Story: “Once, at the end of a first session, a person asked for some ‘homework,’ so I suggested she do some journal writing about a habit she had discovered during the session. When she arrived for the next session, she sat down, looked at me, and immediately began almost screaming that she ‘couldn’t trust me … I was just like all the others … she knew this wasn’t going to work … I had a formula that I applied to all people in therapy with me … and I wasn’t going to take a personal interest in her…’ ‘My goodness, you certainly have strong feelings!’ I replied. ‘Yes, I do! I just can’t believe you gave me journal writing. I hate journal writing, and I bet you do that with everyone!.’ ‘Well, I guess I’ve learned something about you. I’ll never ask you to journal again!’ She then burst out laughing at the absurdity of this much anger. Soon we were both laughing. I let her know I understood how important my personal attention and care were to her. She sat back and said, ‘I can’t tell you how touching it is that you are interested in learning about me and willing to change how you are in response. And, even more amazing that you didn’t just reject me as a client.’ My intention with journaling homework was to offer her something to think about and help her get more involved in therapy. The impact was that she felt distanced and uncared for. Her unconscious intention in her anger was to prove to herself that once again therapy wasn’t going to help. The impact of my response was that she got treated the way she had longed for.”
Impact is the effect your behavior has on others. Intention is the effect you want to have.
The most effective and skillful use of power is made possible by being aware of and responsive to your impact on others. When your goal is to be of the best possible service to your clients, it is imperative to be interested in and attentive to their responses to your use of your self, your role power, and your expertise. The best training and the best modalities will ultimately be compromised if you are not paying attention and then adjusting to how your clients are responding.
You may say one thing—for example, “I’d like to suggest you try…”—but your impact may cause unexpected and unintended pain if the person takes this suggestion as a putdown or manipulation. There need be no argument or defensiveness when this occurs: you and the person in therapy are both right. Your intention was good. Your client’s experience (probably based on their past history) was of feeling misunderstood, judged, or disrespected. In other words, they felt harm.
Tracking and Housekeeping
Tracking is the moment to moment process of noticing your clients’ responses to what is said, what they feel, the memories that emerge and the relationship itself. These responses will be visible or felt through tone of voice, postural movement, direct words, gestures and other physical manifestations. These can be quite subtle (for example, an emotion, if unnoticed and uncontacted, disappears in a few seconds) or quite obvious changes in body language such as folding arms, looking away, tears.
By tracking for your impact, you can clarify and repair the relationship and prevent the difficulties from escalating. For example, you might say, “I notice that you had quite a strong reaction to what I just said. I wonder if you understood what I said in a way I didn’t intend.” Clients let you know that they feel confused, misunderstood, or hurt. If you don’t notice, they will keep letting you know in ways that become more exaggerated. Good tracking skills are one of your best resources for preventing harm and repairing the relationship.
Housekeeping is the process of keeping the relationship clear and productive. Just like houses, relationships need periodic cleaning—airing out, dusting, fixing a stuck window, water drip. It’s no big deal, not good or bad – just some attention needed. If you break an egg on the floor, you clean it up. If there is a break or lack of clarity in the relationship, you clean it up—no big deal. Tracking is the moment to moment process of noticing your clients’ responses to what is said, what they feel, the memories that emerge and the relationship itself. These responses will be visible or felt through tone of voice, postural movement, direct words, gestures and other physical manifestations. These can be quite subtle (for example, an emotion, if unnoticed and uncontacted, disappears in a few seconds) or quite obvious changes in body language such as folding arms, looking away, tears.
Examples of Impact differing from Intention
You may intend to support your client’s independence, and your client may experience your support as rejection. Your client’s perceptions may be influenced by past history and therefore expectations of being abandoned may arise and bring feelings of rejection.
You may intend warmth and compassion, and your client may experience this as pity. Your client expects pity and therefore does not perceive compassion even when it is offered.
Your client may intend to be clear about a boundary, and you may experience this as non-cooperation. You may be concerned about being good enough, and therefore perceive every criticism as noncooperation on the part of your client.
You may intend comfort by a hand on your client’s shoulder, and your client may respond as if you were a former abuser. Your client may transfer feelings, responses, or expectations onto you that belong to someone else in their life.
You may intend respect, and your client experiences disrespect. The meaning of direct eye contact differs in your client’s culture.
Misperceptions of intention can occur on the part of either the caregiver or the client. In human beings, past experiences often become beliefs that then become embodied as self-protective strategies. These strategies then become expectations about how they will be treated. People often have different experiences of the same event, because we all bring our own history and expectations to every relationship.
Tracking and contacting your impact can help the relationship self-correct quickly and successfully. Like navigating a sailboat, the person at the helm keeps the goal in sight, but uses the wind to tack and then correct. The journey seldom takes one straight line to the dot on the horizon, but the more frequently you self-correct, the smoother and quicker your arrival. A big self-correction takes a lot more effort than a little one, but too many tiny corrections can slow the process to a snail’s pace.
© Copyright 2011 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.