The Art of Psychotherapy

After a few months of being a therapist I began to get phone calls from some of the colleagues I had met on courses. They wanted to ask me if I found it difficult to talk to strangers. I told them no. I had no trouble at all. I was not surprised that they had this problem. There are very few people who listen properly and know how to respond. Learning a set of techniques on a course is not good enough. Although many courses tell their students to listen properly they do not tell them how. The tutors probably don’t know that themselves.

No-one should attempt to work as a psychologist without having a sound knowledge of the founding three great ones: Freud, Jung and Adler. I only recently discovered that Adler had a gift called Menschenkenntnis, a word that has no equivalent in English. This clarified something that had puzzled me for some time. I realised at once that I, too, had the same skill but probably not quite as powerful as this quote shows. “In the presence of a new patient, about who he knew nothing, he would look at him a moment, ask a few questions, and then get a complete picture of the subject’s difficulties, clinical difficulties and life problems…he would immediately detect the part of play-acting and mendacity on the part of his patients.” (p.594 in Ellenberger’s book “ The Discovery of the Unconscious”.

Those who have this gift automatically use it from birth. They cannot do otherwise. At once I understood why I could not make friends as a child. I observed instead. Jung was just the same. What a relief to know that! There isn’t anything wrong with me except that having such an ability makes ordinary chit-chat unattractive. I now know why my extraordinary ability to recall very early memories in great detail, what I have called my magic camera, was not the only factor. I also picked up all sorts of information from listening intently to what other people say and the way the words are said. Back to the importance of Harvey Sacks. If he had been born earlier, he would have made a great friend of Adler.

My experience is that most people notice very little about whomsoever they talk to. Without making the least effort I often pick up what is going on in other people’s minds. Since I have been doing this unconsciously all my long life it is not surprising that I find it very easy to discover quickly what is bothering another person. It is a most useful thing to be able to do, especially if you are a psychotherapist.

By the same token I have no trouble in talking to strangers. I know who I want to talk to and who I do not simply by noticing many small details first. No wonder I was puzzled by the phone calls I got from my colleagues. Unfortunately I couldn’t show them how to do it but if they were willing to forget themselves, stop worrying and focus on clients with much more concentration, they could make things easier for themselves.

As for mendacity, it is very easy to notice it. As psychotherapists we get to see a lot of it. Why? Because although clients want to feel better, they are very reluctant to change anything they are used to. When people tell lies they tell them in a particular way, different from their norm. Here is a small example:

T. How are you?
C. Oh I’m fine! (expressed with emphasis and aggression).
T. Oh you’re fine! (in exactly the same tone as the client)
C and T laugh together.

The ice is broken and the client feels more secure because she knows that her therapist understands what is going on.

If you want to be of use to your client you need to gain her respect.

Therapists who do not pay attention to what is said can in no way be of use to clients.

Therapists must be implacable and confident. Once they have gained the client’s respect they can say what they like and they begin to lose their fear.

It all goes back to what went wrong in the relationship of the baby and whoever looked after him or her if it was not the mother.

This is just a very simple example of how to use words wisely. Things can get much more complex. The job of the therapist is to keep everything going in the right direction which means she has to be on her guard all the time and that is very tiring.

I once had a very difficult client. After a few sessions, I was getting nowhere, She was unusually resistant. I told her I did not want to work with her again. She protested. I refused. She said “I will pay you more.” I refused again. I told her if she gave me £1,000 a session I still wouldn’t want to see her.

“Why not?” she said. “All you have to do is listen to me.”

“Listening to you is the most tiring work I have ever done” I replied.

She had seen many therapists before. It seems incredible that someone would want to see one therapist after another, just to prove each one wrong. But there really are such people. Fortunately they are very rare.