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Seven Questions for John Gray

Seven Questions for John Gray
This week's installment features John Gray, Ph.D., author of the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus series that has sold over 40,000,000 books. The Seven Questions project asks the same seven psychotherapy-related questions to influential therapists: prominent historical figures, top officers in the professional associations and popular authors. I welcome Dr. Gray, one of the best selling authors of all time.

John Gray (Ph.D., Psychology and Human Sexuality, Columbia Pacific University) is an author, Certified Family Therapist, popular speaker and founder of the Mars Venus industry that includes everything from online dating to coaching to internal cleansing products. No kidding. He was the Consulting Editor of the Family Journal, and a member of the Distinguished Advisory Board of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. His 16 best-selling books have earned him the title: "the best selling relationship author of all time."

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Gray's central message is simple yet controversial: men and women are different. Their thoughts, feelings, desires and communication styles are wired differently, psychologically and physiologically. Better relationships come from understanding and accepting these differences rather than trying to change one other. His books apply these principles to dating, relationship issues, sex, the workplace, dieting, and most recently, conflict resolution. According to Gray:

"My most recent book is Why Mars & Venus Collide, which works toward understanding how men and women cope differently with stress. I think that's a key factor for therapy today, understanding how stress attacks us differently and how we misinterpret each other and how we can better understand each other's needs so we can support each other. What I see happening is that men and women don't realize how they unknowingly step on each other's feet. The therapist can help be the center person to say: Because you're a guy, you wouldn't understand how important this is, but when your wife expresses her feelings and you roll your eyes or chuckle, it's really like punching her in the stomach. You wouldn't realize it because if you're with other guys and some guy rolls his eyes you'd say ‘wait a second here, I'm making a good point' but you wouldn't feel devastated or put down."

Dr. Gray was kind enough to grant me a personal interview. He preferred we conduct the interview by phone, so the following is from our November 25, 2008 phone call. Enjoy these candid responses from a man who epitomizes contemporary popular psychology.

Seven Questions for John Gray:

1. How would you respond to a new client who asks: "What should I talk about?"

Usually, what I say is, "How do you think I can help you?" If they say "I don't know" I ask them to come back when they figure it out. I'm a tough therapist. Somebody's got to come to me feeling like they have a need.

2. What do clients find most difficult about the therapeutic process?

I don't know, they love coming to me! Sometimes when you're doing therapy with an individual it's important to trace back some of the reactions they're having in the present time to painful memories in their past, and there are some clients who find the thought of that difficult, but then once they do it it's not.

It's like somebody telling you, "in this movie somebody's going to die." People die in movies all the time, but if you know somebody's going to die, you don't want to go. You have a resistance to certain things, but when you're actually doing it, it's not so bad. Like going to see Titanic, a lot of people didn't go because they didn't want to see a bunch of people die. But everybody who went thought it was a great show.

3. What mistakes do therapists make that hinder the therapeutic process?

As a young therapist what I didn't understand was that a major portion of the benefit people get from therapy is having someone listen to what their feelings are and go a little deeper than they've ever gone before. That process can be circumvented if as a therapist you don't recognize the value of listening, and instead you start offering advice on different ways someone can look at something. There's nothing wrong with giving advice, but more importantly, the mistake therapists make is giving advice before they really understand the situation and before the client has the opportunity to really understand the situation. People think they understand the situation, but if you're more patient and take time to explore it, you'll find there's more to every situation than meets the eye.

If everything was on the surface, then the answer would be obvious. Often, the therapist thinks the answer is obvious, which is dismissive of the person's intelligence. If it's that easy to solve, what did you need a therapist for? So take more time to understand the problem, be more thoughtful about it before suggesting something.

4. In your opinion, what is the ultimate goal of therapy?

Well, there are many different types of therapy. The goal of couples counseling is to increase the understanding between each partner and help them realize how they unknowingly sabotage the relationship. Your greatest hope is to point out to people what they didn't know before. You know, if someone's beating up their partner they know that's bad, so pointing that out to them - ala Dr. Phil advice - to spank them for what they already know, really is worthless.

It's helping them to gain insight into the situation and look at it in a different way that they didn't realize. That is the "Aha!"; the insight that can change behavior. As I mentioned earlier: a guy rolls his eyes when his partner shares feelings, which is no big deal with his guy friends, but is a big deal with his wife. And the other side: a woman starts henpecking her husband saying, "You shouldn't do that, you should do this," behaviors that every mother would do with her child, but something you shouldn't do with a man. For me, it's very gender specific.

This goes for the previous question, too. Advice for her is not the same as advice for him. It's a huge mistake to treat them the same because we are so uniquely different, and to not accept those differences can sabotage a whole counseling session. Meaning, to expect a man to react and respond and behave and think the way a woman does just reinforces her own criticism for him for not reacting the way she does.

5. What is the toughest part of being a therapist?

I know of many therapists who burn out. I never did. I love doing therapy; it's as fun as can be. I counsel therapists who burn out and I teach them how not to bring the problems of the office home. Every therapist has to learn a very important skill which is to not feel that it's within your power to change your client. Therapists will give advice to their clients which they think is good advice and then their clients either don't receive it or don't make that change, and then at that point it becomes extremely frustrating when you become attached to your clients' seeing something the way you see it. Whenever you expect someone to make a change greater than they're able to make, or greater than they're willing to make, then you become extremely frustrated and it drains your energy because you're thinking, "Well, you should just make this change."

Whenever I even start to notice a sense of frustration within myself I recognize that I'm not giving a very good message to my client. Whenever you're frustrated with someone you're telling them, "you're not enough, you're not doing it right, you're not living up to my expectations." That's not helping the client, it's not helping yourself. You'll take it home with you and struggle with it: "why can't they make this change?" You beat yourself up for not helping them make the right change, instead of having a patient understanding that respects that all people are different and they have their own process of getting better. Just spending some time with you they are getting better, don't measure it by the same yardstick. Some people get better right away, some people take longer. Otherwise you start feeling not good enough or give the message they're not good enough.

6. What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of being a therapist?

For me, the most rewarding part is to step out of my world and see the world of other people. It helps me appreciate my life so much more. My problems are nothing compared to the problems of the people I talk to. It just allows me to appreciate the blessings I have in my life so much more when I see the struggles other people go through.

Second is to be of assistance to them in that process makes you feel like you're really making a difference. So it's like a double benefit.

7. What is one pearl of wisdom you would offer clients about therapy?

There was a study a long time ago that talked about the people who got benefit out of therapy and the people who didn't. Some people were able to use therapy in a way that was productive and other people were not. They were trying to look at the qualities of the people who could benefit the most from therapy and those who wouldn't. I don't remember the results of the study, but it's a good set up for a question I have an answer for! You asked earlier what I would tell people who ask what to talk about and I said, "How do you think I can help you?" You come into therapy not to have somebody fix you, but you come into therapy to have somebody help you fix yourself. One therapist could be really good for other people, but not necessarily the one for you.

You shouldn't feel your therapist is just someone who has technical skill, which is important, but you want to make sure your therapist is the right fit. Just like you want to marry the right person for you, you might want to check out several therapists before you settle into one. There is something very powerful about finding the right person for you. You should measure your therapy by how you feel afterwards. You should end up feeling good through your therapy. You should be feeling good, like you're making progress, like you have hope and support. That is a sign that you're with the right therapist. Sometimes people go to a therapist and it's not the right fit and they end up feeling bad, but part of their sickness is that they keep going back to people who make them feel bad. People should know that if you're not feeling good in your therapy you're seeing the wrong therapist; and don't blame therapy for it. It could be the technique isn't right, or the technique is fine but the therapist isn't right.

Back in ancient Greece, all the creative people would have a muse, and the muse would inspire greatness in them. Therapists should be like a muse: somehow, just by sitting with that person for an hour, you're inspired to be a better person. Those people exist. Most people who come see me say that about me, but not everyone. For some people, sitting with me for an hour is boring, but for other people, sitting with me for an hour is inspiring. You want to find somebody who, just by their presence, and being authentic in their presence, you feel inspired and uplifted. That's the therapist you want to find. And they do exist.

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I've been pleased to discover the Seven Questions have gone viral. A few of you are responding in your own blogs, most notably Cheryl from Jung at Heart who contributes a thoughtful Jungian perspective. I'm all for it - the more the merrier.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, musician and professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.

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