It’s easy to get caught up in consciously describing or discussing a problem, thinking mistakenly that this will help solve it. But if you direct your attention only or mainly toward clients’ words, you’re usually wasting your time, because the most relevant information is being communicated in voice tone, tempo, movements, facial expressions, posture, breathing, and other unconcious means. One of my teachers used to say, “Verbal report should be treated as unverified rumor, unless accompanied by nonverbal confirmation.”
It can be useful to approach therapy as a process similar to training an animal. You can still employ words, but only to use your own nonverbal behavior—voice tone, tempo, facial expressions, hand gestures, and so forth—to elicit new and different responses. If you want a dog to get excited, you must get excited yourself, speeding up the tempo and amplitude of your movements and raising the pitch of your voice. If you want the dog to calm down, you need to speak softly and slowly. People really aren’t that different. If you aren’t getting a useful response from a client, you can either wait for it to occur naturally—which could take a long time!—or you can vary your behavior until you succeed in eliciting it.
A few years ago, when Dr. Kevorkian was busy assisting people who wanted to commit suicide, a therapist I know had a depressed, terminally ill patient who said she wanted to end her life. The therapist replied, in an eager and upbeat tempo, “Since Dr. Kevorkian is a personal friend of mine, we can place a call right now and make arrangements,” as he reached for and picked up the telephone by the client’s bedside. Suddenly that client found that she wasn’t quite ready to leave the planet, saying, “What’s the rush?” The therapist’s robust and enthusiastic nonverbal alliance with the client’s verbal goal elicited the opposite, hidden side of her thinking. This was much more effective in changing her emotional state than trying to reassure her conscious mind that there were still satisfactions in life she could enjoy.
If you want to get therapy unstuck, it’s usually more helpful to take charge and elicit responses in your clients than just to listen and say “Umm” as they recite well-rehearsed “tape-loop” descriptions of the problem. Once when I’d slipped into a nonproductive, intellectual discussion with a client unable to deal with his finances because he was afraid he’d end up as badly off as his father had, he said in an annoyed tone, “I know all that, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference!” I agreed with him wholeheartedly and refocused on guiding him in an inner dialogue with his father that gave him a nonverbal experience of separating finances from the mess that his father had made of his life.
Of course, being creative with your nonverbal expressiveness carries the risk of looking foolish, making a mistake, and possibly losing rapport. However, even making a mistake has a silver lining, since it’ll usually interrupt the client’s trancelike immersion in the problem, and you can use the interruption as an opportunity to refocus attention toward more useful ends.
Often a sincere apology will reestablish rapport on a solider footing: “Boy, I sure messed that up! Can we back up and pick up again before I went off the tracks?” That kind of response invites clients to rewind their experience to a point before your mistake, and then go forward from there in a new way, effectively isolating it. An apology provides a live example of the willingness to make a mistake, notice it, admit it, and correct it—something that a lot of perfectionistic and self-critical clients can benefit from seeing someone else do.
If you screw up big, you have an even better opportunity to utilize the client’s response. You can push your chair to the side, look at the space where you were sitting, and talk to that space as if someone were there, “What a stupid and insensitive thing to say! I can’t believe you said that! Let’s start over.” That separates you from the mistake and realigns you with the client, and you can proceed as if you hadn’t made the mistake. When you’ve rehearsed a hundred different ways like this to regain rapport, you’ll feel more confident and have more freedom to experiment. A class in improvisation or acting skills can help a lot, too.
The Power of Presupposing and Implying
Are you offering explicit messages that would be more effective if you presupposed or implied them?
A skill too often ignored by therapists is the ability to use language in ways that unconsciously elicit nonverbal responses and create sudden shifts in feeling and attitude. For instance, read the following two sentences, and notice the difference in your response:
“You may find it easier to imagine this with your eyes closed.”
“You may find it harder to imagine this with your eyes open.”