Talk, talk, talk. Do psychotherapists talk too much? Maybe. Many years ago, when I was a fledgling young clinical psychologist, the success of my private practice hinged on nonverbal communications. It went something like this: I saw a lot of 8- to 12-year-old boys who were depressed and/or acting out because of strained relationships with their successful and very busy fathers. These men wanted to help their sons but were essentially clueless, and their efforts to connect had repeatedly failed. This left their home in turmoil. And, of course, the mother and siblings suffered along with the troubled youngster and his father.
How did I approach these boys? Talking? Reflecting their feelings? (Carl Rogers was one of my therapy supervisors –– yes, that one). Family therapy? Nope. None of the above. After meeting with a distraught mother and a skeptical and very busy father, I would greet the boy, let’s call him Mark, in the waiting room and bring him to my office. I made sure to dress in a suit and tie, emulating his lawyer or banker-type father.
“Talking gets to be boring sometimes, Mark. I’ve got some things down the hall that you might enjoy doing while we talk.” This was a little misleading, because I hadn’t planned on talking much, if at all. I would lead the somewhat bewildered youngster out my side office door and down the hall to a large room which I had a stocked with a ping-pong table, punching bags, rubber-tipped dart guns, a basketball hoop, and other neat stuff.
“Want to play some games while we talk? Might make it easier.” And without waiting, I would pick up a ping-pong paddle or start shooting a small basketball through a hoop above the door. Did we talk about his father, mother or siblings? Did I ask him about his feelings? Did I give him advice? No, none of the above. We just played. We proceeded to establish a relationship based on activities while I poured in lots of positives, such as “nice shot.” “Boy, you nailed that one.” “Duck!” (while having a gun fight) or “I can’t keep up” as we raced down the alley behind my office. The 6’4” weirdo psychologist, with his black suit-coat flapping away, trailing a red-faced boy. Neighbors didn’t know whether to laugh or call the child protection agency.
Did all of this take skill on my part? Yes it did. Lots of it. And one of the trickiest things was to keep my mouth shut. I helped shape behavior with my facial expressions and body communications of concern, and later, as Mark’s behavior improved, my non-verbal feedback became more positive. What a great advantage I had. Instead of sitting in an office talking about Mark’s behavior as perceived by his mother and father, I was immersed in his real, true-to-life behavior.
Of course, the fact that I really liked young people was a great advantage, and I believe they sensed that. I also let Mark win many of these games or foot-races down the alley. Young people like to win (don’t we all)? After a few weekly sessions, Mark caught on to the fact that I was giving him an edge, but that didn’t matter much. He still enjoyed winning and beating this 6’4” man who was dressed like his father. Was this approach effective? Starting with the very first session, when we returned to the waiting room, it was obvious from his mother’s expression that she was startled by Mark’s happy and excited demeanor. She hadn’t seen much of that lately.
While I was pretty much nonverbal, I never missed an opportunity to make physical contact, whether that was a slap on the back, a congratulatory handshake, or even a hug while wrestling or in horseplay. As a result of all of this, we became friends. Sometimes I would visit Mark’s home in order to carry the positive feelings from the office to the real world –– his real world.
After three or four few sessions, it was obvious that Mark’s mother was now more relaxed and reaching out to her son because she trusted that he was less likely to reject her. So now it was time to call in the parents for a little chat. Mark’s father had changed. He now opened his crossed arms and leaned forward, looking at me intently. While the idea of a psychologist seeing his son was still a mystery to him, he was now much more open to my suggestions. Like many of these businessmen, he was results oriented. He was less concerned with the process and focused on outcome. Kind of like playing the stock market. And he liked what he saw. His son was now more approachable and Dad was ready to follow my recommendations.
Most of my suggestions were brief and based on basic psychological principals, but he no longer questioned their significance because Mark was changing. For example, in the past he would take Mark on a special father-son outing to a football game but would sit next to Mark and take business calls on his phone or listen to his radio. It just hadn’t occurred to him that the idea was to pay close attention to his son. To make a point, and to wave a red flag, I told him that if Mark wanted to do something foolish, during their special times together, such as digging a hole in the backyard, he should be there to help and encourage him.
The pediatricians who referred these kids were extremely pleased. In the past they had referred to medical practitioners who had used a lot of medical and psychological jargon in their reports, but the kids often didn’t improve. And it could be expensive for the families (no health insurance coverage in those days). My brief reports were straight forward, in plain English, and recognized that these youngsters were still under their pediatrician’s primary care.
Was this nonverbal approach just a one off? Something for a narrow range of kids? No, I used this technique with other children and other problems as well. One of my patients was sexually abused by a health-worker in a residential clinic. My approach again was to gradually and patiently develop a relationship through the use of activities. We didn’t discuss what he had experienced until trust had been established, and sometimes not at all. The main thing was that he was now okay, and he could trust a man again.
I worked with little girls as well. Activities often included dollhouses with puppets and miniature family figures, but also included some rough-and-tumble. At the end of a session, I would lift young girls onto my shoulders and dance into the waiting room. I would then lower the girl, and like a shot, she would run to her mother and give her a hug. I guess it helped that I had challenged the girl while still in the playroom, to see which one of us could give her mother a hug first. Was I being manipulative? You bet! One of my greatest pleasures was to see the tearful countenance of a distraught mother’s face light up with disbelief and joy as her alienated daughter ran toward her with open arms and a huge smile.
Needless to say, some of these approaches might not be possible today because of legal exposure and cultural or social mandates (especially ones about adults not touching little people).
What about adults? I’m always amazed at what I can learn by playing golf or tennis with someone compared to verbal interviews.
Did this non-verbal, right-brain therapy stick? Today, I am sometimes approached in public places by former patients, now in their 30’s or 40’s, wanting to thank me for “saving their lives.”
I always like that, and the best part is that now we can talk!