Welcome to a conversation between two social therapists who meet regularly to share and advance our therapeutic work. We hope these dialogues can support and stimulate others who are integrating developmental conversations into their therapeutic practices and personal growth. See the first post in the series for a brief explanation of what social therapy is and the perspectives we’re coming from in our dialogues.
* * *
Ann: One of the things that’s still most challenging for me in doing therapy is resisting the impulse to come up with solutions to my clients’ problems. I find the role of “answer woman” very seductive. It’s not only because the people who come to me for help usually assume, at least at first, that help means solutions. Maybe they’d even say that’s what they’re paying me for, and I want them to feel they’re getting their money’s worth. I get that my trying to seem smart is about me, not the client. But I don’t always win the battle. What about you, Hugh? In doing therapy, do you experience the temptation to be a know-it-all?
Hugh: Oh, I outgrew that years ago. Just kidding! That temptation is always lurking, inside and outside the therapy office. But it’s not just about us wanting to be a smarty-pants. I think all of us—we, the therapists, and our clients—experience a kind of craving for a moral of the story, a solution, a product, that everyone can take home with them. As I understand it, social therapy, as a practice of not knowing, is a form of resistance to that fatal attraction we all share. It can empower the members of the group, including the therapist, to go beyond giving and getting answers to doing something more creative and developmental together.
Ann: What does that look like in your practice these days?
Hugh: Here’s one example. Last week a young woman in one of my groups, who’s just recently started college, asked for help because she was having trouble relating to the other students. In conversations with them, she said, she felt intensely self-conscious, imagining that they were making judgments about her appearance and thinking that she was “just a small-town girl with nothing interesting to say.”
A couple of people began by saying what they thought was “really” going on, having to do with race, class, or gender. Others offered advice, and some tried to comfort Melanie with stories of how they too had had a hard time fitting in when they first went to college or got a job or moved into a new neighborhood. I also felt an urge to say something insightful that would help the group to help Melanie see things in a new way. But one person, Derek, took us in a different and more interesting direction. He had a question for her. “How do you know what these other students are thinking, Melanie?”
Ann: So he wasn’t telling her what he knew. He wasn’t saying she was right or wrong in assuming what she thought or that it was “all in her head.” He was asking her how she knew what she knew. I like that! It’s the kind of philosophical question that can open a gate in a conversation and take everyone down some new roads.
Hugh: That’s a good way to describe it, I think. Therapy, as it’s usually practiced, is often about saying “knowing” things such as analyzing or explaining people’s behavior. I’m coming more and more to see that it’s one of those activities that seem important in theory but don’t have much of an impact in real life.
After Derek said what he said the conversation changed—it slowed down, became more intimate and open. Talking about their responses to Melanie, one person said he “related to” her pain and wanted to make her feel better. Another said she had been quiet because she didn’t have something smart to say. A new-ish member of the group said she wanted to solve this problem for Melanie—she thought that’s what we were supposed to do here. In this part of the conversation, they seemed less invested in knowing what to say, and more open to exploring what it means to do not knowing. Including me. I didn’t feel the pressure to know what Melanie’s problem was or how to solve it, and the group wasn’t expecting that of me. I was free to go exploring with them. We were building something—without knowing what—with what Derek had offered. Gradually the group was coming to see that the need to say knowing things had kept us distant from one another earlier, and constrained us from exploring together some new emotional experiences.
Ann: In my experience, that way of talking is hard to do—but it can also be fun, even when what you’re talking about is painful.
Hugh: If by hard, you mean awkward and uncomfortable… definitely. And it’s usually not as simple as going from Point A to Point B. But it’s often more intimate, absorbing and interesting. And it was fun, with Derek’s question leading to others. Eventually, I asked the group “What if we don’t know how to have this conversation?” I was a little hesitant about that one, because I didn’t want to sound like I was criticizing them—I didn’t feel critical, but I thought it might seem as if I were. Then I reminded myself that improvising with the group means taking the chance that I might say the wrong thing. But it turned out to be useful in opening up the question of what to do when you don’t know what to do.
Ann: As therapists we’re trained to analyze, explain, interpret… The idea is to get to the “bottom” of what’s going on, to discover its “root cause,” in order to help people out of their emotional difficulties. But it turns out that, ironically, the language of knowing closes down emotional conversation. It defines what things are rather than allowing us to explore how they might become otherwise. We want to help our clients to create new ways of talking, and living their lives, right there in the group.
Hugh: We have to be willing to work—and support our clients to work—without needing to come up with a finished product. Come to think of it, it’s no different in the conversations that you and I are having here, where we’re also trying to be mindful of not coming to conclusions.
Ann: Is that a wrap?
Hugh: Let’s hope not.