A while ago I was driving to hear a talk near where I live and I was running late. I must have gotten distracted and I swerved and had a near miss with another car on a curvy road. I pulled over to the shoulder and a woman in another car stopped and talked to me from her car. I said “No, no, I’m fine” as I was anxious to be on my way.
But the woman could see that I was a little shook up. She told me I seemed rattled and suggested that I calm down before resuming my drive. In retrospect I noticed that (1) she was doing therapy (2) she did it without being asked (3) she did it with a stranger i.e. me, and (4) she did it quite well.
What is psychotherapy?
According to the American Psychological Association:
“Psychotherapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a psychologist. A psychologist provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who is objective, neutral and nonjudgmental.”
But then what? What are the essential skills that therapists use when they talk to clients?
The woman who talked to me from her car and got me to calm down was being “supportive, objective and non-judgmental” but she was also being some other things as well.
I am also reminded of Antoinette Tuff who was able to talk a gunman down last August in a Georgia school. In these memorable excerpts she said:
“It’s going to be all right, sweetie… I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life…I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is OK.”
The skills everyone can use
The essence of the therapy relationship, and the reason it is helpful, is that it is arranged to optimally allow people to notice or “get in touch with” themselves.
Attending. When you play a therapeutic role with someone you are giving them your full attention, meaning you are not distracted by some other agenda of your own. You may have your own motives and needs but they don’t prevent you from listening fully and being fully present. This is sometimes called attunement or active listening.
Reflecting. Reflecting is essentially letting the person know that you are attending to them and that you understand what they are saying and that you perceive their emotional state. It is neutral. The woman in the car didn’t say to me “You can’t drive now because you’d be a menace on the road.” She just said she could see that I was shook up.
Validating. This involves letting the person know that you genuinely accept them as they are. It indicates a belief that what they think or feel is not stupid or crazy. Once a person feels safe in assuming that their feelings, thoughts or behavior have some kind of logic then it becomes safe for the person to further examine their own inner life.
Reframing. This is a way to help the person see things from a different perspective. This is why it is hard to do therapy on ourselves. We get stuck in our own point of view and it takes another person to help us see things in a different light. This is not just seeing the glass half full or pointing to a silver lining. It is letting the person see through your eyes the fact that there may be different aspects or outcomes to the problem they face.
Everybody can and should function as a therapist at times. Not that everybody can deal with all psychological problems. Even trained therapists can’t treat everything and we often refer people to other specialists.
It may be unrealistic to envision a world in which professional therapists are not longer needed. People are often busy or preoccupied and may not have the time to give to others in this way even if they know how. We are willing to pay someone who has these skills to give us their undivided attention and time.
Yet in any caring society everyone, and certainly every parent, should ideally be able to put a certain minimal level of therapy skill into practice.