Last week I had a class with a group of family therapy students. We talked about different models, concepts and practitioners who set the way for family therapy to evolve into what it is today.
In the middle of a discussion about a particular case study, one student raised his hand and said something along the lines: “Professor is it A or B? According to this model, it looks like it is A, in which case I do not see how it can be beneficial to a client.” He asked me a question, listed two options, picked one of the options and told me why this option did not work. And he seemed very determined that this was the only answer.
I invited the student to examine the question he just asked, and unpack the layers of information this question was seeking to uncover. The student repeated the question, in a slower tone; he was determined to provide the information and explain the answer, before getting any feedback from me or his peers.
In everyday life, these situations invite power struggles, which usually result in conflict. In a therapeutic setting, the therapist may invite the client to explore the structure of the question, recognize the method that the client chose to deliver information, and invite him to examine the intentions associated with it. An attentive therapist would have an opportunity to notice and interrupt the exchange patterns between the clients in the room.
At this point, I had a choice — to give a definition of A and B and talk about the theory, or to address the structure of the question and engage a student in a conversation about it. In front of me was an opportunity to bring textbook words to a practical example; the only thing standing between me and this teaching moment was a student.
One of my mentors taught me that, in a session, even the smallest interactions can provide material for therapeutic interventions. Clients being late to session, making repeated negative comments, questioning the decorations in the office or therapist’s age — all have potential to be a therapeutic treasure and are worth exploring. It may be uncomfortable, and might bring resistance or anger in our clients, but this is what is called therapy — we bring to light and invite clients to process assumptions, attitudes, and associations that they are not aware of, or may be unwilling to work through. Through our dialogue, we invite and then “hold” the safe environment - not literary, but emotionally — as they process these new ways of thinking and interacting.
When we train students to become therapists, we — as professors — walk a tightrope, a balancing act between the scholarly impartment of knowledge and the development of a unique and individual artistry in our students with respect to applying that knowledge scenarios with real people. When a technician works on a vehicle, he follows a manual with clearly defined instructions. Alas, or fortunately, people do not come with a manual. So after learning the theoretical concepts in class, students start their individual journeys of fine-tuning how they will apply that knowledge, once they start working with the clients.
Sue Johnson calls people’s interactional patterns “emotional dances” — people know their emotional dances so well that they participate in them without hearing the music. My student started the “dance” in the middle of our class discussion and we both had to make a choice — to continue the choreography of interaction by focusing on theory (content) or explore the intricacies of the interaction by talking about the structure of the choreography (process).
I was left in a precarious position as a professor — opening a path of dialogue with this student, without knowing where it would lead us. Would the student hear me? Will he understand my point? Or would he continue the pattern of his “dance," without missing a beat. The irony of this situation is that, as in therapy, we may not know where we are headed for a while, or it may be that a clear direction is never arrived at, at all. While I wouldn’t suggest that automotive technicians have it easier, in this particular situation, I envied the tangible nature of their work, with clearly numbered parts and corresponding details in the manual for how to replace or fix them. Compared to the emotional dance we engage with our clients, and the challenge to find new ways for translating it into learning material for the students, I experienced a mild case of index-envy!