Brian Broom

The Person-Centred Upholsterer

March 6, 2020

I discovered him by internet search--someone purporting to customise chairs for people with back problems. This sounded promising. I had fractured a vertebra six months previously, and sitting, chairs and pain had become wrestling partners. So I called him up the next day during normal office hours. He clearly wasn’t ready for customers; his name is Barry, and he explained that he had been watching the World Cup cricket over night and needed to have a shave.  

After a personable and jokey conversation we agreed a time to meet. He turned out to be very friendly, warm and somewhat loquacious. He listened very carefully to the story of the problem I was having and then began the process of deciding the right format for a chair. As this developed our confidence grew. We spent an hour or more with him, and agreed to meet again after we had chosen fabrics, and after we had returned from our visit to family in Australia, a detail that seemed curiously relevant to disclose within this personalised consultation.

He listened very carefully to the story of the problem I was having and then began the process of deciding the right format for a chair.

I had been looking for a ‘right’ chair in many shops over several months. We went away from this ‘consultation’ marvelling at the felt difference between top-down and bottom-up chair sales people. At what happens when one meets a person-centred chair person!!

At our second visit his first movement was to peer—quite literally--into both of our faces, trying to discern whether we had really had a refreshing holiday, or not; in a manner that was curiously intimate and yet appropriate. We spent more time choosing and deciding chair ‘things’. But we need to be sure, he said. Once more he got me sitting in a chair, and then very smoothly started a conversation about other things, saying it might be best if we chatted for a while.

After a time, he suggested, I might know better whether this chair really suited me, whether I needed 5, 10, or 15mm more or less in height in either the front legs or the back legs, and so on. He watched me constantly, but non-obtrusively, always waiting for me to comment, and then at that point he would add his own discernments of my comfort levels in various positions. He never once defined anything before I had given my story of what I was experiencing.

He never once defined anything before I had given my story of what I was experiencing.

In the midst of all this he wanted to know what I did, what I really did, for work. I hesitated. How does one talk about what one really does professionally in ‘whole person healthcare’ in a chair/upholstery consultation? My wife Alison was less hesitant, and stepped in, and thus I was committed. I spoke as simply as I could about working with medicine, physical symptoms and story, mind and body, and even ventured the concept of dualism. It is hard enough to talk about medical dualism with one’s colleagues!

What ensued was remarkable. I cannot remember anybody, health workers included, responding quite so intelligently and freely in a first conversation of this kind. He mused about the ‘hugeness’ of the arena that would open up if one responded to physical complaints in a ‘whole person’ way. He wondered aloud about how one would decide what was relevant in a person’s story? He noted that ‘you’ would have to listen very carefully, not like the medical ‘dicks’ he has been involved with. He quickly seized on to the idea that careful listening to what floats to the surface in a conversation would lead to centrally significant material. He does this naturally anyway.

He quickly seized on to the idea that careful listening to what floats to the surface in a conversation would lead to centrally significant material.

He recalled an orthopaedic surgeon who invited him for a consultation and quotation for chairs for his waiting room. The surgeon was determined to have tub chairs for his waiting patients, many of whom would have back and hip problems. My upholsterer told him that tub chairs were completely inappropriate for people with bad hips, and anyway a tub chair couldn’t be upholstered to work for such patients. The surgeon patronisingly rebuffed this advice. Decor was top priority. So my upholsterer got up, said he wasn’t prepared to make unsuitable chairs for him, and walked out. He wasn’t going to violate his values.

He asked what I would think of a situation where someone had had an operation which was deemed a success, but the pain was no better. So we talked about predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors playing a role in physical symptoms, including pain. He didn’t miss a beat. The lateral thinking and questions kept coming and coming. He pondered aloud on how hard was it to change the medical system? He reflected on his reluctance to expand his own business because he felt that it was too difficult to find someone else who had his values and approach. He even checked me out briefly for my attitude to complementary and alternative medicine by asking what did I think about chakras and iridology—he was really rather doubtful about these ideas himself, perhaps there could be something in them, possibly, but....

He pondered aloud on how hard was it to change the medical system?

Out of the blue, he aired his view that there were some people who could be ‘healers’ but actually the truth was that many didn’t have the wherewithal. By this time I was fantasising that if I was still running the MindBody Healthcare Post-Graduate program at AUT University I would offer him a place in the next intake. But, then, actually he didn’t need it. Perhaps I could send students to work on placement with him!

At the centre of his observations was the refrain ‘they don’t listen’. He knows how to listen, and better than most of the professionals I have seen since my injury. He appeared to listen out of entering my story, out of commitment to the individual person, and not out of primary commitment to his expertise, to his sales, or his ego.

He appeared to listen out of entering my story, out of commitment to the individual person, and not out of primary commitment to his expertise, to his sales, or his ego.

And the feeling of this was profound.

We have ordered two chairs.

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Dr Brian Broom is a Consultant Physician (Clinical Immunology) and Psychotherapist in the Department of Immunology in Auckland City Hospital; and Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychotherapy, Auckland University of Technology.

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