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The Importance of Clientship

I believe that I have described previously the origin of the term clientship as it is used at Open Connections. Perhaps, though, a short refresher would be in order before I go on to make the point of this essay. As most of our readers know by now, I began my career working in a small consulting firm that pioneered the creative problem-solving process that they dubbed Synectics. The founders of Synectics, Inc., were inventors who became more interested in the invention process than in any particular product. And one of the reasons for this was their continual frustration at the response of clients who had paid good money to identify a solution to some technical problem or to invent an entirely new product, only to have their ideas put on a shelf to gather dust and never be implemented. 


“What’s going on here?” the Synectics folks asked and then gradually answered. They identified what they called The N.I.H. syndrome—Not Invented Here—and came to recognize what I have come to see as a universal truth: People want to feel in charge of their own lives, and that includes deciding what constitutes a solution to any dilemma they are facing. Big surprise, eh?! 


The Synectics staff decided that the best way to really help clients was to include them in the actual problem-solving sessions, and furthermore to see themselves not as working for the client so much as with them. The clients would define their goal, explain their position, identify their criteria for a solution, share their ideas (which they almost certainly had, especially if they had been trying to solve the problem for some time), and perhaps most important of all, be recognized as “the deciders”—the ones who had the ultimate decision-making authority to determine which ideas did, or did not, satisfy all of their significant concerns. 


We at OC call this type of authority “clientship.” 


When Susan and I started Open Connections in 1975, we began with the notion of supporting the right of young people to assert their clientship right from birth, and especially from age two on. British psychologist and parenting guru Penelope Leach wrote that there are three areas where parents should never do battle with their young ones: eating, sleeping and toileting. These are internal matters, she wrote, which we translated to mean their clientship. A parent’s clientship may be to decide what they serve their young person to eat, or when it’s time for a youth to withdraw from their world (e.g., go to bed), but/ and they could not determine which foods a youth liked to eat or even was willing to eat, nor when he/she would actually fall asleep. The same is true when voiding oneself, although the where was certainly within the parents’ purview. Don’t go to war over these matters, Leach advised. You’ll lose every time, because it’s their bodies, their nervous systems, their tastes, etc. that are the determinants. In other words, it’s their clientship. 


Susan and I added to these their education, their imagination, their questions and preferences for music and sports and hobbies and friends (meaning whom they choose to like and want to spend time with)…and so on. We cautioned parents against trying to force their sons and daughters into certain molds, as long as their choices didn’t come at the expense of others. (They weren’t allowed to settle disagreements through physical domination, for example.) And when we learned about the option of homeschooling/unschooling, we found that asserting our clientship as parents, and our son’s and daughters’ as youngsters, was a no-brainer in terms of how to deal with the laws concerning compulsory schooling. 


In the forty-one years since we conducted our first program for young people—a summer “camp” run out of our home in Bala-Cynwyd, three years before we opened OC in Bryn Mawr—I have had countless conversations with parents regarding the concept of clientship as it pertains to family life, to the education of our sons and daughters, and to relationships in general between individuals and between individuals and organizations, including governments. Two things have (finally?) become clear to me in the recent past: first, that an increased understanding of the concept of clientship would go a long way toward addressing many of the world’s ills, especially where the dominator mode is in place (which is almost everywhere); and second, that comprehending the concept of clientship, like all other concepts, is not transferable through instruction. It is not learned, it is developed, by each individual and by each generation. Only personal experience allows us to fully appreciate the importance of respecting clientship in others as well as exercising our own. 


I was reminded of this recently in the context of co-facilitating a parenting group at The Natural Creativity Center, where I am co-director and a lead facilitator (of the teen group). [For those of you unaware of Natural Creativity, see a brief description at the end of this piece.] During a recent Friday discussion group, one of the parents posed a question that seemed to resonate with all of the other members of the group: He asked, “How do you respond when people challenge you and your young people with regard to your choice not to go to school?” 


One of my co-facilitators suggested that what makes this situation particularly uncomfortable is when you, the parent, are insufficiently comfortable with your decision. The challenging question (or accusation!) can activate an uncomfortable part of your being, evoking your self-doubt and causing you to reconsider whether indeed you had perhaps make a bad decision. Others advised this parent to avoid such people as much as possible and instead surround oneself with like-minded individuals, at least until one became more settled and comfortable in the role of homeschooling/unschooling parent. 


When it was my turn to speak, I presented a diagram that illustrated the concept of clientship as I like to apply it in such circumstances. I drew a Venn diagram that resembled the two overlapping ropes that OC often uses with Attribute Blocks, labeling one of the sets “You” and the other “Young Person,” with maybe a 25% overlap between the two. I then put an X on the youth’s side and told the story of Penelope Leach’s advice. This was followed by an X on the parent’s side and mentioned areas where the adult has total ownership/clientship, including (especially) his/her own feelings, values, preferences and the like. In the middle were the grounds for negotiation, where both parties had some clientship and where the name of the game was to “work it out” in a way that respected the needs of all involved. (“Ok, so you want to stay up, and I want you to get some rest and for mommy and me to have some alone time. How can we both get what we want?” In other words, COLLABORATE.) 


It was at this point that the parent who asked the original question slapped his hand to his forehead as if to say, “Oh, okay, I get it now. It’s up to me to decide how I want to respond to challenges from other parents, or my in-laws, or whomever. This group can offer me suggestions, but figuring out what is a possible solution for me is my responsibility, and that’s a good thing. That decision-making is my clientship; I can’t expect others to tell me exactly what to do. I get it! And the same is true for my daughter: she will take what she can use from us, by listening to and watching us.” 


And so it goes for me, conversation after conversation, generation after generation. Each new set of parents, and each new parent, must figure out on his or her own how to present his/her choices and let others do the same. We don’t all have to agree (thankfully!). What we are better off agreeing on is our individual right to form our own paths, to make our own decisions, and to negotiate them in the context of our relationships. We shouldn’t—can’t, really— impose our views on others. An individual’s view-making process is part of their education-making process. Those who think they are in charge of others have only the illusion of control. It is far better to allow people the time and space to construct their own path forward. Think of the conflict that can avoided by such an approach! 


[With OC on a strong and steady path towards sustainability, I shifted my main focus to co-founding Natural Creativity, Inc., in 2015. My driving force for doing this was (is) my strong desire to extend the major elements of the OC approach to inner-city youth, particularly those who are underserved.]