Offerings from the 2013 Chicago Dig In, Part 3: Transparency

There are lots of good reasons to be transparent in our work with couples: it often helps them feel validated by normalizing their experiences and situations; it can also be highly affirming for clients to see the emotional impact on us when they risk being vulnerable with each other; and it can be a resource to the therapist when feeling momentarily lost or overwhelmed. Today, we’ll have a quick look at the last example.

First, a quick theoretical grounding. As a humanistic model in which authenticity and openness are valued, EFT is more likely to use transparency and self-disclosure than models that emphasize insight or teaching skills. Even so, writing about self-disclosure in The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (2003), Sue Johnson says, “This is not a large part of the EFT therapist’s repertoire… It is generally used for a specific purpose, such as to build an alliance and intensify validation of a client’s responses…” (p. 89). As an experiential model, the therapist focuses on evoking client experience and helping them share it with each other. However, as a model that values therapist openness and authenticity, there are moments when transparency strengthens the treatment alliance and facilitates the experiential accessing of emotion in the moment.

Therapist Authenticity

Imagine I’m meeting with a fairly distressed couple stuck in a very quick criticize/defend cycle with both partners dismissing the other. As the session progresses, I notice myself sitting back in my chair – sometimes a sign that I’m beginning to disengage – getting quieter and doing little to slow down the interaction –definitely a sign I’m getting activated. I’m not gently (or firmly if needed), interrupting to reflect, reframe, validate, or ask cycle tracking questions – all the basic interventions that help therapists work with highly reactive cycles. Because this couple is so fast in their secondary reactions it takes very little time for them to begin to escalate to a full speed cycle. Every response from one partner activates the other to defend or attack. After a quiet, calming breath, I sit up in my chair, scoot it a little closer and say, “I’m sorry, I really have to stop you for a minute. I just realized that I’m not giving you much help right now and I don’t want you to walk out of here without getting a handle on what just happened. You just got caught in the familiar, negative cycle and I’m not giving the support you need to slow this down.” Both partners look at me – caught off guard, their eyes widen a bit, they relax their posture and take a breath. I say, “I’d like to bring us back to the point where you said ‘there’s been so little love in this relationship that you question being able to go on’.”

It’s an intervention with multi-level impact on the couple. First, it slows down their automatic, physiological arousal response, which they have difficulty doing themselves. Next, it interrupts the cycle that’s happening in front of me while drawing their attention to the more painful emotions of the interaction, the very emotions they need to share with each other. Finally, it helps us all monitor and strengthen the alliance.

Therapist Empathic Attunement

Here’s another example – it’s hard to stop when I start thinking about this. It’s another version of transparency that can be invaluable when clients have difficulty accessing and expressing vulnerable affect. Let’s say a male partner talks about experiences in a relatively unexpressive voice and without using vivid language. We often notice at such moments the incongruity of the words and the affect and we could point this out, be curious and conjecture about it. It’s not a bad response, but can easily make him feel like he’s not doing a good enough job being a client. What if instead, I notice my own body-felt response as I hear his words and track his non-verbal signs? I feel the physical feeling, noticing what it evokes in me and begin to put words to it. I might say, “As you talk about that ‘lost’ feeling you have when you are convinced you’ll never get it right enough for her, I notice a sadness in me; like you’re afraid it’s too late and you’ve already lost her. I wonder if any of that fits for you right now.” When timed well it has the impact of supporting him to turn inward while giving a sort of foothold to talk about his emotions.

I’ve seen this work effectively in countless role-play exercises we do as part of advanced EFT training. When the person in the therapist role gets a little flustered about where to focus or how to deepen affect in the moment – often stoked by a dose of performance anxiety – we sometimes stop the role play briefly and I ask the therapist what she notices inside herself as she hears key words and phrases and observes his non-verbal communication. Almost always, the therapist self-reflects for a moment and then shares a reaction much like what I was noticing in myself as the observer. When I suggest she share that awareness with the client, it re-orients both therapist and client, identifies and heightens primary emotion and creates an opportunity to set up an enactment, ultimately moving the couple to a deeper level of engagement.

This last intervention brings us full circle to the start of this little series when I wrote about the difference between empathy and attunement.  If I’m well attuned and share my empathic reflection and conjecture in a way that catches the leading edge of his experience he feels supported enough to expand and deepen that experience and share it with his partner.

We’ll do another Dig In in the not too distant future. We all learn from each other and bring better EFT skills and awareness to our couples. In the meantime, help us get the word out about the June Externship. It comes around only once a year!

Till next time…


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