The last comment presupposes that the boy has a “good nose” and can determine what kind of tea it is better than Minuchin can. This changed the description of his sniffing behavior from deviance to competence, and at the same time implied a reversal of the typically assumed roles of the superior therapist and the inferior client.
Therapy is widely described as “the talking cure,” yet clinicians are seldom taught even the rudiments of linguistics, the study of language itself, so they don’t learn how to detect and use presuppositions and implications in a directed way to elicit specific behavioral responses. For instance, one linguistic form for delivering a presupposition is to begin a sentence with what’s called an awareness predicate. “Are you aware that—,” “Do you realize that—,” “I notice that—,” or any other similar introduction presupposes whatever words follow. You can simply add words that describe how you’d like clients to think about themselves and their capabilities: for instance, “I notice that you know what you want for yourself” or “Are you aware how often you’ve shown how honest you are?” If you make a list of presuppositions you’d like many of your clients to accept and practice using this form of delivery, you can quickly become fluent. Then you can take another one of the 25 or so linguistic forms for embedding presuppositions and practice using it exclusively for a day. For instance, here’s another sentence stem: “It would really surprise me if you stopped being . . . [fill in the blank: sensitive to others, perceptive, alert, thoughtful].” Learning to use presuppositions effectively takes a little diligent practice, but it isn’t rocket science.
Widening the Perspective
Have you fallen into the trap of blaming the client for being “resistant”?
When a client objects to a proposed change or solution, therapists often describe this as resistance. Often they even jump to a much larger generalization, assuming that the client is resistant to any change, rather than only to the particular change being considered. “Client resistance” is the therapist’s all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free card, useful in any situation when, for whatever reasons, the therapy isn’t working. Unfortunately, like generalized labels and pathologizing of any kind, thinking in this way is guaranteed to bring therapy to a halt, strengthening the trance paralyzing both the therapist and the client.
Far more helpful than tossing the word resistance around loosely is understanding that the client isn’t going along with something you’re saying or doing—or not saying or doing—in that moment. Rather than labeling a client resistant, it’s usually more helpful to focus on whether the client has an objection (maybe a good one) to the way you’re going about therapy. If you can welcome and take this possibility seriously, you have a chance to change what you’re doing, and the “resistance” may dissolve.
My wife, Connirae, was supervising a therapist who complained that his clients always had objections to proposed solutions. “For instance, I have a client who comes in and says he wants to have a good relationship with his wife. Over and over again, I’ve pointed him in the right direction, but over and over, he gives me every reason in the world not to do it.” Connirae responded cheerfully and enthusiastically, saying, “Oh! Does he help you in other ways, too?” reversing his underlying presupposition—all too common in the field of therapy—that objections are obstacles that prevent change.
When clients don’t want to make a change, it’s always because they think it would interfere with some other beneficial outcome. An objection is something that they may recognize consciously: “If I were more honest and forthright, I might get fired from my job.” Or it might be much less conscious, evident only in a vaguely troubling feeling they get when they think of being different: “I just get this queasy feeling, like I’m scared of doing that.” Sometimes they’re wrong about their assumptions about the meaning or consequences of an action, but they have a rationale that’s compelling to them, and this needs to be respected and invited into the process. An important part of our work is to welcome every objection fully, and then to explore how the objection can be satisfied (not “overcome”).
For instance, men in therapy often object to expressing vulnerable feelings because it doesn’t fit their ideas about what “behaving like a man” is all about; they think they’d appear weak and their wives would ridicule them. But with a few exceptions, wives usually love it when their husbands express fears and vulnerabilities. If you can convince the husband to experiment with showing softer feelings, a wife’s gratitude—and often tears—will be much more convincing to him than hours of talking about why his fears are unrealistic.
At other times, an objection is based on real consequences. If a woman doesn’t want to become more assertive because she’s correctly afraid that her husband would abuse her, then this danger has to be recognized in proposing or modifying a solution.
Is It Time for a Joke Break?
Have you and your client fallen into the grim trap of terminal seriousness?
Unhappy people, singlemindedly engrossed in their own misery, often regard themselves and their predicament with deadly seriousness. Jokes and humor have the power to surprise and unbalance people, popping them out of their negative mindset without threatening their comfort level. Humor is an unparalleled trance-breaker because, by its nature, it changes the perspective and alters attention.