Human Givens – a therapy without a heart?

A bullets 12black loops on green aa-img028_crHuman Givens Therapy – a critique

Human Givens therapy is a rich eclectic toolkit of techniques from various types of therapy which have been supported by academic research. Of all the therapies discussed here, it is with CBT perhaps the one most rooted in theoretical academic psychology. Though its founders call it a “new therapy”, I would not call it new in the radical way that Family Constellation therapy or Solution-Oriented Therapy is. A considerable amount of the actual techniques seem to be drawn from, or amount to, hypnotherapy, NLP and CBT. What is new, and valuable, is that they have succeeded in placing these tools in the hands of a wide variety of mainstream practitioners who previously used less effective methods.

The Human Givens attitude is that no existing therapy is complete on its own, and that’s right. They have identified underlying principles of abstract psychological theory which they claim underlie successful therapies, and constructed a synthesis. They also emphasise stepping back from specific problems to look broadly at  “are you getting your needs met?” Again, that’s right. Its founders, Joe Griffin And Ivan Tyrrel, have among other things identified from psychological research a list of obvious human needs which they call “human givens” and have created an integrative synthesis of therapy techniques, based around getting these needs met without the need for much inner exploration. Such exploration they broad-brush largely condemn as “introspection” and to be avoided.

In addition, they take a valuable step beyond CBT by recognising the importance of emotion. But they regard this with regrettable sweeping simplification as something always bad and to be got rid of.

So it’s a highly action-oriented storehouse of useful techniques in a clear framework of what works for, basically, Type 1 therapy on my classification above. In that respect it is, as is solution-oriented therapy, a power for good in the world of counselling and social work, where a surprising amount of what is done just does not work at all.

But where is the heart?

However, I confess to not having the enthusiasm for Human Givens all this might seem to deserve. Partly that is their simplified and hugely incomplete dismissal of introspection and emotions. But there is more. If you read other parts of this guide, you’ll know that I am interested in the overall vision of humanity which a therapy school holds. And something, it’s hard to put into words, some vibe or poetry about their work stops me falling in love with Human Givens.

One thing is that in their book Griffin and Tyrrell seem to regard the valid way of knowing, from which therapy is to be developed, as theoretical academic research and intellectual argument. But there are other ways of knowing – the heart, the intuition. It deeply troubles me that a form of therapy claiming to liberate the human condition appears to place so little value on the knowing which comes from the heart and the intuition. Of course, these forms of knowing are not valued within university psychology departments (studied yes, but as part of the operation of the department, stamped out.) Yet to me, in therapy these must have primacy. Carl Rogers, Alexander Lowen, Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir, Insoo Kim Berg and Bert Hellinger first developed their therapies from their heart and their intuition, then validated them by research. This feels right to me.

Psychologists telling you how to live

Then, there is to me a quality of exalting the psychologist as expert. In Human Givens, change comes because the expert tells the person to get their needs met and teaches them how to do it. I’m not quoting directly from Griffin and Tyrrell here, but the subtext that to me comes across from their book is: “Psychology knows your needs, psychology can tell you how to get them met.” Now of course this has an element truth for any therapy, especially with certain client groups. And yet, and yet. Carl Rogers, or the Solution-oriented school, have made such radical and courageous experiments in recognising the client as the expert in their own lives. This radicalism seems to have passed Human Givens by. In Human Givens it is firmly the therapist who is the expert in the client’s life. For me, while there may well be a first stage like this in any therapy, a further message has to be present. This is the subtext to the client, “Look into your own heart and you will find all the answers you need.” Personally, I cannot locate this in the book Human Givens. All I can find is intellectual knowledge flowing from academic research into the therapy expert, who then therapises the client. In my belief what the world needs is power returned to the human heart, not to intellectual psychology and not to any expert cadre within society.

Remember, all the appreciations of therapy on this page are just my personal opinion. In everyday application by its practitioners, there is very much which is excellent about the Human Givens approach. In some contexts, Griffin and Tyrrel’s work will be a revelation (as is Solution-oriented therapy) and will no doubt benefit many people. All I can say is that just as I aim to inspire others to trust their hearts, I trust my own heart. And, somewhere, somehow, despite what they have achieved, in reading Griffin and Tyrrel’s book, my heart does not fall in love with their work.


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