The popcorn of therapy

I’ve been re-reading some of A General Theory of Love and came upon this pithy line in the context of a dicussion of what really works in therapy:

Patients are often hungry for explanations because they are used to thinking that neocortical contraptions like explication will help them. But insight is the popcorn of therapy. When patient and therapist go together, the irreducible reality of their mutual journey, is the movie.

I love that idea insight is the popcorn of therapy and I think it touches on a truth for many other contexts. Our culture seems to prize clever insights, but I think these are often fairly superficial excitements at a mental level. What’s going on underneath is more mysterious and profound.

In facilitation, it’s tempting to offer clever insights instead of being willing to join people in their journey through unknown territory.

I think this relates, in a way I can’t quite articulate, to this paper I’ve been revisiting on Wicked Problems with this thought:

…humans are oriented more toward learning (a process that leaves us changed) than toward problem solving (a process focused on changing our surroundings).

If we over-direct a meeting we aim to move it to problem-solving – getting to a specified destination in predictable steps. If we allow people simply to engage with the material and go with what interests them, we facilitate learning – and, I suspect, support the creation of relationship and not more popcorn.

7 thoughts on “The popcorn of therapy

  1. annette

    That’s a great concept! There’s a palpable shift in the room when insight happens…It’s almost visceral – like all of the stuff you’ve been struggling with coming together and then dissolving all at once..And there’s a quality of silence that’s quite profound. I love it when that happens with groups with whom I am working. I don’t think you can get that if you offer clever interpretations, it’s directly related to the quality of the struggle.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks, Annette. I think you’ve pointed to a different sense of the word insight used in the context you refer to… a somatic, felt response, like a collective sigh of relief. I’d distinguish that from the “popcorn” of an idea that’s exciting intellectually but lacks that deeper resonance.

    It’s almost as though the intellectual idea is the byproduct of what the authors of the General Theory might see as a resonance of the limbic (more primal, mammalian) brain.

  3. Graham Hill


    If you followed current debates in Psychotherapy you would recognise the rise of goal-oriented Psychotherapy of the kind developed by the late Milton Erickson, at the expense of traditional Psychotherapy. Too much of traditional Psychotherapy has been little short of endlessly going round the houses without ever achieving more than a sense that doing so was OK.

    The same thoughts apply to facilitation. Whilst shared-insight generation is very important early in the facilitation process, it does need to be turned to practical use as soon as practicable so that the group can move on.

    Sometimes a short movie with popcorn is far preferable to a long movie without. Unless you are paid by the hour to show movies of course.

    Graham Hill

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Annette: Yes, you’re so right… you say tomato etc etc 🙂

    Graham: Thanks for some pushback and challenge. As usual, you’ve encouraged me to think a bit more about a post and try to get a bit clearer about what I’m trying to say.

    I do follow those debates – indeed a few years ago I trained quite extensively in goal-orientated therapy. I find it works well in some contexts. And people like Alan Deutchsman have produced fairly strong evidence that the strongest determinant of success in therapy is not technique but particular qualities of relationship. (Well summarised by Rob Paterson here.)

    You make a point about facilitation and the need to go to practical uses fairly soon so that the group can move on. I generally find that groups are pretty good at moving to practical actions when some kind of shared understanding is created – but I think it’s important to get a shared understanding that it isn’t purely intellectual; something that is felt.

    My post was really about overvaluing “insight” which just hangs there looking clever but doesn’t further change. In the context of therapy, that would stand for lots of explication to the client of what they’re doing/feeling that the client might get intellectually but which may not get processed more deeply – some might talk about the limbic brain, others about the heart. (The language is loaded I know)

    So with facilitation, I think one of the biggest pitfalls is the hurried “agreeement” to action points when people’s heart isn’t really in it. You then get a superficially successful meeting which doesn’t lead on to very much. That (at the risk of labouring the analogy) is the popcorn.

    Ultimately, the supposed dichotomy between action and talk/relationship is false. They are intimately linked. Many of the most engaging conversations have merged seamlessly into action. And some great conversations often begin among people engaged in physical activity (I won’t labour that point…)

    So I’m wary of thinking meetings have to go to some kind of schedule where we relate for a bit, then we do action. I think there’s a pulsation, much like the beating of the heart.

    I also think that we need to allow groups to work in multiple ways. The great thing about Open Space processes is that they allow some people to get very action-orientated and others to be more reflective. And to move freely between the orientations.

    Your phrase “moving the group on” tends to trigger an amber light for me. It might suggest the whole group has to be on the same schedule. Whilst it’s great if everyone does end up moving as one, let’s not force it. I’m also quite sensitive to calls to “move the group” which might be more better expressed as “I’m feeling impatient.” or “I’m really keen to do this – would anyone else like to join me in getting this going?”

    As ever, I’m aware of making generalisations that can only be of limited value – thanks again for engaging and encouraging me to elaborate a bit.


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