The Importance of Specific Incidents

Specific incidents can undermine the master narrative.

Posted Jul 15, 2019

It’s hard to teach a concept you know like a first language because it’s hard to see what’s getting in the way. One of those concepts for me has been the importance of considering incidents in understanding myself and others. Every year, despite my best efforts, students report summaries, interpretations, and categorizations of incidents rather than incidents themselves.

Here’s an example of the problem from my own practice.

            Caseworker: We need a placement for this 14-year-old girl.  She's out of control.

            Me: What do you mean, out of control?

            Caseworker: Nobody can manage her.

            Me: Specifically, what has she done?

            Caseworker: She's aggressive, impulsive, defiant.

            Me: Can you give me an example?

            Caseworker: She does whatever she wants whenever she wants.

            Me: Okay, what's the worst thing she has ever done.

            Caseworker: She was abusive to her mother.

            Me: What did she do to her mother?  Specifically.

            Caseworker: She verbally abused her.

In one of my classes, students have to report a specific incident from their fieldwork, their own lives, or the class itself, and then interpret the incident through one of the theoretical lenses we cover. An incident, I explain, is something that happens over the course of seconds, a verbal description that creates in the reader’s head a gif or short video. It is, I say, not the link you would click on but what you would get if you clicked on the link. Invariably, I receive papers interpreting the roommate’s never doing the dishes, the client’s refusal to leave at the end of sessions, and the student’s own perpetual silence in class.

As a clinician, I could deal with this by zooming in: “Take me to one particular session that the client refused to leave. Get the moment in your head and describe it for me.” Then, I could add, “Something seems to be getting in the way of describing a specific moment.” As a teacher, I am not always authorized to investigate what’s getting in the way.

Specific incidents disrupt the master narrative of what’s going on. It’s easy enough to twist any specific incident to fit the master narrative, but there’s always a chance that an incident will not fit the concept. For example, you might settle on a narrative that a teacher is a bully as a way of making sense of your bad feelings about not already having mastered the material. It’s much more tolerable to think that the teacher is a bully than to think that you bully yourself.

Indeed, the hallmark advantage of psychological-mindedness—the recognition that the self is not monolithic and aligned—is that many external conflicts can be reframed as internal conflicts, where resolution then doesn’t depend on others. Anyway, another student tells you that the teacher in question is affectionate and supportive. This information, as noted, is relatively easily dealt with: obviously, this other student is a kiss-ass, a masochist, or a member of some demographic the professor likes. But a specific incident is harder for the master narrative of bullying to manage.

This other student says she got caught falsifying her paperwork and reports the moment she confessed to the professor, who responded with curiosity about why she felt so much pressure to make the record look good (in other words, with a focus on the incident rather than on the other student’s character). You can still force this incident to fit the master narrative: perhaps the professor is kind only to the demolished, but the specifics are more likely than the summary (“the professor was nice”) to make you wonder whether you have been misinterpreting the professor’s focus on details as a kind of bullying.

A variant of the way specific incidents undermine master narratives is the way one loses control of their interpretation. In the example with the caseworker, she did not give me any information that could lead to a different interpretation of the girl’s behavior. If she had said, for example, that the girl came home from school and started screaming at the mother, calling her a tramp and a whore, I might have sought information about what might have provoked this behavior.

Perhaps the mother was wearing makeup for the first time in a while, and perhaps the girl interpreted this as preparing to date again, and perhaps the girl associates her mother’s dating with disruption of the household because mom brings home only a certain type of guy. Or maybe mom had told her she had to stay home because the school had called and reported truancy. Now, the impulsivity looks like a crack in the authority system, and I might have wondered if the alliance between mother and school (or mother and caseworker) needed strengthening more than the girl needed placement.

The key element in consultation of this sort is to create a collaborative relationship with the caseworker so she won’t feel she is losing control of the information she shares. She has to feel as if we are weighing information and ideas together, not that she is the witness and I am the judge. This is also the key element in therapy. In education, though, the collaboration must be around learning to think more clearly and constructively, rather than collaboration around the outcome of that thinking. Students who want to feel like their contributions are valuable regardless of their quality impair their own education and experience their corrective professors as bullies. If you guard information like incriminating evidence, you experience curiosity as piracy.

In therapy, as in teaching, art, and conversation, specific incidents are much more interesting than characterizations of them, just as stories are more interesting than headlines. If you want to be interested, get a story, and if you want to be interesting, tell a story—just make sure to tell one that’s spontaneously relevant, and fairly brief, and keep the story moving along, and stop when you get to the end. I say this not as a conversational tip, but as a way to enhance mutual engagement and getting to know someone. We are more likely to revise our narrative about who we are in the context of a relationship that makes us feel interesting without the narrative. Everyone is interesting when you get the specifics.