology can bring to the table. And that is something I am putting on my to-do list as President.

We need too, to work closely with our European and international colleagues, and for us in the BPS this largely means the European Federation of Psychologists Associations, and the International Union of Psychological Science. 2017 is the year of the 15th European Congress of Psychology, which will be in Amsterdam in July and is an opportunity for us to showcase our science and practice.  

One thing you would change about psychology
Have us collaborate more, bring together our shared but different experiences and expertise to solve the complex problems that face society. I should perhaps say collaborate ‘even more’ because there are some fantastic examples in the Society of cross-disciplinary work that is using our discipline to foster change; for example in public policy across the nations, in health and care services working in partnership with service users/ experts by experience, in the workplace, in giving our children and young people a good start in life, supporting people across the span of life; and through this, engaging our students and graduates in psychology. Sometimes though we can allow internal differences to get in the way of that. I will be driving forward the development of our Society to support this work, as a core part of the strategic plan for the Society and a major focus of our structural review.  

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Think about what inspires you, where you think you could make a difference, how you want to work, what sort of context means something to you, how you would want to be remembered. What are you already good at? What transferable skills and interests do you have?  Then take some steps along the way. There will be many possible routes, and the opportunities that present may not always be the obvious ones. So don’t pass up the opportunity to give something a go. In the Society we know it is not all plain sailing and we are looking at what can be done about some of the blocks and barriers. Our Presidential Task Force on training is looking at how we can enhance our training, and it’s at the early stages of developing a vision for Modernising Psychological Careers for the next generation. Do ask for support and help; in my estimation psychologists are generous with their time for and encouragement of people starting out in the field.  

One important lesson from history
Every year there are important anniversaries, all will resonate with us in different ways and we will take different things from them. For example, 2018 will bring us the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War; of women’s suffrage and the Representation of the People Act 1918 which enabled all men and some women to vote for the first time in the UK; of the birth of Nelson Mandela. We can relate these and no doubt many others to how psychology has helped move humanity forward, in building cooperation and unity;
in promoting and celebrating equality, diversity and social inclusion; and in so many other ways. Such events are also a spur to take stock and assess what major tasks remain.  

We are working with many like-minded scientific, professional and service-user-focused organisations through memoranda of cooperation and informally to take forward our strategic agenda. Within our Society, I have referred above to enhancing our collaboration and joint working. Many psychologists are passionately engaged in social justice work, and our work needs to reach and engage marginalised groups. For our Society, an important milestone is our own Declaration on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – I’m looking forward to fostering its adoption across the Society.  

Profile is key to our influence. I am working with our Chief Executive and other colleagues to bid to host the European Semester for 2018. If successful, this is an opportunity for six months to shine the spotlight on how our science and practice across the range of our discipline can enhance lives, communities and wider society; through our annual and network conferences and other scientific and practitioner meetings and events; media exposure; hosting issue-focused working meetings of leading psychologists from across Europe, and the Presidents’ Council of EFPA.

One final thought
We all need ways to keep our feet on the ground, and for me this spring it is going to include working on my allotment and long walks with my dog (a rescue dog whom I brought back from Andalusia), and by the time you read this I will have been on a family history First and Second World War memorial trip through France, Belgium and Germany. 

- Read Nicola's first 'President's Letter'.