'They can because they think they can' – the value of positive thinking

Professor Hugh Koch is interviewed by Dr Liz Boyd.

Professor Hugh Koch has had a half-century career as a psychologist in five different contexts, all considered in his recent autobiography They can because they think they can

Dr Liz Boyd is a chartered psychologist, based in Bristol in independent practice. She is experienced both as a therapist and expert witness. She asked Professor Koch about the book.

An interesting title, where did this come from?

I have always been interested in ‘thinking about thinking’ – this meta-cognitive trait has been with me from pre-teenage years carried forward with exposure to CBT, Cognitive Analytic and meditation/mindfulness techniques. I have found mental positivity and resilience has helped me to succeed and have a ‘bias for action’. I recently found an old photograph of a poster I brought my parents back from the USA in 1973 (aged 22) showing two seagulls flying free with this quote “They can because they think they can” – an interesting predictor of my career.

Cary Cooper said in his complementary foreword to Hugh’s memoirs that “this is a fascinating autobiography of one of Britain’s leading psychologists and is a journey through his life and work”. 

Much of the time I have felt empowered in my career in psychology to look for different opportunities, move towards them (by relocating, making that call, offering help) and trying out new things in order to learn new skills. Being sociable has helped me to feel empowered to do this.

You have had an intriguing and varied career with five distinct phases, could you summarise these for me?

Chronologically I have worked in the NHS largely as a therapist (1973-1986), an NHS Senior General Manager (1986-1991), a Total Quality Management Consultant (1991-1993), an Expert Witness Psychologist in Civil Litigation (1991-ongoing) and more recently as a Professor in Law and Psychology at Birmingham City University (BCU) (2017-ongoing). I have been so fortunate that the profession has offered me so much opportunity. 

Over the last three years I have been collecting ideas, letters, photographs, articles that might in true brainstorming fashion be helpful in my professional autobiographical endeavours. These, when put in order, have acted as both a comfort blanket and stimulus to the process of opening my brain in a Monty Python-esque fashion and free associating from month to month and event to event during my working life. Writing autobiographies is popular – they are a fundamental account of what it means to be in the world, personally and professionally.

Where did your interest in psychology come from?

My girlfriend at university said, “you’d be a good listener”. My father was a sociable, action-oriented man – an immigrant from Vienna (in 1938). My mother was a committed carer for friends and relatives. My parents’ experience encouraged me to consider relationship harmony. Although I went to university to study Biochemistry, I soon found that Psychology, as a body of knowledge, held my interest more.

What interested you especially in expert witness work?

With expert work, I learnt how to be logical and evidence-based and found lawyers, barristers and judges a fascinating group of colleagues. The experience of attending Court was both exciting and challenging in equal measure. Whatever the circumstances in Court, I would always ensure I had a glass (and jug) of water in the witness box as my only anxiety symptom was a very dry mouth and throat. A useful tip amongst many others provided.

Why are you so interested in ‘Giving Psychology Away’?

Right from the start, I had been encouraged to share my psychology knowledge, both theoretical and practical, with other professionals such as nurses and doctors. Throughout my various careers, I found myself sharing practical skills of communication, problem solving and ‘continuous improvement’, whether this be in life skills, organisational performance or evidential reliability. More recently, my role as Visiting Professor at BCU has centred on how lawyers and psychologists can collaborate and teach each other different skills and understanding. 

Moving from therapist to General Manager must have been a big leap?

In many ways it was but I had been operating increasingly at a large group/more macro-level, sitting on a Unit Management Group in a psychiatric hospital when ‘General Management’ came into being in 1983. Taking on a General Management role in Somerset implementing community care with a budget of £10 million and 1000 staff, three hospitals, was an exciting and very challenging role, which went well. Being a clinician/general manager was a huge advantage in this job.

Did you have to develop ‘political skills’ when you implemented Community Care in Somerset?

Yes, most definitely. This was on two fronts – internally, I needed to support and motivate my staff to implement a well-funded community care programme and liaise with district level managers and non-executives. Outwardly, I needed to work with the local and national media and occasionally Parliamentary ministers over community care and also occasional ‘adverse events’. Promoting a ‘Cinderella Service’ needed positivity and staff recognition skills time and time again. 

Give me three unusual memories.

My first therapy patient on Ward East One (Whitchurch Hospital, Cardiff) tried to burn my office down with a lit litter bin placed by my door when I was late seeing her. 

A day patient, when asked how she felt the group therapy session was going, paused and said “I suppose it’s a bit like an oxo cube dissolving in hot water”. This creatively described how amorphous and ambiguous therapy sessions can be.

When I was implementing the community care program in Somerset, the Bishop of Bath and Wells telephoned me to critically feedback how he felt about this. Once I had persuaded him of its merits and advantages to the local community he asked me to suggest a question he could ask in the House of Lords, implying what a success it was! 

Who has influenced you most?

This could be a long answer, there are so many. Top of my list today include John Crook (Bristol; meditation and zen), Barbara Dalton (Leicester; analytic therapy), Anne and Tony Carr (Leicester; CBT, professionalism and PhD supervision), John Oakland (Leeds; Total Quality), Derek Mowbray (Cheltenham; resilience at work), Cary Cooper (Manchester; organisational psychology) and Haydn Davies (Birmingham City University; collaboration between law and psychology) and many more.

What have you enjoyed most in your work on an everyday basis?

The constant stream of meeting new people both clients and colleagues plus the travel around the UK and world involved in meeting them. I have also found the opportunity to write about my experiences fascinating and stimulating.

Would you recommend a career in psychology to others or yourself, in another lifetime?

Since 1970 when I started studying and then practicing psychology, it has become a popular subject not only as university level and beyond, but also at a 6th Form level of study at school. The several different postgraduate courses have made it a very useful qualification as well as a valuable ‘general’ degree along with English, Mathematics and Engineering. Personally, I would repeat much of my career in another life. 

Coping with life and its many vagaries requires a complicated amalgam of skills but, as this book title suggests, the key quotation which has informed my confidence and self-esteem has been “they can because they think they can” – a positivity of thoughts and actions which encourage me to have a go at something new, and learn skills to help me develop and innovate.

You have certainly had a fascinating career and more importantly a career in which you say you would be happy to live all over again… that says something pretty powerful about the choices and circumstances you created for yourself. You really do practice in accordance with values you hold dear and close. There is no better accolade than that really.

- This article appeared in Expert Witness Journal in July 2021 and is reproduced here with permission. 

They can because they think they can’ Hugh Koch’s memoirs is published by ­­­­LCB Publishes and can be obtained from ­­­­­­Expert Witness £17.00 plus postage.

Linktr.ee/hughkochmemoir

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