‘Psychologists must consistently argue for human beings’

Ian Florance interviews Alison Clarke who, among many other roles, is Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Practice Board.

Alison is working within the British Psychological Society to set up accreditation of coaching psychology courses and recognition for coaches. She is an enthusiastic promoter of the Society (‘Getting more involved was one of the best things I ever did’); a very clear thinker about what psychology is and should be; and she’s a coaching psychologist and Chair of the Practice Board. Her readiness to question the status quo reflects her unconventional route into psychology.

I started by asking Alison Clarke why members should be interested in the Society’s Practice Board. ‘Well, apart from anything else it’s responsible for the Practice Guidelines, one of the two cornerstone documents of the Society alongside the Code of Ethics and Conduct. Any practitioner member of the Society, whatever division they’re in, has to know, understand and work to these.’ This links in to one of Alison’s concerns. The Board’s purpose is ‘to promote excellence in psychological practice so that everyone can access evidence-based psychological interventions to enhance their lives, organisations, communities and wider society.’ ‘So’ says Alison, ‘The Board is tasked with developing a strategy which crosses divisions. The Society has been criticised for becoming a collection of divisional silos and the Board must overcome that. That’s why we’ve been changing its terms of reference and way of working. We’re trying to be less driven by divisional competition and more by members’ broader concerns. The present Practice Board is built round collaborative, enthusiastic volunteers who want to develop psychology and psychologists’ lives.’

Can you give a concrete example of the sorts of areas you could address? ‘Psychologists working in the NHS spring to mind. Budget pressures and the widespread influence of a reductionist medical model on public expectations, among other factors, are constraining psychologists working in the NHS. GPs who refer clients to psychologists often have no training in psychology and may reinforce the biomedical view, clouding what the real issues for that patient may be. How can you solve a problem before you identify it accurately? From the start it is a disempowering experience for the patient. This is all happening at a time when the media are full of talk about a mental health crisis in society, in which the problem is often sited within the person rather than in many societal structures and policies which increasingly pressurise individuals. Whatever your take on the details of this analysis you’d probably see why many psychologists want a different way of working, and that must be a concern of the Practice Board. But, as I say, that’s just one example.’

‘It’s not about watering down standards…’
I was told you were doing work on coaching and coaching psychology, an area you’re very involved in outside your work in the Society. ‘The work of coaches and coaching psychologists overlap. There are several international accreditation bodies for coaches but it’s an unregulated activity with huge variations in quality standards. At the moment the Society has a special group rather than a division for coaching psychology. This allows people without a psychology degree to join as associate members but without voting rights. We want to replace this with a division for coaching psychology, which can create a career pathway for coaching psychologists up to chartered status that the public recognise as a quality assurance mark. We’re building draft standards with entry, intermediate and chartered levels. Coaches without previously held psychology qualifications should be able to become full members once they’ve attended accredited courses and know and act on the two documents I mentioned earlier – the Practice Guidelines and the Code of Ethics. CPD and supervision will be critical here. We’ve a long way to go in all this but the ultimate vision is that the Society should be the barometer for UK coaching standards because we believe that the best coaching stands on a sound foundation of psychological knowledge. It’s not about watering down standards but about improving access and extending the Society’s influence and the diversity of its approaches. We see this as a pretty critical initiative which could influence the Society’s future vision and strategy more widely.’

‘I introduce myself as a heretic’
How did Alison get to where she is now? ‘My paternal grandfather built the engines in the Titanic class of vessels in the Belfast shipyards. It was the heart of loyalist East Belfast. I believe that my tendency to challenge received opinion reflects a reaction to the pressure to conform I experienced as a child. I introduce myself as a heretic, and the price of being a heretic is that you tend to get thrown out. Some of those early experiences have influenced me throughout my life. Several come to mind. My Mum and Dad missed by seconds getting blown up in a no warning City Centre bombing. Then, I was a scholarship pupil at what some others considered a rather posh school. The police had to protect us as we waited at the bus stop to go home. And, in turn the army had to protect them, so you had this extraordinary situation of kids protected by police protected by the army because of our school uniform. Events like that, driven by division, have affected how I approach things. Living in a society with two sides, both of whom were sure they were right and were intent on proving their rightness, I refused to take sides.’

How did Alison get interested in psychology? ‘My Aunt gave birth to a baby girl with Downs Syndrome when I was 11. I became her godmother. It may sound naïve but it started me thinking “I want to do good… and particularly for people with intellectual disabilities”.’ Alison studied a degree in psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, which she enjoyed hugely. She feels the biggest single influence on her was studying the history and philosophy of science; ‘my first formal encounter with other heretics.’

Alison describes a rather troubled period in which a gap opened up between her parents and herself and ‘I struggled to work out what I was going to do or be. But I married young and we shared a desire to travel. My husband got a job at the European Commission. When we separated, I stayed in Brussels and reinvented myself. Before Brussels I’d worked in the sales force for Proctor and Gamble but it wasn’t the environment for me. In Brussels I joined Management Centre Europe, the European arm of the American Management Association. Having said at my interview that I could touch type I had to master that skill in a weekend, then joined them as a conference organiser. This enabled me to network with many heads of European industry who were speakers at our conferences.’

Alison’s career covers a huge number of roles from business process engineering with large corporates (‘the problem was always how management worked with workers, not about systems’) to becoming chair of the economic committee of the Northern Ireland Group in Brussels. She also trained in careers counselling. I asked her to pick out some highlights of her career that still influence her.

‘Between finals and starting work my neighbour – a teacher – was looking for help to take groups of underprivileged children away for holidays. I got involved, did some cooking. I remember a fishing trip to Ardglass with children who’d never seen cows before. I loved the children and was inspired by what we could achieve with them in only five days. That work taught me that you have to love what you work with – a lesson I’ve used in much of my business/leadership consulting. You have to care about what you are setting out to achieve and that includes the people you are working with.’

‘I really started coaching in work for the International Fund for Ireland which brought groups of young people from both communities to a foreign country for professional development. It was exhilarating to see young people growing and achieving their goals.’

‘Another experience was one of failure. During the banking crisis, the business I was involved in took a hammering and was no longer tenable. I learnt a lot, not least about facing a genuine personal crisis and about coaching distressed colleagues and, in some ways, this led directly to my getting more involved in the Society and my work with the Practice Board.’

Now Alison runs her own executive coaching business, with a sideline in transforming fear of flying. Her website at www.alisonclarkecoach.com gives a vivid picture of the areas coaching affects and also details of Alison’s skills and experiences.

Creating a 21st century model of psychology
Alison plainly questions the status quo and is wary of doing things the accepted ways. She brings wide experience of both coaching and business to her role in the Society. She’s a graduate in psychology: why did she never think of specialising in, say, occupational psychology? ‘That area was too bound up for me with a reductionist view of people, particularly in its use of psychometrics which I believe, in their present form, are a redundant way of looking at human beings. I’m a George Kelly girl, persuaded by the value of personal construct theory. I would like to have the opportunity to become a Chartered Coaching Psychologist with the qualifications and experience I have – and I know a lot of other people would like this too.’

Do you think psychologists should have more experience in relevant areas when they are training or even before?

‘I think you have to go back further and ask basic questions. What is psychology? What is its most useful focus? What is it to be human? This might seem naïve but I think we face a major and exciting task: taking the hybrid model of 20th century psychology and creating a new and better model for this century: one which has the well-being of human beings at the heart of it: psychologists must consistently argue for human beings.’

You’ve used words such as reductionist to describe some approaches to psychology. ‘I think it’s clear that many coaching psychologists are suspicious of scientifically reductionist approaches to the human being. I’m no different. But I’m absolutely committed to the idea that practice must be based on evidence of what is demonstrably workable.’

This article can only give a sample of the topics we covered over four hours – though they did include music of all kinds and a shared love of the Archers! But it’s going to be interesting to see how Alison’s work bears fruit. As she comments: ‘From my first consulting project I realised that the barrier to performance was fear. Addressing fear addresses underperformance. I sometimes think we as a profession are fearful of change: if we address that, we will serve our clients better.’

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber