Friday, October 28, 2011

“Teach me to interact with my son the way you interact with me.”

 New Thread:               Communication

A male client made this request during a recent session. His son, a young man, lives independently of his parents. Below is a fictionlized and condensed exchange, gleaned from many interactions with clients over the years, that might serve as a response to his request. It applies to fathers with sons as much as clinicians with patients, lovers with each other, friends with friends—and most fundamentally, it applies to each of us with ourselves… allowing the time, space, and curiosity to come to know who we are.

The intimacies of interaction 101
JT:    Well, what’s your experience of how I interact with you that is how you want to interact with your son?

Client:    You ask my permission to ask me something, or to suggest something. You tell me to use only the bits and pieces of our interaction that are useful to me. You tell me to change what occurs to you to say… and make it right for me. You are careful to make sure I follow what I think and feel is right for me. You tell me whatever I come up with is the good stuff. You tell me if you say something and it doesn’t fit, then you probably blew it, because you don’t know me well enough. You tell me no matter how much or how long we interact, I will always be the expert in what’s best for me.

You hardly ever suggest what I should do. Or if you do, you tell me it’s not because you think I should do it, but because you are curious about what I think in response to the suggestion.

You ask me questions about what I’m doing. Although you ask me about what I don’t like, or what I think the problem is, you seem much more curious about what lights me up. When I do something new that I like, you ask me about it, and what I imagine supported me in doing the new thing, or the new thing I learned.

You take time to think about what I tell you. Sometimes you ask me if I can hold on to what I’m next going to say, so you can sit still and let what I just said sift around inside for a while. You often ask me questions about what I just said—not as a challenge, but to check your understanding of what I said.

If you get lost or your attention drifts you tell me, and ask me to go back to what I said that you last got. Or you ask me a question about what I said that you didn’t get. I know you are listening, because I know you know when you’re not, and you tell me.

You look at me while I’m talking. You don’t just respond to what I say, but to how I say it. You ask me what it meant when I changed my voice while I said something. You notice when I have an emotional response to what I’m telling you.

While you talk to me you take in my non-verbal responses and it affects what you say and how you say it. Or when you notice I have a response to what you are saying, you stop and make room for me—maybe asking me “what just happened?” or just waiting, giving me space.

In this portrayal, this father’s request, “Teach me to interact with my son the way you interact with me,” implies he already recognizes a lot of what took place in his exchange with me that he wants to bring to his interaction with his son. The starting point of my response is to ask after what he already knows. The vignette above is streamlined; it does not include the exchanges we would have or the questions I would ask that would support his connecting with, clarifying, and using what he is learning.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Becoming more available to one’s intelligent responsivity

Threads:                        Context, Learning

Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
All of a sudden I found this thing... the ability to play off of things and work with other people and create....
                  — actor Robin Williams, describing his early improv studies
A physician friend told me of a recent experience (here freely paraphrased): He was interacting with a patient and found himself not only listening to her words, but also watching her movements, hearing the changes in voice tone and noticing the movement of breathing. When she asked a question, he found himself responding. He didn’t know what he was going to say even as he continued to say it, it all just flowed between them. When there was no more to be said, no more to be heard, she thanked him and left. 

After telling me this, with raised eyebrows and a shrug he said, “How do you teach spontaneity?” His question worked on me for the next couple days. 

What is spontaneity?
Spontaneity is an athlete or performer in the zone; it is two friends riffing verbally—jokes and great puns of the moment; it is being available to your own intelligent responsivity without having to consciously manage it. It flows.

Study, practice, and experience support the arising of spontaneity
In many domains—athlete, musician, painter, therapist, actor—the ability to be unself-consciously responsive in the moment doesn’t just happen. It arises from years of study, practice, and experience. Robin Williams has described years of acting in school plays and with improv groups; formal study at Julliard; studying movement, facial expression, masks, accents, animal movement and behavior, and more… it all provides support for his prodigious in-the-moment responsivity.

Although I am writing in the context of the clinician/patient interaction, all of this applies to other areas of living as well.

Learning to become more available to spontaneity
I don’t think you can teach spontaneity. I think a more useful question is something like, “How does one become more available to one’s own spontaneous responsivity on behalf of generating a therapeutic outcome for one’s patients?”

Useful frame: Assume you have an unconscious
Here’s a frame I find useful: Assume that you have an unconscious. Not instead of, but in addition to your conscious knowledge and abilities, your unconscious consists of all the competences and sensitivities and coordinations (with self and other) that function intelligently and resourcefully without requiring your conscious management. This includes your competence for spontaneity.

This frame isn’t about parking your conscious mind in idle and letting your unconscious do the driving; this is about including more aspects of your responsivity and intelligence in therapeutic interaction with your patients.

Making the assumption that you have an unconscious is a useful because you can ask it to help you learn and do things you consciously believe you can’t otherwise learn or do. You can engage abilities within yourself that normally function out of conscious awareness.

Invite your unconscious to assist
At the start of each block of appointments, in addition to being available to your normal knowledge and competencies, invite your unconscious to:

1)     “bring to my notice what will evoke within me a therapeutic response
to my patient;
2)     “assist me in interacting with my patients in a way that evokes within
        them what will promote a therapeutic outcome; and

3)    “assist me in being available to my intelligent, spontaneous
        responsivity on behalf of promoting a therapeutic outcome for this
There’s overlap in these intentions, but that’s okay; the weave supports the desired outcome.

Make a deal with your unconscious that supports your learning
Consider making the following deal with your unconscious: If, during your session with a patient, it occurs to you three times to do or say something, no matter how weird, out-of-left-field, outrageous, or seemingly inappropriate it seems to your conscious mind, you agree to do or say it. And that you consciously understand what occurs to you three times during a session is a direct message from your unconscious to do it.

Part of the deal: Go at a pace you can keep up with
If you decide to make this deal, include this piece—it’s important: Ask your unconscious to present only those “3x” messages to you that it knows your conscious mind has the capacity and willingness to enact.

Deepening of conscious/unconscious coordination
All this will support gradual deepening of the coordination between your conscious mind and unconscious mind as you become more confident in the therapeutic efficacy of enacting these messages from your unconscious—even if sometimes it seems at odds with whatever conscious framework you might be holding.

The learning gradually becomes integrated
After a while, you’ll no longer need the “training wheel” construct of a message occurring three times. You will naturally come to rely on your unconscious and include spontaneous responses in your interactions with your patients—without having to know why you are saying or doing something before you are willing to say or do it. You just say or do it: Spontaneously.

Another way to go about this
I have practiced what I just described for years and it has been effective. Part of my training as a hypnotherapist has also included participating in hypnotically facilitated groups lasting several days in which all agreed to explore learning to be more available to the intelligence of our spontaneity. The collective resources of the group supported each member in their own unconscious learning process.

Comments welcome

Comments--particularly stories of your experience of the unanticipated and surprising intelligence of your own spontaneity--are welcome. 

In 2001, Robin Williams gave a 2+ hour interview and teaching class as part of the Inside the Actor’s Studio TV series. It is a tremendous video: he’s with student actors, he cares about them, he has no script, he’s responsive to the people and things around him, and he threads improv throughout. 

See the entire interview starting at Robin WIlliams, Inside the Actor's Studio. For a few minutes of world class spontaneity go to part 6 of the interview starting at 1:31.