Friday, July 02, 2010

Just the facts, ma'am

The biggest surprise about studying to be a marriage and family therapist isn't how often friends want to talk to me about their relationships. Rather, it is how I have completely lost my ability to answer them.

It's not because I am getting more stupid with age. (Please don't all comment at once. :) It is because we do exactly the opposite of what friends do. When you are having a conflict with someone, a friend will normally clasp their head in their hands and say, "Wow! What a horrible person the other person is! And how right you are!"

MFTs, on the other hand, are often accused of being neutral in a conflict. Actually, we are much worse than that: we take everyone's side. The lofty clinical term for this is "multidirected partiality." In plain English, it means that we try to teach everyone how everyone else sees the world – and then leverage that to build new relationships and better ways of problem solving. So a lot of what we do involves helping people see the other person's position and speak to its interests. We do this not to kiss up to people, but rather because, clinically, it is pretty much the only approach that works.

This isn't what friends want to hear, of course. And I certainly understand and respect why. Emotionally, it is much more satisfying to have someone take your side against the bad guy or gal, and that is what friends are expected to do. So while I certainly express lots of empathy for people, the minute I actually start to answer their questions I am on thin ice. Because I am trained to get them thinking about how to engage in dialogue with these dirty, rotten, horrible (fill in your own adjective here) people.

So does this mean that friends can't ever ask me for advice? Really, I don't mind. Just as long as they realize that they probably aren't going to like my answers. (Oh, and while we're at it, you should also never ask a budding psychotherapist how they are doing, because they will probably tell you! That's why we are no fun at parties either.)

Meanwhile if, lucky you, you don't know me well, here is a small example of what we teach people. It is a powerful technique called "reframing." It means that you stop labeling the other person, and start boiling down your interactions with them into cold, hard facts. For example:

• "He is a goof-off" becomes "He is two days later with his projects than most of us."
• "She is a control freak" becomes "She makes sure we finish all of the paperwork"
• "My boss is stabbing me in the back" becomes "My boss feels free to share his opinion of me with others, just like I do"
• "My co-worker is always angry" becomes "When my co-worker says X, this is how I respond"

To try it out for yourself, just stop saying the things on the left, and start saying the things on the right. Then watch what happens. It helps a lot, right? That's what my clients tell me. And do you see why my friends think I've grown three heads when I suggest a heaping helping of it?

But it *is* extraordinarily powerful. Think about it: when a coach tells a team they "choked" or "stunk," those words are not only scary but useless. There is no such thing as an anti-choking procedure or a non-stink drill. What actually happened is that they dropped a critical pop fly in the eighth inning, and that can be dealt with. Move from criticizing people to troubleshooting facts, and you will be amazed at what you can address and resolve. Good luck!

1 comment:

joemanich said...

How true what you say here Rich. Your line about not asking you how you feel, because you will probably tell us, reminded me about the trouble that Roberto Clemente always had with the press. When he was ask how he was feeling, he would actually tell them (my neck is stiff, I could not sleep last night, my back is killing me), he was then labeled as a complainer!

Take care