I’d heard that Jon Connelly’s approach, Rapid Resolution Therapy, was especially effective for clearing the negative impact of trauma in just one to three sessions, and I was impressed by a demonstration video of his work with a World Trade Center bombing survivor on his website. When I attended my first training, in Orlando, Florida, I expected to hear about new scientific breakthroughs and pick up a few innovative techniques. I didn’t expect to witness a theatrical performance by a spellbinding 1960s peace-activist-turned-therapist, who showed up as a mix of artist, actor, stand-up comedian, and evangelical healer. His use of poetic words and dramatic performance art in his trainings—and with his clients—convinced me that doing effective therapy is less about the intervention we employ and more about how we use ourselves in the session to create a therapeutic experience. Connelly taught me not to get overly focused on why the client developed the problem, but to ask myself instead, What’s my intention for this client? What’s the effect I want our interaction to have? He taught me the concepts I used in the imagery exercise with Saundra.
When I began my training with Connelly, I was soft-spoken and reserved. I couldn’t imagine pulling off some of the things I’d seen him doing with clients, like playing absurd association games, telling outrageous stories, touching them on the hand or shoulder as he talked, and making irreverent comments. He had a highly developed skill for conjuring up experiences that completely flipped the horrendous impact of a traumatic event into something transformative and healing. For example, one woman he assisted was haunted by a childhood encounter with a neighbor she’d seen peering through her bathroom window as she stepped out of the shower. She couldn’t get over the fact that she’d frozen in horror, feeling completely immobilized until he dropped down from the window and left. Connelly tilted his head back, grinned broadly, and then looked directly into her eyes, saying, “He knew you saw him. You caught him. You didn’t move around in front of him. You captured him with your eyes and held him until he ran away. Do you think that’s what a Peeping Tom is interested in?”
She thought for a moment and said, “No, it’s the opposite.”
Connelly widened his eyes and emphatically nodded his head. “Yeah, it’s totally opposite!” he said. Then he shimmied his shoulders, winked at her, and wiggled around in his chair as he continued. “A Peeping Tom wants motion. I mean, the more someone wiggles, the better, right? He ain’t looking to see someone be a statue!”
The woman dropped her tense shoulders, laughed, and replied, “Yes, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true. It makes sense.”
I realized it wasn’t just Connelly’s clever reinterpretation that moved this woman. It was the way he interacted with her, lightening the mood as he wiggled his eyebrows, danced around in his chair, and confidently invited the client to entertain this alternative view with him.
Rather than teach us brain science, Connelly threw us into similar role-playing activities, where he teased and prodded us into listening more closely for the wishes beneath clients’ words and pivoting our emotional connection with clients to propel their minds toward what they wanted. He showed us how to perform this seeming emotional wizardry by summoning up quick humor, evocative imagery, animated storytelling, silly games, and highly interactive hypnotic inductions. Although I was initially concerned that my conservative Tennessee clients would perceive me as strange if I tried these things in a session, they actually loved them. In fact, my clients consistently say they enjoy our sessions because we do more than just talk about their problems—we create experiences that empower them to see their problems differently and gain a sense of mastery over them.
Before watching Connelly work, I’d never imagined that I might cajole Saundra the surgeon into an imagery experience and completely bypass her logical mind to spark change in her emotional brain. Assuming that she was too serious and intellectual to be interested in that sort of thing, I’d have spent our sessions listening to her with empathy while naively believing that she could feel better if we both just tried harder at counteracting her negative thoughts and behaviors with more positive ones.
Now I know that we open up new possibilities for our clients not just with the tools we use or the words we say, but with how we say the words and use the tools. The concept was particularly impactful when I was working with Vanessa, who’d been in the Aurora, Colorado, movie-theater shooting. She was clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which was interfering with her ability to complete her doctoral program in physical therapy. Vanessa’s experience of trauma completely shattered her innocence and the belief that the world was a safe, friendly place. In the past, I might have tried to help her by encouraging her to seek experiences that could restore her sense of security. Instead, I told her that the world could indeed be a dangerous place, and sometimes life dishes out devastating events that completely rearrange our lives. After all, Vanessa would see this harsh reality play out everyday if she worked with people in physical therapy who’d suddenly been paralyzed from strokes, illnesses, and accidents. Still, so as not to exacerbate her feelings of hopelessness, I knew I had to juxtapose this unfortunate reality with something that made it worthwhile for her to finish school.