03 June 2015

Communication Style

(An assignment for the Conjoint Therapy course in my Masters in Counseling program)
Obviously, I am completely incompetent and completely inadequate to face the challenges that life places before me. However, fortunately or unfortunately, I happen to be the best person for the job.
— Harvey Jackins, the Commitment Against Pretense

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.
—Georgia O’Keeffe

I have, through most of my life, struggled with inner expectations of competence. Having an outspoken inner critic has, at times, made it difficult to think on my feet. To contradict this disabling tendency, in many of us, Harvey Jackins (http://rc.org) offered the above commitment to be repeated in co-counseling sessions until sufficiently humbled, usually via peals of laughter. It is far easier to tell others they do not have to be an expert at anything to be lovable than it is to know it within. Not surprisingly, my parents had a similar issue. It is not that whatever I did, as a child, was not good enough for them, but I observed that whatever they did was frequently not good enough for them. Like them, the criticism I received from myself could drown out voices of appreciation; criticism I have received from others often served to validate my negative self-talk. Just reading over my first draft of this paper I hear that voice saying, “You sound persnickety and full of yourself.”

A signal that I have been moving in the right direction of late, from educator toward therapist, has been a softening of this inner critic. Removing the (dare I say) impossible expectations of a K-8 music teacher from my vocational landscape gave me a new lease at feeling successful. I had previously assumed that I had little choice other than work an impossible job—putting in overtime in a desperate attempt to render it less impossible.

I would expect, therefore, that my communication style at its worst has be seen in situations where I felt pressured to pretend I know what to do. Men have this problem frequently due the conditioned belief that rugged individualism is preferable to dependence, certainty preferable to ambivalence. The man is supposed to know already and not have to ask, to collaborate. A client pleading, “You’re not helping me!” can challenge me at this core level. Inside I am nodding in agreement, “You couldn’t be more right. I should know just what to do and have no business holding your fate in my incompetent hands.” I am visited by guilty thoughts that my position of relative privilege—be it white, middle class, or male—leaves me clueless to the client’s reality. Not knowing “the answer” has left me questioning my very goodness. In Re-evaluation Counseling I learned that when a privileged person acts out feelings of not being good enough, the person of lesser privilege with whom the former is presently interacting experiences the former’s unnatural behavior as having to do with that oppressed person’s constituency—in other words, as racism, sexism or the like. Under the spell of this type of shame I will feel disconnected from the client—and from myself. I have known this to manifest in my communication being unclear, vague, evasive, and academic—like some of those banking moguls having to answer to Elizabeth Warren in a Senate hearing. Owning-class people may be accustomed to this sort of talk; raised-working-class people do not buy it. Transitioning into Human Services has brought me further down the path of greater authenticity—walking my talk, talking my walk—in communication style.

There is a paradox I have been pondering since entering the helping profession. If I communicate most authentically from a place of being true to myself, it means using the “educated” words and concepts I have picked up along my way. It would appear, therefore, unnatural for me to adopt the communication style of the person I am speaking with—dropping all the -Gs from my -ING words, for example. People are more comfortable with people who are comfortable being themselves, rather than those who strive to be like someone else. However, in Couples Counseling, Marina Williams advocates a chameleon-like approach, adopting clients’ communication styles such that they experience the counselor as “being like them.” But I am not like them. Neither am I like the highly cultured or academic types I have know at various points, around whom I now find myself sounding like a veritable AA old-timer. Still, helping people feel safe is my priority, and I realize I create that safety through valuing whatever affirming concepts they themselves value, which requires adaptation, flexibility, and good-hearted wit on my part.

It has been amusing to see long-standing members of a group I lead explain my communication style to in-coming members. “He talks weird; but he gets us. . . He’s kind of like a hip Mr. Rogers,” one addict quipped. I am reminded of what John Lennon once said of Bob Dylan—“It’s not what he says, but how he says it”—when recalling the comment: “When I get done with treatment, my main goal is to become a peaceful person, like Jeffry.” We all remember process over content; and this man had tuned in not so much to my specific words as to the nature of my responses, over a period of weeks, to an assortment of often-distressed individuals in group.

The myth of getting it perfect is a difficult one for a musician to let go of. I observe that I am not alone in having to be dragged kicking and screaming towards humility. I recall some milestones along my imperfect path away from perfection. The father of my first wife found me hopelessly idealistic, yet he was drawn to debate me—I believe in an effort to reclaim his creative self long abandoned to material gain. We had a written correspondence (I in Massachusetts, he in New York) in which he would try to convince me—bearing in mind I had been traveling to Nicaragua in support of the Sandinistas—that leftist regimes were just as bad as reactionary ones. At one point I tired of researching and quoting sources to back my point of view and simply wrote something like, “I have nothing further to offer in support of my position other than the passion I feel that this is something I am called to do.” My then-father-in-law wrote back, “That’s beautiful,” and our debate was over. Perhaps he remembered feeling passionate about something too. I put down the weapon of factual expertise and he responded in kind. We stood a better chance of connecting if neither of us had to be right.

I entered the helping profession without the pretensions of prior expertise that I had once brought to school music teaching. Making mistakes as a CDPT felt less loaded because I did not expect myself to have it all learned. My coworkers tended to be more humble than I was used to. Humility lives in the core of recovery, while humility and music performance are not readily associated. My communication style becomes more authentic when my values line up with my vocational mandate. I have discovered that attaining greater humility, and taking responsibility for others attaining it, turns out to be a more fulfilling ambition in the long run than attaining standing ovations.