The Dance of Therapy involves learning to read between the lines. It is as much about what clients don’t say as it is about what they do say. One of my favorite cartoons is from Gary Larson, of the FAR SIDE. It says, “What we say to our dogs: Sit, Ginger. Roll over, Ginger. Stay, Ginger. Lie down, Ginger.” Then it says, “What our dogs hear: Blah-blah, Ginger. Blah-blah, Ginger.” I think a lot of human conversation is very like that. We make noise. We speak from scripts that our friends and families don’t even have to listen to because they know they are set pieces. They don’t listen to the words because they are listening to the rhythms. Intonation, volume, pitch, and speed are the things that our friends and family are listening to, not the content. Much of our communication is background murmuring, like a cat purring: I am content, I am here, I am doing my thing. Sometimes, if we have consistent patterns (and we all do) we are saying, “My life sucks, I am angry, you don’t notice me or care about me, I am happy, I am content, or I am busy.” Our families know our rhythms and listen to the music of the dance rather than the content of the statements. When we need someone to listen to the content of the statement, we need to find a way in which to signal them. In strong and healthy relationships, people have found a way to emerge from the background murmurings of their relations and say “notice this part now.” This part can be happy or sad, it can be angry or anxious, it can be afraid or loving, but it is standing out from the background picture of our day and our life.
Part of an intimate relationship is the unspoken agreement that I will be there for you at your request, or when you need me. So the Dance of Relationships evolves with intimate individuals learning to indicate or signal need. Some couples learn to verbalize specific requests, but a lot of people, in my experience, learn how to signal the need to be noticed by pouting, being moody, acting out or in some other non-verbal manifestation. The therapeutic relationship is a type of artificial intimacy. In this intimate relationship the therapist plays an important, but carefully defined role. We are taught in our training, that it is impossible for people not to communicate. Humans are always communicating, both verbally and nonverbally. We are taught to attend to the rhythms of their communication to identify when and where incongruent statements lie. Whenever there is an incongruent note between what the client says verbally and what they say nonverbally, the therapist must ALWAYS believe the non verbal statement. We all learn to lie verbally to protect and to hide, even from ourselves. The truth is in the “nonverbals.” Part of the job of the therapist is to hear the truth. Then the therapist must wait for the opportunity to identify the incongruence and present that reality to the client at a time and in a way that they can afford to recognize it. Only then can the therapist help explore what the client wants to do about it.
When a client comes to the office for therapy, the therapist is supposed to facilitate the establishment of a safe holding environment. The client can then begin to examine their anxieties and pains secure in the feeling that someone is paying attention. Everything is constantly noticed in a positive, understanding way. That is purpose of the safe holding environment. The skills of the therapist include learning how to attend to both the verbalized and non-verbalized statements of the client. We, as therapists, have to learn to gently inquire, probe, and reflect what we are “hearing” on all channels, so that we can ask the client directly, “Do I understand what you are saying? Am I hearing you clearly? Do I get it?” We have to do this in a way that does not startle the client, or distract them from the message they are delivering, or make them feel threatened because they are being seen so clearly. Paradoxically, even though clients engage in the process of being seen by offering themselves up for visibility, they do not want to loose control of their safety and of their ability to reintroduce their mask if they feel threatened. The therapist needs to passively digest and gently reflect the reality of the client until such time as the safe holding environment is truly functioning. When this occurs, the relationship between the therapist and the client is strong enough for a more direct and challenging reflection.
In the Dance, the movement begins slowly and then rises to a more aggressive tempo. Sometimes it has movements that evolve like those of a symphony. There are themes for the main characters that announce themselves when one listens accurately and attentively. The client often does not know consciously that they are broadcasting these thematic statements in their symphony, but they are. The therapist needs to identify these themes, while patiently and gently exploring them. The therapist must wait for the right moment to reflect these themes back to the client. The goal is to help the client be able to “hear” these themes. I am reminded of the movements in Scheherazade and the theme for the Sultan. Heavy, slow, and ponderous it begins in the distance and grows stronger……. Many times clients have themes that begin in the distance while they talk “Blah, blah Ginger.” It is the job of the therapist to hear these thematic statements, begin to recognize, and then invite them to come into clarity so that both the therapist and the client can “feel” and “hear” the theme clearly.
Once the therapist can “hold” the theme it becomes their challenge to be able to play it back to the client so that the client can “hear” it. This involves studying the client to learn the language of the imagery they use. What analogy will they be able to hear and to “get” immediately? Can the therapist speak the language of the client and communicate in the “harmony” of the symphonic movements of the clients? When the music is on the same channel for the client and the therapist, then the therapist begins to suggest that there may be other orchestral arrangements, other instruments which can be used by the client to make the musical statement in a more clear and effective way for the needs of the client. Sometimes the client is trying to create a harmony that is peaceful and quieting, sometimes it is a love song. Sometimes it is a rising climax of fury and explosive action as in “The 1812 Overture”, which leads to a major change in direction for the client. All of this is so beautiful, and yet so demanding in terms of the skills of the therapist. The therapist is part artist, part conductor, part confidant, and ALL listener. If the job is done correctly, the Dance of Therapy is a healing, beautiful symphony.