Relationship Overviews

Using figures to talk about personal relationships

Using figures to form relationship overviews is an effective and creative way of helping people talk about their relationships and reflect over how to deal with difficulties. Not much has been written about this kind of professional work and there is a lack of method and theory about it.  This web site presents a visual model illustrating the areas of dialogue where using figures can make a helpful contribution and points out various kinds of influence that that figures have on conversations.

I hope that this website will be able to function as a forum for discourse about this way of working.

Relationship Overviews

A relationship overview is formed when a person sets out an arrangement of figures or objects that represent the people in their life.  It is not the arrangements of figures in themselves that are important, it is the way that they can open up for constructive dialogues.

Relationship overviews can be very varied in form and are suited for use  in accord with many different systemic and narrative approaches. 

Many kinds of objects, such as chess pieces, buttons or pebbles, can be used to form a small relationship overview, however a varied collection of figures is much better suited for representing a larger social context and can open for a greater range of use and approach. 

When someone sets out figures representing the people who are important to them and their life they create a visual overview of their relationships.  This is an unusual form of expression for most people and so it can bring out fresh perspectives to the dilemmas and difficulties they are facing.

Regarding a relationship overview stimulates ideas and is very effective in bringing out stories of the way people get on together and how their various relationships influence each other, seen in a larger social context. 

Making and discussing a relationship overview is an active and creative process that is good at engage people, whatever their age.  The figures arrangenments capture and focus attention and usually bring playfulness and enthusiasm to conversations. People ‘listen’ with both their ears and eyes while they are reconsidering their own understandings and those of other people who are important to their lives.

Relationship overviews can be used in all sorts of conversations, with children and adults, individuals, couples, families and groups.

Because figures can be easily be moved around, a relationship overview is a very flexibile way of in exploring alternative possibilities and points of view, well suited to dialogue.  An overview can be small, a couple or a nuclear family, or large, as when a person explores the extent of their social network.

This website looks at twelve ways that relationship overviews can contribute to conversations about relationships and at six areas of dialogue where they are particularly useful. 

A Dialogue Model for Relationship Overviews

Very little has been written about using figures in therapy or counselling and there has been no theoretical or practical model to underpin this way of working. This colourful model illustrates how using figures and making relationship overviews contributes to conversations about relationships and point out the kinds of dialogue that thay are particularly well suited for.

The inner ring is about conversational themes that are enhanced by the use of the figures.

The outer ring is about the various ways using figures can influence conversations.

The Author of This Website

This website is made by Steven Balmbra, a British family therapist who has spent most of his life, living and working in the town of Bodø in Northern Norway.

Background Informaton

I was born in Ealing, London in 1954 and I grew up in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. I trained as a psychiatric nurse at Napsbury Hospital where I was influenced by Dr. Dennis Scott's pioneering work with crisis interventions.  After a year at a community psychiatric unit in Watford I took a BSc. in Social Psychology at UWIST, Cardiff. 

Post graduate, I worked for a year and a half at Hill End Adolescent Unit led by Dr. Peter Bruggen where I was involved in running action groups and family therapy sessions.  In 1983 I moved to Bodø in the north of Norway and since then I have been employed at psychiatric department of Nordland Hospital.

I completed a training programme systemic family therapy in 1987 and have worked at the adolescent unit, the family unit, the child and adolescent out-patient department, the early psychosis team and, from 2009, at the Regional Centre for Eating Disorders. The family unit was supervised by Harry Goolishian from 1988 until 1991, and I was profoundly influenced by the problem systems narrative approach (developed into collaborative therapy by Harlene Anderson). For several years I was active in the Nordkalotta project run by Tom Andersen and I have had the privilege to be acquainted with many pioneering systemic therapists.  I have also trained in psychotherapy with children, psychodrama, multi-family therapy, cognitive therapy, and mentalization-based therapy and I have worked extensively with multi-family groups for both psychosis and severe eating disorders.  In 1997 I was accepted onto the UKCP register, but after a few years I let my membership lapse as it became clear that I would remain in Norway where family therapy is not a profession in its own right.

In 2004 I carried out a study of Norwegian therapist's exeriences of using figures in conversations and in 2014 I completed an MA in Practical Knowledge at Nord University with a paper on the use of figures, and another on leading multi-family therapy groups.

I am now semi-retired, but I work part time as a family  therapist at the local family guidance office. I have been married to Inger since 1975, we live in her hometown with two cats and a dog and we have two adult sons.  I play the harmonica in a blues band.

How I Began Using Figures in Conversations

It is now over 30 years since I started when I was working at the family unit of Nordland Hospital. I struggled to find a good way of talking with parents and younger children together. In family sessions, the children often became either bored and withdrawn or over-active and disruptive. I pondered over why it was so difficult to engage them and I realised that during these sessions I was communicating with children using words in a very adult-like fashion. I had an imagine of the words swarming over the childrens heads, hard to understand and very easy to misunderstand. I worried that I might even be adding to their confusion and risking doing more harm than good. I obviously needed to do something to communicate in a more child-friendly way.

Resolving a dilemma

I came across an article in the Journal of Family Therapy by Alison O’Brien and Penny Loudon entitled ‘Redressing the balance - involving children in family therapy’ (JoFT 1985 v7.2 81-88). They described well the dilemma I was facing and suggested several ways of using drawing and objects to include children in family sessions. I saw that when my own two boys and their friends played they usually used objects, toys and dolls to play out stories.
A colleague showed me a set of wooden figures that the Norwegian family therapist David Kvebæk had developed for working with families, based on the object relations theory, and I began to use toy figures to talk with children about their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

At the family unit in Bodø we were very fortunate to be supervised by the American family therapy professor Harold Goolishian during the last three years of his life. Together with Harlene Anderson at the Houston Galveston Institute, Harry had developed the Problem Systems Approach  (now Collaborative Therapy). They looked beyond the family members and took into consideration other significant people in active dialogue around difficult, ‘stuck’ situations and conflicts.
I realised that I needed quite a large selection of figures to use them in accordance with this approach as they needed to represent an extended social context of relatives, neighbours, friends, classmates etc.  To meet this I gathered a collection of Playmobil figures and I found that it was much easier to engange the children when I used them in family conversations.  They were calmer, better able to express themselves and the focus of the conversation stayed with them.  Although there were pauses and the pace seemed slower we still arrived quickly at important issues and dealt with them in a very direct way.

Developing a set of figures

I sometimes played board games with families at the family unit and it seemed to be a good idea to make a board for young children to place their figures on.  I based it on hexagons, rather than squares, because they boarder each other equally. The addition of visual structure seemed to work well for them.
I had previously used social network charts when talking with adolescents and so I made another board, based loosely on Bronfenbrenner's model.  Using figures made the social network charts moveable and more flexible for considering situations from differing points of view.
I also began using the figures to set out 3-dimensional genograms for children, after they had been drawn on paper with their parents in previous sessions. 
Other systemic narrative approaches also influenced work at the family unit: circular questioning, reflective processes, externalizing problems and a solution focus and I added various bits and pieces to the figure set to accommodate to these.

Eventually I put everything into a case and named it Family Dialogue Set.  Between 1991 and 2011, I produced over 200 copies of the set and it was used by therapists, counsellors and child protection workers throughout Scandinavia.

A lack of theory

Even though purpose-made figure sets have been available, it seems to me that a theoretical model for working with figures has been lacking.  This has meant that a very effective way of helping children and families, adults and groups communicate about their relationships has been largely overlooked in family therapy literature.  My purpose in setting up this website is to contribute to getting this ball rolling by proposing a model illustrating the potentials in the use of figures in dialogic practice.

Contributions are Very Welcome

My intention is that this website can function as forum for discussion about the use of figures in talking about relationships.  I am planning to include a blog with contributions other counsellors and therapists your thoughts and examples of this way of working will be very welcome.  If you register your e-mail, I will be able to keep in touch and send information about news, updates, etc.  I will not share your details. 

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