Category Archives: Communication

Talking to particles

 

Claude © 2015 Monique Hendricks

 

Today my mother would have turned ninety-nine, had she chosen to live. There would have been, of course, a celebration. Speeches, accolades, extravagant bouquets, bottles of Moët & Chandon. But my mother did not want to celebrate her ninety-ninth birthday, nor her hundredth.  She was ready, at ninety-eight, to transform herself into something entirely novel: a bunch of elementary particles, scattered around the universe, fertilizing new growth–the invisible as well as the visible sort–her trajectory intersecting with mine at the oddest moments. Forever present in my heart, she is a witness to my various pursuits. How can I be mad at her for making me talk to particles? At least we’re talking!

Yes, at times, I long to tell her something, to hear her laugh, to see her smile, to touch her. But that I cannot have. So I’m content to talk to her particles.

Salut, maman!

 

 

About self-disclosure

On the first anniversary of my blog, it seems appropriate to take a step back and assess what has been accomplished. In a nutshell, I crossed the line between private and public sphere, survived twelve months of self-hosting a website, started a business, participated in five art shows, one of them a solo exhibit that ends next week, sold several paintings, and dashed off witty posts late at night when quietness and darkness conspired to make me want to write. Although I reinvented myself as a visual artist midway through the year, I never stopped writing posts. And in so doing I revealed myself. After all, what is blogging if not a vehicle for self-promotion, possibly self-indulgence, and ultimately self-disclosure?

Nonetheless, there is something I haven’t disclosed in my blog. Why haven’t I? Because I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I ask myself why I should consider full disclosure. Would it be helpful to my readers? To me? In which way? During my three years as an intern practicing family therapy, I was cautioned that self-disclosure by a therapist is only warranted if it truly benefits the client. And while blogging is not therapy, I use that as a reminder of the need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of self-disclosure.

Disclosure can also be a powerful, almost intoxicating agent of transformation. There are risks involved, of course, the main one being that it is irreversible and a return to what might later be perceived as that blissful pre-disclosure state is impossible. The universality of digital communication and the anonymity it provides to its users means that once a post is published, it floats in cyberspace, grazing the physical boundaries where humans still dwell, but barely. Where does it actually end up? In the iCloud?

So far, I disclosed that I have a chronic illness that requires me to take pills six times a day. The pills, when they kick in, restore my motor skills–which is why I will eternally be grateful to the researchers who developed my magic meds and the pharmaceutical companies that make them accessible to me.

My greatest reservation about full disclosure centers around the issue of labeling. I never let my illness define me and would hate to have people start to see me through that single, narrow lens. While the illness is a part of me, something I must face daily, it is by no means what defines me. Nor has it prevented me from being productive: I can easily spend twenty hours toiling in my office/studio, turning out canvas after canvas, forgetting to eat or drink until my parched throat clamors for a gulp of water. True, I abhor labels, yet labels help us to categorize the unknown, the unfamiliar, the Other. Suffering from a serious illness undoubtedly puts me in the category of the Other. But to be perfectly honest, I already belong to that category for having lived a somewhat unconventional life.

At this point, full disclosure doesn’t strike me as necessary. But bear with me: every so often, I will revisit the topic and my conclusion may change.

Return from eternity

After a three-week hiatus from art and American mod-cons (all stores closed on January 1 and 2!), during which my brother, my husband and I started to sort through the artifacts of a life that lasted almost 99 years, I embrace this new life of mine, a life without mother–that is, in her usual, familiar, physical form. Maman is still here, very much so, most often perched on my left shoulder, smiling and nodding. Every once in a while, I tap my shoulder and say: Salut, maman!

The time spent in Switzerland was far from gloomy; as a matter of fact, it was magical, in the best sense of the word. This was, of course, orchestrated by maman. She prepared the terrain for family and friends to reconnect, recollect, and reflect. And so we did. Our days centered around the opening hours at the local dump. The items that weren’t discarded were separated according to their destination: Salvation Army, recycling bin, antique dealer, removal company, etc. All this lifting and lugging made us hungry, and every day the kitchen transformed itself into a hotbed of culinary activity, followed by the ritual of drinking rich espresso while nibbling on pastries.  Later in the evening, we leafed through old photo albums, amused by our ancestors’ fancy clothes and serious mien, and unearthed letters written by my grandmother on how to keep a man.

For three weeks, I lived in a parallel universe. Straddling the past and the present, contemplating the future, assailed by fast-moving, confusing images in my dreams. The French have a good word for it: dépaysement. It’s what happens to you when you are removed from your usual surroundings. I was in a different land, almost another dimension. I had tasted eternity, that lull between milestones, the benchmarks we use to keep us moving forward, believing that life’s path is linear.

I never could have predicted that I would be philosophical about my mother’s passing, but there we are: I have lost a physical presence, yet my gain is greater than my loss. In time, I will be able to express it more eloquently.

On the Impermanence of Life

This week I am making final preparations for my upcoming solo exhibit in December.

I am also preparing for my mother’s passing. Four months shy of her 99th birthday, her functions showing signs of wear, she has decided to return to being a fleck of dust, as she puts it, after a lifetime of achievements and the uncanny ability to turn adversity into a springboard for emotional and intellectual growth.

The two events are not mutually exclusive. My mother supported my career switch from family therapist to figurative painter, taking an active interest in each canvas produced, offering her interpretation of it and praise that warmed my heart, punctuating her statements with a reminder that I was–and would always be–her “filly.”

My brother and I are planning a memorial service to honor her memory, in which her life will be celebrated rather than her passing mourned.

Two years ago, my mother said to me on the phone: “I get the feeling you think I’m immortal.” To which I replied: “You mean you aren’t?”

That started a conversation on the advantages of being prepared for a loved one’s departure. At first, I resisted the idea. Envisioning the day when my mother would not be at the other end of the line when I called, which was often, disturbed me. Then, one night, as I gazed at the moon, I thought: Maman sees the same moon! That revelation inspired me to write a poem acknowledging my mother’s mortality. I thanked her for being a wonderful mother and gave her permission to go.

That was the first step. For the last two years, my mother and I covered every topic relating to her eventual passing. We spoke candidly of death and its rituals; she reiterated her belief that we are all dust particles, part of a much greater universe than our little planet Earth; and more than once she mentioned that her preferred way to leave would be a fatal fall while hiking in her beloved Alps.

Now here we are, at the intersection of our respective journeys: for her, the end of a physical life; for me, the realization that she will always be with me, particles or no particles.

Dearest mother, rest in peace.

Should clients read their therapist’s session notes?

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The latest trend in some psychotherapy circles is to let clients read the session notes compiled by their therapist. Say what?

That’s right. According to a recent New York Times article titled What the Therapist Thinks About You, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, following the current trend towards increased transparency, is conducting an experiment with mental health patients that grants them access to their therapist’s notes shortly after a session. The rationale behind this? Session notes are part of a person’s medical records and, as such, should be made available to clients who wish to read them.

I take issue with that position. The content-driven medical model focuses on diagnosis, treatment, and–one hopes–cure, and is not necessarily de rigueur in a therapeutic setting. Relationship-building is what drives therapy. And while most patients might want their doctor to be warm and pleasant, as opposed to aloof and curt, the success of medical treatment is not predicated on a physician’s bedside manners. In therapy, the process-oriented treatment is intricately tied to the quality of the relationship between therapist and client. Therapists, exploring the psychological states of their clients, delve into somewhat mysterious territory. More often than not, what troubles clients is invisible. Shrunken heart? Oversize ego? There is no equivalent to the descriptive “enlarged prostate” in therapy, where nuance is key and grey areas abound.

Why do therapists write session notes? First, because it’s the law. Documenting what takes place in every session is the therapist’s legal and ethical obligation. The notes also help therapists keep track of both the client’s progress and their own trajectory in adhering to the treatment plan and meeting the goals set for therapy.

I see danger in granting clients access to their therapist’s session notes. The notes are written in the language of psychotherapy. Knowing that clients can read them, therapists might be tempted to edit them for clarity or to amend the content to avoid offending the very people they are trying to help. In such instances, the notes become futile, a perfunctory document instead of an authentic assessment. Furthermore, a client’s insistence on clarification regarding the notes could imperil the therapeutic process by shifting the focus away from therapy itself.

It is not surprising that psychotherapy notes have not been made as readily available to clients as medical records: mental illness is a subject rife with controversy, fueled by misconceptions about the role of psychotherapy in treating such ailments and the fact that people who suffer from them are still stigmatized by labels that may not fit, but stick. This, I believe, makes the need for maintaining the confidentiality of session notes all the more crucial.

I applaud motions to promote transparency in a variety of fields: government, finance, politics, education, the medical establishment. But I seriously doubt that letting clients read what their therapist wrote about them is going to enhance the therapeutic process.

 

The Silence of the Quakers

QuakerHat

 

I have a friend who was raised a Quaker. While discussing our respective faiths (I grew up Protestant) and the rituals associated with other religions, we discovered a shared dislike of scripted responses during worship. This led to a description of how we communicate with that entity referred to as GOD.

When my friend told me that Quakers communicate with GOD in silence, I was stunned. I am a big fan of silence. Silence in therapy, silence in nature, silence in church (except for musical interludes).

“Tell me more,” I said to her. She listed the values by which Quakers try to live their lives: social justice, gender equality, education, peace, simplicity. It turns out that those are my values too. My stereotype of a Quaker–funny hat, seriousness, traditionalism–had to go. We agreed that I would join her next time she attends a Quaker meeting.

That is a rather unexpected development for a person who, in essence, is spiritual, but resistant to the idea of institutionalized religion. I’d rather communicate privately with GOD, when the urge strikes, wherever I may be: walking in the park; sitting on a train; lying in bed just before I fall asleep.

In the Quaker approach, Friends prepare for the meeting by reaching a meditation-like state. That is progressive. They are encouraged to speak only if what they have to say contributes to furthering knowledge or understanding. That is what therapists-in-training are instructed to do when they start their clinical internship.

Let the silence speak.

I will keep you posted on my forays into “Quakerdom.”

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Arguing

We hold in our minds a picture of what we look and sound like in our interactions with others. That picture is based on various assumptions, perceptions, and opinions–primarily our own. Do we really appear to others as we think we do?

Most of us adjust our communication style according to the context in which it takes place–by not behaving in church as we would in a bar during happy hour, for example. Somewhat paradoxically, we often put less effort into communicating with the people closest to us, perhaps because we take those relationships for granted. It is, of course, much easier to charm strangers who mean little or nothing to us: Such encounters do not require any emotional investment on our part.

An argument arises over a difference of opinion. In the realm of human relations, divergent viewpoints are par for the course. The challenge lies in knowing how to express them calmly, without hostility or condescendence. That means focusing not only on what we are trying to convey (content), but how we convey it (delivery). Yes, it’s more work, but the payback, a “good” argument, is invaluable.

Good arguments are exchanges in which the participants follow a few basic rules of engagement, thereby facilitating the emergence of a solution that suits all parties. A “bad” argument, on the other hand, is one that escalates to the point where a discussion is no longer possible and the contentious subject is relegated to the back burner.

The condition sine qua non of good arguing is self-awareness: being attuned to the non-verbal cues we give away while we speak; our choice of words; our tone of voice; our capacity for listening and hearing what our partner is saying; our calmness in the face of repeated provocations.

What I am proposing is that arguing well is a skill that can be learned. You might call it an oxymoron. I see it as a reachable goal. Contrary to popular belief, communication is not about venting–it’s about being heard.

To that end, I have devised an action plan that features five basic rules of effective communication:

The Five Rules of Communication

  • Timing (choose the right moment to have a discussion)
  • Tone (stay calm)
  • Topic (bring up one topic only)
  • I-Statements (start sentences with I, I, I, not you, you, you)
  • Time-Out (call time-out to end a non-productive discussion)

Pretty simple, right? Try it. See what happens. Think of it as learning a new language: the more you practice, the better you speak it.

Make all the mistakes you want, then get back on the horse. Never give up. The stakes are too high.

Symbolic violence: The stealthy aggressor

 

Violence is a form a communication. Not a desirable one, to be sure, but inevitable as long as mankind lasts.

We know what physical violence looks like because it leaves visible marks. By comparison, symbolic violence may seem harmless: after all, no blood is shed. Blood, however, is tangible, it can be wiped off; not so the effects of symbolic violence, which linger and fester–invisible, insidious.

Symbolic violence is a recurring theme in the social theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. One may agree or disagree with his postulate that “all pedagogic action is, objectively, symbolic violence insofar as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary [sic] by an arbitrary power.” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture)  In other words, schools, as purveyors of the dominant culture ideology, are the primary vehicles for exercising this type of violence. Education, for Bourdieu, is a natural conduit for indoctrination, but symbolic power is also wielded by means of “capital”: economic (i.e., wealth), cultural (titles and qualifications), symbolic (honor and prestige), social (connections).

In my interpretation of Bourdieu’s concept, symbolic violence occurs when society’s dominant groups (or institutions) use their capital to maintain power over those with less capital (e.g., women, minorities, immigrants), thereby securing their future as the rightful inheritors of a social order that is validated by the dominant discourse. In so doing, they continue to reproduce the social inequalities embedded in the system.

None of this is explicit, deliberate, or even conscious: It is considered a natural state of affairs by the ruling classes, which is to be expected, but also–surprisingly–by those subjected to their domination. Having been fed the same narrative since birth, the underprivileged become complicit in maintaining the status quo, questioning their own abilities rather than the legitimacy of the existing power structure. (Bourdieu &  Passeron, 1970, La Reproduction)

Bourdieu’s analysis, to me, is quite relevant in the therapeutic setting, especially as it pertains to hidden patterns of interaction in couples and families, metacommunication, upended hierarchies, and skewed power relations, to name but a few.

Although symbolic violence was never listed as one of the presenting problems during my clinical apprenticeship, it was frequently acted out in session with one family member “taking the voice” of another. (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981, Family therapy techniques)  In the language of family therapy, taking someone’s voice is an attempt to silence that person, and thus an act of symbolic violence. When your partner ignores you, excludes you, dismisses you, devalorizes you, how do you react? If you are neither heard nor seen by the person closest to you, do you still exist? What happens to your sense of self, your identity?

Symbolic violence, which must remain covert in order to be perceived as legitimate, is common in relationships where the power differential between partners is significant; it also manifests itself in contentious divorce proceedings. For example:

A husband exercises power over his soon-to-be ex by portraying her, with poise and eloquence, as lazy, volatile, greedy, and therefore undeserving of his money. The wife tries to defend herself, but his depiction of her is so unjust that she cannot find the words and falters. In that vulnerable, powerless state, she begins to wonder if, perhaps, her husband’s remarks are justified.

A young married professional woman, mother of a toddler, is a model of efficiency at work and at home. Born to parents whose substantial economic capital enabled her to pursue advanced degrees, she carries within her the prerogatives that come with membership in her country’s dominant culture. Her husband, equally competent in his field and a doting father, hails from another country and earns less than his wife. As self-appointed decision-maker, she doesn’t seek input from her husband. Instead, she takes his voice–without malice, but simply because her viewpoint is the “right” and only viewpoint: the one that mirrors the hierarchy of power relations that she internalized from a young age.

A divorced husband runs into his ex-wife in a shop. She greets him, not warmly, but with civility. He looks away, keeping his head turned, without responding. She shrugs and moves on. By not acknowledging his former wife, the mother of his children, the man communicates his contempt symbolically: You are nothing to me, I do not see you, I do not hear you, therefore you do not exist.

How do we help a victim of symbolic violence?

– Symbolic violence needs to be identified, named, and exposed as the serious and very real form of aggression that it is.

– The partner who is subjected to symbolic violence must resist attempts to be silenced by regaining his/her voice and continue to challenge the status quo.

– The partner who exercises symbolic violence has to be willing to examine his/her own role in the power dynamics of the relationship.

Not a small undertaking, I know. But it’s a start, wouldn’t you say?

What therapy is NOT

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Therapy is not just talk.

Make no mistake: Therapists are not mere conversationalists. They do not, as a rule, enter the therapy room unprepared and unaware of the responsibility that comes with the title. During session they assess, conceptualize, hypothesize, diagnose, set goals, intervene, evaluate progress. Between sessions they write letters to judges, probation officers, immigration lawyers, youth protection agencies. Throughout the day they confer with colleagues, supervisors, psychiatrists, teachers, school counselors, social workers. And, last but not least, they keep up-to-date records of all matters pertaining to the treatment of their clients. Having laid the groundwork, they go into session with a plan, knowing full well that it may have to be modified to meet the client’s needs.

The seamless quality of the therapeutic encounter is only possible because the therapist is prepared. Simply put, therapists work hard at making therapy look like it’s “just talk.”

There are, of course, exceptions. Every profession has its share of miscreants, misfits and misguided souls. I myself have met a few. As you, no doubt, must have.

Therapy, to me, is less about talk than it is about silence. Not the silence of defiance or avoidance. But rather the silence that lets clients hear their inner voices, the silence that fosters creative thinking and opens up new possibilities. Silence, as an intervention, is a powerful form of communication. It invites reflection which, in turn, enables clients to work through the issues that brought them to therapy. Like all interventions, silence is most effective in the context of a trusting relationship between client and clinician.

My training is in marriage and family therapy, and it is from that perspective that I broach the subject of silence. In my early days as a content-driven intern, I talked to fill the silence and asked questions that had little therapeutic relevance. To my surprise, the more information I gathered, the less I knew what to do with it. It took me months to shift from Grand Inquisitor to participant observer.

As my level of comfort with silence grew, my need to be central to the therapeutic process lessened. This led me to experiment with spatial configurations by moving my chair back a few feet while I instructed clients to carry on as if I wasn’t there. I discovered that the repositioning of my clients’ chairs prior to their arrival produced rich enactments with minimal intervening on my part.

Non-verbal means of communication such as silence, space, and touch are potent signifiers in the therapeutic setting. Making use of them requires a certain amount of creativity, which is one of the mainstays of therapy, the willingness to take calculated risks, and sufficient sang-froid to handle the fallout, should there be any.

The Therapy Room

Language is one component of communication, but we also communicate through body language, behavior, even silence. Often, those non-verbal cues are more revealing than words because they are involuntary manifestations of our unconscious. So when we think we are not “saying” anything, we are, in fact, communicating. “One cannot not communicate,” Watzlawick et al. postulated in their book, Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967).

The potential for misunderstandings, missteps, and mayhem in interpersonal communication is enormous. In a cross-cultural setting, the perils are greater still. We make assumptions based on our own cultural background and unwittingly cause offense. In some cultures, the content-driven message is far more important than the context in which it is received. In others, relationships trump content. If every gesture, glance, or inflection is steeped in meaning that varies across cultures, how are we going to communicate effectively with each other?

I am a marriage and family therapist. Listening to families, couples, adolescents and children express their discontent, their rage, their pain in session has led me to the realization that most presenting problems have to do with communication, which can be both the source of the problem and the path to its resolution.

What is therapy if not communication?