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Joining Through The Truth

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ND2012-2Coaching and Our Assumptions

By Terry Real

A new breed of therapist believes that it’s disrespectful not to say to clients displaying obnoxious, selfish, or self-defeating behaviors what traditionalists might only share in a supervision group.

Most of us were trained to believe that we needed to be extremely careful when helping clients face the really difficult truths in their lives--especially their own obnoxious, selfish, or self-defeating actions. Better to err on the side of going slow, creating safety, and remaining neutral than to come across as pushy or disrespectful. Nevertheless, my own experience as a couples therapist has taught me that we aren't doing clients a favor by soft-pedaling difficult issues, despite what my early supervisors tried to instill in me. The approach I've developed, Relationship Life Therapy (RLT), is based on the premise that it's disrespectful to clients not to let them in on the truth about what we witness regularly in our offices as they play out their relationships in front of us: the ways they deal with their partners are often self-centered, unfeeling, and counterproductive.

In some ways, the guiding principle of RLT is to be able to say to clients what we might otherwise say only to our colleagues in our supervision group or around the water cooler after a tough session. Instead of confiding, when they're out of earshot, something like, "I can't believe what a witch she is to him. He's such a Caspar Milquetoast," I believe that's what you need to say--skillfully and respectfully--in the session with the couple.

Some would call this approach confrontational, but I think that term is misleadingly adversarial and addresses only half the process. I think the quality of directness I'm talking about is better described as joining through the truth. There are two parts to this approach: the first is to hold a mirror up to our clients to help them see themselves and their role in the dysfunctional dance of their relationship as accurately and fully as possible; the second, which is where the real nuance and clinical skill comes in, is to show them the difficult truths about themselves in a way that leaves them feeling not only that we're on their side, but that we're actually rooting for them.

RLT is an approach that stands somewhere between traditional psychotherapy, with its emphasis on creating a nonjudgmental, accepting, holding environment to bring about change, and the more rough-and-tumble, challenging, psychoeducational discipline of life coaching. For want of a better term, I'd call the approach illustrated in the case I'm about to describe as a form of therapeutic coaching. It's based on the idea that we can coach clients toward intimacy, teach them how to be more psychologically evolved, and mentor them into transforming their characters.

Coaching a Perfectionist

David takes a seat on the couch in my office, alongside his wife, Sarah. He fiddles with his yarmulke the way another man might fidget with his tie. At 42, he's handsome and well-built. He radiates strength, self-confidence, trustworthiness. And yet . . . the yarmulke adjustment. As he glances sideways at Sarah, he seems nervous. A month into their therapy, it's become apparent to me that, while it may not have always been true, at this juncture, David fears his wife--and not without reason.

Sarah is 40 and describes herself as "small but mighty." Petite, blonde, with ice-blue, fiercely intelligent eyes, she can be a force to be reckoned with. Looking at me square in the face, she declares, "We've been having a hard time this week." Pausing to put her story in context, she says, "This is the story of a small thing turning into a big thing, and then turning into a really big thing."

"Tell me," I say.

"A few weeks ago, we get an e-mail from our daughter's old school. There's a dinner and they'd like us to come. Our daughter went there for many years; David was on their board. It was an important part of the family. So I tell him, 'I think we should go.' Then he gives me all the reasons why we shouldn't: 'It's just a fundraiser. They just want money.'

"A week later, I bring it up again and say I think it's really important to go--and, again, he launches into the same lecture. So now, I'm frustrated. Do I feel listened to? I do not."

David shifts on the couch, about to say something, but one look from Sarah is enough to stop him. I decide to let that go and keep listening. "This repeats a few times," Sarah continues. "Wife proposes; husband disposes."

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  • Comment Link Wednesday, 12 December 2012 14:17 posted by Jonathan Sibley

    Most of us our clients (and us) want to be effective. If it appears that there is a way to be more effective (in David's case, perhaps being more effective at being lovable and loved by his wife) that doesn't come at too high a price, it's usually fairly easy to get the clients to become interested.

    It seems to me that, although you were more direct and confrontational than many therapists, you also had enough of an alliance with him to trust that your intervention could be effective.

    It seems like you also paved the way by asking permission before you jumped in and by making clear what he had to gain from taking in your feedback - he was able to see that you believed you could help him. And, fortunately, you had a reasonable model about how we impact one another relationally to support your intervention.

    This seems like an effective use of self that is in the best interest of the client. It would be a shame if anyone took this as permission to use any counter-transference based reaction as an excuse to share the therapist's feelings without having established a secure-base and without having a client-centered reason for doing so.

    In the end, for a variety of reasons, partners engage in many relational behaviors that are counter-productive. In many couples therapies it seems as though we are coaching couples to understand themselves and their partners better and to communicate more effectively - even if we call it therapy and are informed by one or more therapeutic lenses.

  • Comment Link Monday, 19 November 2012 01:24 posted by Anjana Chabria Jaisingh

    A very interesting read. Thank you.
    As a therapist, i do use a lot of the methods talked about in the article.
    Marital Counsellor & Therapist