An Open Letter to My Students III: Techniques and the Problem with Books
So what about all the techniques? I can hear you griping now, “Surely therapy is not only about the relationship between me and the client right? I mean you have to know how to do something? Right?
My masters program was HEAVILY focused on us students and our personal growth, and by extension our relationship with our clients. Technique was shunned. As a result I graduated with a degree of confusion (#lolpunnylol). On the one hand I felt like I ought to know how to help people change, but on the other hand I saw myself failing again and again and again. I couldn’t reconcile the two. Once I learned a few techniques I was pissed at how much more effective I was. I felt like I’d been swindled. I mean I spent 40k+ on a masters degree and didn’t even know how to help people with simple problems.
In my training it was assumed that if you were “healthy” you would just know how to do good therapy. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
So now I advocate for technique. Hear me now, I am PRO technique. I’ll even give you an example.
About a year ago I went out for a bike ride. As I left my house, I passed my neighbor’s five year old daughter, Leslie. She was outside playing with some friends.
“He lives across the street. I don’t like him.” She told her friend and wrinkled her nose as I passed.
What the heck. I was taken aback. I hadn’t done anything for her to be so disgusted with me. At least nothing that I knew of.
About a week later I was at my neighbor’s house sitting at the dinner table chatting when she came to the table, sat down, and *Hiccup*.
“You got hiccups.” I said.
“Yea.” She nodded. *Hiccup*
“You know, I can help you with those.”
“I know,” Leslie recoiled, “by scaring me.” *Hiccup*
“I could do it that way. But I’d prefer not. Can you feel the hiccup coming?”
Her eyes rolled upward as she thought for a second. *Hiccup*. She nodded.
“Okay, this is what I want you to do. The next time you feel your body making a hiccup I want
you to do one at the same time. Got it?”
She nodded and waited and then: HICCUP. I mean it had to have been two, one from her mind and one from her body because she nearly bounced out of her seat.
“You finished?” I asked. Leslie hiccuped a few times on purpose to check and nodded. Then she bounced down from her chair and went off to her room. She returned a few minutes later with a small pink bag which she promptly dumped on the table. Out poured a hundred tiny dolls. For the next 30 minutes she explained to me the difference between Princess Sugarplum, Princess Butterscotch Cupcake, and Princess Vanilla Swirl.
Most therapists don’t know that there is a difference between automatic experience and intentional behavior. This is a fundamental distinction and most are ignorant of the divide. Automatic experience is something that your body does but you don’t feel like you’re trying to make it happen, like feeling thirsty or hiccuping. Your body hiccups regardless of whether your mind wants to or not.
Intentional behavior is something that you do willfully. Like lifting your hand to pick up a glass of water.
Got it? Thirst you experience as automatic. Picking up a glass is a behavior you have to do intentionally.
One of the easiest ways to change automatic experience is to switch to intentional behavior. Most people have experienced this when they’ve been asked, “What’s your locker combination?” If they’d been asked to open their locker a minute before they could have done it effortlessly. But once they’re asked they can’t remember for the life of them. I’ve also seen this with sports. A few years ago I had a buddy who played college level tennis and he was telling me how he wasn’t doing too well. He was having trouble with his serve.
“How come?” I asked.
“I’m thinking too much. I just get caught up in my head.”
Something that used to be smooth and automatic, because he’d practiced it so much, was now something he was thinking about and attempting to intentionally correct. He’d accidentally changed the automatic experience of serving into an intentional behavior and it wasn’t working well for him. I didn’t know how to help him then. Little did I know all he needed was of the right technique
This technique of switching automatic experience to intentional behavior is what I used with Leslie. By asking her to do an intentional behavior we short circuited the automatic behavior of hiccups. Most therapists don’t understand this. Some have heard of “paradoxical interventions” or “reverse psychology” which are poor concepts that don’t capture the nuance described here. I mean if you use “paradox” how do you know what to paradox? How do you know what the client should reverse? In the approach described here all you have to do is determine what the automatic experience is and then make that intentional.
So yeah, I like techniques. The right technique is crucial in helping you deal with issues, just like there’s no replacement for the right form while lifting weights, or the right wrench when working on the car. But there’s a problem.
First I know of no way to teach technique in a book (or blog). If you find a way please, please, please, let me know. I don’t think it can be done. And I’ve tried. I mean I read ALL of Douglas Flemons’ work on hypnosis and relational therapy before I went to go see him, and ALL of it paled in comparison to what I learned by spending a mere week with the man. I also read a lot of EFT before going to the training. I mean I’d read articles, watched Sue Johnson do a live session, read the EFT manual. I thought I was doing EFT. Not even close.
Why is it so hard to learn from a book? One reason it’s so hard to teach techniques in a blog or book is that you can’t convey context. Take the example above. You don’t hear the playfulness in my voice when I engaged her. You don’t notice the fact that we were sitting in her dining room and that her dad was at the kitchen counter, all of which probably helped her feel more comfortable approaching someone she didn’t like. You may have missed that her nose wrinkle indicated disgust rather than fright. You might have missed the fact that I tested how receptive she was by asking multiple questions. You might have missed the fact that I asked a question in a way that presupposed a response that I wanted to get. You can’t get all that in a book.
Context, context, context.
There’s another reason why it’s difficult to learn from a book. Books don’t give you feedback. For example, if you read from a recipe and you mess something up you won’t know until after the meal has been prepared and you take your first bite. By then it’s much too late to fix, and if you’re a novice odds are you won’t know what you did wrong. However, if you’re making a meal with with a chef, he might see you add too much salt, let you know and advise you to add sugar. This is why having a mentor who watches your work is SO important.
Feedback, feedback, feedback.
But there’s another reason why teaching techniques is difficult. Teaching technique is difficult because it obscures the change agent. Technique is not medicine. Technique is how you deliver the medicine. Technique is the syringe. The relationship is the medicine. Sometimes this can get confused because we forget that the purpose of relationship and connection is so we can go out and face life’s hiccups, NOT so we can remain locked in a bunker so that we can’t be hurt. We don’t have safety for it’s own sake but for the adventures we will inevitably be drawn into. Adventure without safety is trauma. When we can face the world from within relationships then life becomes an adventure because we have the confidence that we can face our problems or spend ourselves on behalf of others.
I say this because it works. Therapy is the art of helping people manage emotions they push away. When you know someone has your back, your nervous system calms. That calming is your body handling emotions instead of stiff arming them, and we know that when we don’t have these relationships, techniques which should work don’t. The important part about what happened between Leslie and me is not that she overcame her hiccups, in life there will always be hiccups, but that our relationship changed. We’ve laid the ground work for a win-win. She knows where to go to learn how to face life’s hiccups, and she had the experience of not being alone in the midst of hiccups.