Helena Clayton | OD as a healing profession



OD as a healing profession

23 Apr 2022, Posted by Helena Clayton in Monthly Blog

In this blog, I wonder out loud about considering OD as a ‘healing’ role.  It’s often considered as part of the helping professions.  Does that include a role in healing?

The definition of healing: ‘to make whole again’ and often includes a therapeutic component as well as spiritual dimension.

The jumping off point for this piece was an article about healing in the medical profession and the quotes are from that article. 


 ‘The only medical definition of healing is curing a disease

Sometimes, OD is positioned as finding out what’s wrong and then fixing that problem and putting things right.

There’s something of value in that, of course. Sometimes there IS something wrong that needs putting right.  A pathological lens can sometimes be both helpful and accurate.

To what extent is that the lens for your own practice? How many of us get enormous value and self esteem from curing something in an organisation? Also, how many of us adopt a diagnostic approach to OD and then retain that metaphor when it might be more helpful to let it go?

This is perhaps a doctor metaphor for OD.  In what ways do you operate like a doctor, show up like a doctor?  What does doctor say to you?  It has some heroic connotations for me.  And part of me is drawn to that – I can come in and help mend something that’s broken. Similar for you?

Healing gets more attention in the nursing literature’

Healing seems to be more associated with nurses than doctors.  As an OD practitioner do you see yourself more like a nurse?  Which role do you prefer and why?  Do you have any negative reactions to being more like a nurse in your practice and if so, why is that? What aspects of your practice align with doctor, and what aligns more with nurse?

If you adopted nurse as a metaphor for your practice, what would be the underlying assumptions of your practice?  How is that different from now? What would you be doing, in practice? How might you be showing up?  And how might your practice benefit?

What reaction do you have to the gender stereotypes attached to these labels?  Is there anything off-putting to you about being associated more with a ‘nurse that heals’ rather than a ‘doctor that cures’?

‘We can heal even though there is still illness in the body’

This implies that healing is separate from the events that might happen to us.  It implies that whether we continue to suffer from illness or trauma, there is still healing that can be done. In part, I think this is about the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening to us – and the meaning we make of something, the meaning we ascribe to it. There’s something spiritual here too – finding ways to transcend or rise above something.

As a practitioner, do you feel that your practice does enough with story-telling and meaning-making?  And how comfortable are you with the idea that your role might have a spiritual dimension?  In what ways have you seen healing take place in a system where there is still illness or trauma?  What is the illness in your organisation, and what might it take to transcend it?

‘Healing is as much about regeneration as it is about repair’

Yes, we can mend the potholes in the road.  But in OD we’re also (if I can try and extend that metaphor) helping to create new roads, and new road surfaces that don’t develop potholes. We’re seeking to re-oxygenate and to put more back in than we take out.

Do what extent do you do that?  Where do you repair – and in what ways does your practice support regeneration?

‘Holistic healing is seen as the domain of alternative medicine’

Earlier, we looked at the role of doctor and nurse, very much part of our traditional medical model.  Now we’re invited to think about mainstream and alternative – traditional and alternative.

Where’s your practice?  Are you mostly practicing from a traditional paradigm?  How much of the alternative do you draw on?  What would ‘the alternative’ even be, in relation to OD, and for you personally? What do you imagine it would cost OD (or you as a practitioner/person) to risk aligning with more alternative approaches?  Can you risk looking different, or being considered alternative?

‘The wounded healer’

We don’t have to be perfect  – or fully healed ourselves – to be of (healing) help to others.  In fact, it’s often the ways that we ourselves are flawed and wounded that help us develop an empathic and compassionate connection to someone else.  It’s often because we know what it means to try and work on our own healing – or know the ways that trauma CAN be healed by some very simple human interventions – that mean we have the confidence to step into a role of healing within organisational systems.

Do you know your own childhood wounds?  What have you done (what are you still doing) to work with those and help yourself heal?  How are those wounds or trauma gifts to your OD work or your helping roles?  What’s your attitude to other people’s wounds?  And how much of your OD practice explicitly addresses the individual or collective trauma in the system you’re working with?


Any actions?

I suppose this makes me think about whether we can aim for organisational health (increasingly a stated aim) unless we also have an understanding of what it takes to heal?  Can we aspire to cultivate healthy systems unless we have experience of or at least have some knowledge of practices that might contribute to healing?   Is it at all helpful or even ethical to use the noun without the active verb that will help us get to a place of healing.

So what might we need to do (do more of) for our OD practice to incorporate the notion of and the practices of healing?  A few things come to mind:

Pain and struggle

Get more comfortable with pain, struggle, suffering. As much as I love a strengths-based approach and get so much value from Appreciative Inquiry practices, we also need to be comfortable asking people about ‘talk to me about what’s really going on for you’ (‘what ails you…?’) and stay steady and well-regulated when people tell you (all of) what’s really going on for them.  We need to not be ‘hooked’ by our own triggers into our own pain. To misquote the poem The Invitation, I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to  hide it, fade it or fix it.


Specifically, get more skilled and knowledgeable about trauma – both individual and collective – and how that shows up in our bodies and minds.  And learn more about how to deal with and heal trauma so our OD work can be informed by that. It seems to me that collective trauma is building powerfully in our system at the moment and we will need to know what to do when it really starts to show up.

Deep Listening and Bearing Witness

Once we’ve invited people to tell us how they really are, then we have to develop our capacity to listen, not interrupt, not problem solve or try to fix. Not coach. But simply to hold the space and bear witness to people’s fears and anxieties, stresses and traumas. Our ability to sit and listen beyond our tolerance level is one that is sorely needed.  To be properly listened to – and to know that we are held and seen and contained in that, and that everything is welcome –  is deeply healing.


Help people develop their sense-making and meaning-making capacities so that we learn to see our experiences from a range of perspectives. Have you heard the phrase ‘the more I tell my story the less it tells me’?  When we are able to talk about our past and about what’s happened to us in a way that makes it ‘object’ then we become less ‘subject to it’ and its power over us diminishes.

Include a ‘healing’ lens

Get into the habit of asking ‘and what be unhealed here’ or ‘what here might need some help to heal?’  You may never need to utter those words aloud.  but to have it as an internal leans might helps us see things that need a different sort of attention and intervention.

‘The past is always present’

Much healing work involves going back into our pasts. So we need to be willing – and get skilled in – exploring our pasts.  An individual’s past but also the back story of a team or an organisation.  We’ve had a distinction in 1:1 work between therapy and coaching with many coaches fearful of going near the past in case it unearths something they don’t feel skilled to support.  But we are increasingly seeing the boundaries between the past, present and future shift and become less rigid – and this approach also needs to find its way into the field of OD.

Lots more to explore – am only just starting – but 1600 words is already too long 🙂  But I’d love to hear from you … in what ways is OD a healing profession?  And where do you see OD already work in this way?

H x

The jumping off point for this piece was an article about healing in the medical profession and the quotes are from that article. I’ve also since come across articles like this one that explore the role of the law (‘comprehensive law’) in providing healing.

And you might also like the work of Michelle Holiday and the new ways she is imagining OD.  Also Jenny Andersson whose work with a ‘place-based’ approach to systems development is very powerful. And also the chapter on Therapeutic Leadership in Simon Western’s book on leadership makes a good backdrop to this. 

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