Discursive of Tunbridge Wells

Is it time to make peace with voices?


Is it time to make peace with voices?

Rufus May tries talking talking respectfully to our demons

A woman I know hears voices.  She approached me for help because she was finding one of them very distressing. Angry and aggressive, it claimed to be a demon.  We decided to use the Talking with Voices approach described Dirk Corstens and colleagues. This involves a supporter having a conversation with the voice or voices, mediated by the voice hearer. The aim is to support people to begin to dialogue themselves with the voices and to build a better relationship with them.

A BBC World Service journalist expressed interest in this approach, and we agreed to demonstrate it to her.  I asked the woman to ask questions to the voice and to pass on the replies. Towards the end of the demonstration, the journalist suggested that I ask whether the voice had a message for the people listening to the programme around the world.  At first the ‘demon’ laughed and said he could talk to people around the world anytime he wanted to. But I suggested that he might reach a different audience in the BBC World Service listeners. Then the woman looked surprised and said that the voice’s message was for people to “respect all beings”. I wondered whether this might be a key message from the voice for all of us, namely that respectful dialogue is the way forward if we want to reduce conflict in our lives.

Voice hearing has a bad name in our culture. The media tend to focus on the occasional instance where someone diagnosed with psychosis does something violent in response to a suggestion or command from voices. Voice hearing seems to have become demonised, and voice hearers are regarded with suspicion.  As a result the dominant approach in mental health services is still to try to get rid of voices with medication and tell people to ignore them. If the person presents well, clinicians may not even believe that they are really hearing voices.

In our self-help group in Bradford, we believe everyone who says that they hear voices. When people first come to the group their priority is often finding ways to take some control, for example by shifting their attention onto other activities. Then we support people to find ways of being more assertive with their voices. Once people feel more confident, they are able to explore the meaning of their experience.  For many people this includes learning to talk and negotiate with their voices.

An example is Julie (not her real name) who heard a critical and abusive voice. After the group I sat down with Julie and we asked the voice what he wanted. He said he wanted her to be more assertive.  Through the dialogue, the voice agreed to help Julie be more assertive if she consulted with him regularly.  Later Julie found that when she asked the voice for advice it was helpful, and supported her to stand up for her own needs in her relationships with others.

As with any peace talks, people fear that talking with the enemy will make the enemy stronger.  Some people worry that talking with voices will give them more power. However we’ve found that if people have a grounded support network which helps them negotiate with their voices, the voices to become less rather than more controlling. The Talking with Voices approach is about communities supporting people to engage constructively with voices. The aim is to help empower them in that relationship and to become more confident to engage in the social world.

Engaging with voices is also controversial in the therapy world. For example psychologist Neil Thomas argues that engaging with voices risks increasing their presence in the person’s life and is only beneficial if the voices are benign. Instead, he proposes acknowledging voices’ existence but disengaging from them.  I respectfully disagree. If somebody were to acknowledge me and then ignore me I would feel annoyed and disinclined to be cooperative.

At the same time, therapies are getting bolder at acknowledging the reality of voices. Avatar Therapy uses computer-based role play to encourage people to engage with their voices. Similarly, Relating Therapy helps people to develop assertiveness skills in relation to voices as well as in social relationships. Compassion Focused Therapy goes one step further and helps people build a compassionate self which can dialogue with their voices (see the film Compassion for Voices).

This week we’ve published the second edition of our Self Help Guide to Talking with Voices which gives more detail about the peace-making approach I’ve described here. We’ve also recently made fifteen short films about it.  We’ll be showcasing the approach together with compassion-focused approaches at a forthcoming event in London called Engaging with Voices. It takes place on 26th September and presenters will include voice hearers, therapists and also cutting edge film-makers who have documented this approach. Tickets are available here.

Hundreds of years of ignoring voices only seem to have made them more desperate and challenging. Is it time respectfully to invite them to the peace table?



Rufus May works as a clinical psychologist and manages the in-patient psychology service in Bolton, Lancashire. He is passionate about holistic and creative approaches to mental health problems. He has worked closely with Hearing Voices groups since 2001 and has been using the Talking with Voices approach since 2005. You can follow him on Twitter here.

For tickets for the Engaging with Voices event in London on 26th September go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/engaging-with-voices-tickets-63107186293



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4 comments on “Is it time to make peace with voices?

  1. To clarify my position that Rufus refers to: many people hear hostile/threatening/critical voices that people find themselves being drawn into responding to by arguing with them or giving in to them. Other people have found that engaging with their voices seems to lead to them becoming more immersed with them which people say can be problematic. Some people have found mindfulness of voices helpful as an alternative response, or using coping strategies that help to focus attention away from them. But some people have also said that they have found it helpful “engaging” with voices via dialogue with them to explore different aspects of this experience – this is quite different to becoming immersed in an argument with them. All are valid. I would be very concerned about proposing any “rules” of how people should or should not respond to voices. There is no one-size-fits-all applicable to all people, all voices or all times that you hear them. Being aware of what happens when responding to or relating to voices in different ways, and flexible in considering different ways of responding to voices seem more useful. Above all people should trust their own experience about what is helpful.

  2. Hello Rufus,

    I enjoyed reading your article, and what you are suggesting is a good start, but I hope you go deeper. There really is so much more to what you are suggesting. My wife have walked the path of engaging her ‘voices’ for the last 11 years and it’s made all the difference in her and our healing experience. It might help if you can answer the question: ‘what, fundamentally, are the ‘voices’? Once you can answer that, it might give you more insight into the direction to take with them.

    I wish you all the best.

  3. I’m grateful for Rufus May’s Blog and teaching. I affirm the value in practicing peacemaking with one’s whole experience, including voices, using non-violent respectful dialogue. Rather than amplifying fears by sharing how risky or threatening such dialogue might be, I find it important to consider what conditions support such respectful dialogue. I agree with Rufus’ identifying the importance of social support, a community of people who practice compassion with themselves and others. For decades I felt powerless in relation to my voices, I was in a subordinate relationship with them. Professionals engaged with me and my voice experience by trying to suppress and control me and my experience. They met my fear and sense of powerlessness with their own fear and violent monologues. Psychiatric monologues paralleled the fierce commanding voice monologues that bombarded me. Engaging with voices within relationships embedded in respectful, compassionate, creative, courageous communities, transformed my capacity to learn. We need to trust our own experience of what is helpful; however, if one only receives fear-based decontextualized “help,” it is difficult to access our deeper wisdom. What I found helpful was learning to make the space between us trustworthy enough to participate in respectful diverse dialogues. Engaging with voices, spirits, ancestors, friends, enemies, and other sensed, perceived or believed realities opens space to change our relationships. Expecting the likelihood of meaningful messages that are open to change and peaceful co-existence contrasts with fearful expectations that teach helplessness and reliance on suppression or redirection. Imagine the transformation that’s possible when voices are heard within social and sacred spaces with communal courage and compassion! Listening to the monologues that are loudest in our world promotes war, climate crisis, poverty, racism, demonizing and othering of us and our planet. Let’s give peace and dialogue a chance.

  4. Thanks Neil and Berta for your reflections. I think Berta’s question is an important one: What conditions support people to find ways to respectfully make peace with their whole experience including their voices?And there is much we can learn from her writing about her experience of this process. I agree with Neil that many different approaches to dealing with voices need to be respected. For example, in our hearing voices group in Bradford when people first come to the group, members share lots of distraction strategies and also ideas about how to be assertive with voices. We also try out different physical grounding exercises. After they have been coming to the group for a while, if people are interested I will offer one-off sessions where I will help them dialogue with their voices. Then we encourage people to carry this on (by themselves, feeding back to the group how it is going) if it feels to the person like it might be helpful. We have learned a lot from these dialogues and often they relate to important social injustices that need to be reconciled with. When I read about mainstream psychological approaches to voices, they still seem to be avoiding understanding the possible role the voice plays in a person life and how we might learn from what the voices are saying. I feel a bit sad that most psychologists do not yet feel confident to support people to make peace with their voices. Perhaps if more of us got involved in supporting hearing voices groups it might give us that confidence. But there are likely to be other resources that will help too. ‘The ‘Engagng with voices’ films we have made at wwww.openmindedonline.com also aim to help people gain confidence in this approach.
    I have been at a recent educational event where a psychologist asserted that mental health professionals are too anxious to support people to dialogue with their voices, implying that we should therefore not bother with this approach. I am interested in how we can build confidence in society, in our communities to a more curious, open-minded and warm-hearted approach to voice-hearing. Dialoguing with voices is just one tool that might be helpful part of this approach. I hope more mental health workers will get confidence the more we can share stories about creative approaches to voice hearing. That see the experience, as Berta describes above, as having meaning that we as communities can learn from.

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