The practitioners ‘three-legged stool’ is a metaphor that refers to the three sources of knowledge that practitioners can rely on: practice, research/theory, and personal life. This meaning was proposed by Skovholt and Starkey (2010) in an article about learning in the helping professions. They argued that practitioners need to balance these three sources of knowledge to achieve optimal functioning and expertise.
Practitioners work with the complexity of human emotion, thought, and variability, which at times makes the work confusing. In order to deal with the confusion, the practitioner attends many years of school and intensive practical experiences to be optimally prepared to work with human beings. Even so, different philosophies exist as to what the best sources of practitioner knowledge are. Where should practitioners get their ideas? The academic culture suggests it should be science; the practitioner culture suggests reflection on practice; candid discussion with practitioners suggests that the therapist’s personal life is the richest source of knowledge. This leads to a concept as defining practitioner expertise as being like a three-legged stool with each of the foregoing areas essential to optimal functioning.
Skovholt and Starkey proposed that practitioners in the helping professions, such as counsellors, therapists, social workers, etc., need to balance three sources of knowledge to achieve optimal functioning and expertise. These three sources of knowledge are:
Research/Theory: This is the knowledge that comes from academic research and theory. It involves empirical evidence, scientific methods, logical reasoning, conceptual frameworks, etc. It is often explicit and formal, meaning that it is clearly stated and structured. It is also generalizable and transferable, meaning that it can be applied to different situations and populations.
Practice: This is the knowledge that comes from direct experience with clients, cases, situations, etc. It involves reflection, intuition, trial and error, feedback, etc. It is often tacit and implicit, meaning that it is not easily articulated or explained. It is also dynamic and evolving, meaning that it changes over time and across contexts.
Personal Life: This is the knowledge that comes from the practitioner’s own personal life. It involves values, beliefs, emotions, experiences, relationships, etc. It is often subjective and personal, meaning that it is influenced by the practitioner’s own perspective and identity. It is also rich and diverse, meaning that it encompasses a wide range of aspects of human existence.
Skovholt and Starkey argued that these three sources of knowledge are equally important and useful for practitioners. They suggested that practitioners need to integrate these sources of knowledge in a way that suits their own style and context. They also warned against relying too much on one source of knowledge at the expense of others, as this may lead to biases, gaps or errors in practice.
These three legs are not independent or isolated from each other. They interact and influence each other in complex ways. For example, a practitioner’s personal life can affect their practice by providing them with empathy, motivation, or stress. Similarly, a practitioner’s practice can affect their personal life by creating satisfaction, burnout, or ethical conflicts. Moreover, a practitioner’s research/theory can affect both their practice and personal life by informing their decisions, challenging their assumptions, or inspiring their curiosity .
Therefore, it is important for practitioners to reflect on these three legs and how they relate to each other. By doing so, they can integrate their learning from different sources and improve their practice. They can also identify their strengths and weaknesses, address their biases and blind spots, and enhance their self-awareness and self-care. This is the essence of the three legs of the practitioner’s learning stool model.
As example of how to integrate these sources of knowledge. Let’s say you are a therapist working with a client who has depression. Here is how you might use the three sources of knowledge:
Practice: You use your clinical skills and experience to assess the client’s symptoms, history, goals, etc. You also use your intuition and judgment to establish rapport, empathy and trust with the client. You monitor the client’s progress and adjust your interventions accordingly. You seek feedback from the client and from your peers or supervisors to improve your practice.
Research/Theory: You use the existing research and theory on depression to inform your diagnosis, treatment plan, and outcome evaluation. You also use evidence-based interventions that have been proven to be effective for depression, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy, etc. You stay updated on the latest developments and findings in the field of depression research and practice.
Personal Life: You use your own personal values and beliefs to guide your ethical and professional behaviour. You also use your own emotions and experiences to empathize with the client and to cope with the challenges and stress of working with depression. You maintain a healthy balance between your work and personal life, and seek support from your family, friends, or other sources when needed.
By integrating these sources of knowledge, you can provide a comprehensive and holistic service to your client that is based on both science and art, both objectivity and subjectivity, both expertise and humanity.
This model is relevant to social work, as social workers are also practitioners who need to learn from different sources of knowledge and experience. Social workers use their practice to help individuals, families, groups, and communities cope with various problems and issues. They also use research/theory to inform their interventions, assessments, and evaluations, and to contribute to the evidence base of social work. And they use their personal life to understand their own values, biases, emotions, and relationships, and how they affect their practice and clients.
The model can help social workers to reflect on their learning and growth as professionals, and to integrate their practice, research/theory, and personal life in a meaningful way. It can also help them to identify their learning needs, goals, and strategies, and to seek feedback, supervision, education, and support from others. By doing so, social workers can enhance their competence, confidence, and ethical practice.
Balancing these three legs can be challenging, but also rewarding. There is no one right way to do it, as different practitioners may have different preferences, goals, and contexts. However, some possible strategies are:
Seeking feedback and supervision from peers, mentors, or supervisors who can help you reflect on your practice, research/theory, and personal life, and provide you with support, guidance, and constructive criticism.
Engaging in continuing education by attending workshops, seminars, conferences, or courses that can update your knowledge, skills, and perspectives on your field of practice and research/theory.
Participating in professional networks by joining associations, groups, or communities of practitioners who share your interests, values, and challenges, and who can offer you opportunities for collaboration, learning, and advocacy.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and finding a balance between work and leisure. This can include exercising, eating well, sleeping enough, meditating, relaxing, or pursuing hobbies that enrich your personal life.
Keeping a reflective journal by writing down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to your practice, research/theory, and personal life. This can help you process your learning, identify patterns or themes, and explore new ideas or questions.
These are some examples of how you can balance these three legs. You may also find other ways that work better for you. The important thing is to be intentional and proactive about your learning and growth as a practitioner.
There are also some possible limitations of this approach. It may be difficult to balance the three sources of knowledge, especially when they conflict or contradict each other. For example, you may find that your personal values are different from the research evidence, or that your practice experience is different from the theory. You may need to resolve these tensions or dilemmas in a way that is respectful and ethical.
It may be challenging to integrate the three sources of knowledge, especially when they are complex or diverse. For example, you may find that there are multiple or competing theories or research findings on depression, or that your personal life is multifaceted and dynamic. You may need to synthesize and prioritize the relevant information and perspectives in a way that is coherent and meaningful.
It may be demanding to maintain the three sources of knowledge, especially when they require constant learning and updating. For example, you may find that your practice skills and experience need to be refined and expanded, or that your research and theory knowledge need to be reviewed and updated, or that your personal life needs to be nurtured and supported. You may need to invest time and energy in your professional and personal development.
These are some possible limitations of this approach, but they can also be seen as opportunities for growth and improvement. By acknowledging and addressing these limitations, you can enhance your practice and become a more effective and competent practitioner.
Some possible ethical issues that may arise from this approach are:
Conflict of Interest - You may face a conflict of interest or a dual relationship if your personal life overlaps with your practice or research. For example, you may have a personal or professional relationship with a client, a colleague, a researcher, or a participant. You may need to disclose and manage these relationships in a way that protects the rights and interests of all parties involved.
Challenge Personal Beliefs - You may encounter a dilemma or a controversy if your personal values or beliefs differ from your practice or research standards. For example, you may have a religious, cultural, or political view that is incompatible with the evidence-based practice or the ethical principles of your profession. You may need to respect and accommodate these differences in a way that does not compromise your integrity or competence.
Boundaries - You may experience a boundary violation or a self-disclosure issue if your personal life interferes with your practice or research. For example, you may have an emotional, physical, or mental problem that affects your ability to provide quality service or conduct valid research. You may need to seek help and support for yourself and limit or terminate your involvement in the practice or research if necessary.
These are some possible ethical issues that may arise from this approach, but they can also be prevented or resolved by following the ethical codes and guidelines of your profession. By being aware and responsible for these issues, you can uphold the trust and respect of your clients, colleagues, researchers, and participants.
Challenges can arise when the three legs of the stool are not balanced. If one of the areas, such as our academic knowledge is the strongest (for example if we are a new graduate). Or if we are someone with lived experience, but no formal study or training. These circumstances mean that one leg of our stool is longer or stronger than the other legs.
So what are the risks if we rely heavily on one leg of the stool, without having the balance of our decision making from the other legs?
People can make sure that the stool is balanced by being aware of their strengths and weaknesses in each source of knowledge, and by seeking to improve or supplement their knowledge in the areas that they need more development or support. For example, if they feel that their practice knowledge is strong but their research/theory knowledge is weak, they can read more literature, attend more training, or consult more experts in their field. If they feel that their personal life knowledge is rich, but their practice knowledge is lacking, they can seek more feedback, supervision, or mentoring from their peers or supervisors. People can also make sure that the stool is balanced by being open and flexible to different sources of knowledge, and by integrating them in a way that makes sense and works for them. For example, if they find that their personal values or beliefs conflict with the research evidence or the practice standards, they can try to understand and respect the differences, and find a way to reconcile or accommodate them in their practice or research.
People who are working from lived experience may have a unique advantage in having a deep and diverse personal life knowledge that can inform and enrich their practice and research. However, they may also face some challenges or risks in balancing the stool, such as:
They may have difficulty separating their personal and professional roles and boundaries, especially if they work with clients or populations that share similar experiences or backgrounds as them. They may need to be careful not to impose their own views or expectations on others, or to over-identify or over-disclose with them.
They may have difficulty coping with the emotional and psychological impact of working from lived experience, especially if they have not fully healed or resolved their own issues or traumas. They may need to seek help and support for themselves, and to monitor their own well-being and self-care.
They may have difficulty accessing or using other sources of knowledge, especially if they face barriers such as stigma, discrimination, or lack of resources. They may need to advocate for themselves and others, and to seek opportunities and networks that can enhance their learning and development.
People who are working from lived experience can balance the stool by being aware of these challenges and risks, and by taking steps to address them. They can also balance the stool by recognising and valuing their lived experience as a source of knowledge, and by sharing it with others in a respectful and ethical way.
People who are newly graduated with no practice experience may have a different challenge in balancing the stool, such as:
They may have difficulty applying their research/theory knowledge to their practice, especially if they encounter complex or unfamiliar situations or clients. They may need to be humble and curious, and to seek guidance and feedback from more experienced practitioners.
They may have difficulty developing their practice knowledge, especially if they lack opportunities or support to practice their skills and learn from their mistakes. They may need to be proactive and persistent, and to seek diverse and challenging experiences that can enhance their competence and confidence.
They may have difficulty using their personal life knowledge, especially if they feel insecure or inadequate about their own identity or background. They may need to be authentic and compassionate, and to use their personal values and beliefs as a source of motivation and inspiration.
People who are newly graduated with no practice experience can balance the stool by being aware of these challenges, and by taking steps to address them. They can also balance the stool by recognizing and valuing their research/theory knowledge as a source of knowledge, and by using it in a critical and creative way.
As organisations we have a responsibility to make sure that our practitioners are working in the most balanced way possible. So how do we do that? Firstly, Social work organisations can proactively identify people who are not balanced and support their development by using various strategies, such as:
They can use the core competence standards or the professional capabilities framework that define the expected knowledge, skills and values of social workers in different domains and levels. They can assess the performance and development of their staff against these standards or framework, and identify the areas that need improvement or support.
They can provide ethical education and training to their staff to enhance their ethical awareness and competence. They can also offer ethical supervision and consultation to their staff to address any ethical issues or dilemmas that they may face in their practice or research.
They can foster a learning culture within the organisation that encourages and supports the staff to seek, share and use different sources of knowledge. They can also facilitate learning opportunities for their staff, such as workshops, seminars, courses, webinars, mentoring, coaching, etc., that cover various topics and scenarios related to practice and research.
They can promote diversity and inclusion within the organisation that respects and values the different sources of knowledge that the staff bring from their personal life, culture, background, experience, etc. They can also create a safe and supportive environment for their staff, where they can express their views, feelings, needs, etc., without fear of judgment or discrimination.
These are some possible strategies that social work organisations can use to proactively identify people who are not balanced and support their development, but they are not exhaustive or exclusive. Social work organisations may find other strategies that suit their own context and goals. The important thing is that social work organisations are committed to enhancing the quality and effectiveness of their practice and research.
Then, once these areas for growth and development are acknowledged and recognised, organisations can put in place a variety of strategies to support growth.
Organisations can support people who are needing development in an area of their three-legged stool by using various strategies, such as:
They can provide professional development opportunities for their staff to enhance their knowledge, skills and values in their practice, research/theory, and personal life domains. They can also provide financial support or study leave for their staff to pursue further education or training.
They can provide supervision and mentoring for their staff to receive guidance, feedback and support for their practice issues and challenges. They can also provide peer support or learning groups for their staff to share and learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives.
They can provide performance appraisal and development planning for their staff to assess their strengths and weaknesses in their practice, research/theory, and personal life domains. They can also provide personalised goals and action plans for their staff to improve or supplement their knowledge, skills and values in the areas that they need development.
They can provide recognition and reward for their staff to acknowledge and appreciate their achievements and contributions in their practice, research/theory, and personal life domains. They can also provide feedback and improvement suggestions for their staff to identify and address their gaps or errors in their practice, research/theory, and personal life domains.
These are some possible strategies that organisations can use to support people who are needing development in an area of their three-legged stool, but they are not exhaustive or exclusive. One of the areas that Bellbird seeks to support with is enhancing safe and competent practitioners to effectively delivery social services. To support in any of these areas please do talk to us today.