Toward effective counseling and therapy with individuals, co-parents, and families

Key Definitions and Terms
p. 4 of 5

Let's Talk the Same Language! 

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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    The Web address of this 4-page series is http://sfhelp.org/pro/basics/terms.htm

        This research-based, nonprofit Web site (http://sfhelp.org) exists to improve the nurturance level of typical divorcing families and stepfamilies and reduce epidemic American re/divorce. This page is one of a subseries on effective professional (clinical / legal / pastoral / educational / medical / media) work with these families.

        In these articles, "co-parent" means any part-time or full-time caregiving adult in a divorcing family or stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes it may be a stepparent's first union.  These articles for professionals are under construction.

        These definitions are not offered as absolutes. They aim to help you understand what I mean in the articles in this site, and to promote clarity on your own definitions. Premise: the terms you use in your thoughts and clinical conversations can significantly aid or impede the effectiveness of your work. See this lay glossary for more terms. Do you routinely pay attention to your and others' language and usage in important situations?

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Communication - is an automatic animal survival response to reduce discomforts (needs). From this, any behavior or lack of behavior that causes a significant mental, physiological, spiritual, and/or emotional reaction in another adult or child is "communication." Each person and any observer may have a unique definition of "significant." Thus communication can be intentional, accidental, assumed, or misperceived.

        Premises: All adults, kids, and personality subselves communicate to fill two to six un/conscious needs. Can you name them?, We do this instinctively via (a) words and other sounds, (b) voice dynamics (tempo, pitch, accent, inflection, volume...), and (c) facial and body changes ("non-verbal"). If each person gets their needs met "well enough" (in their opinion) their communication is effective vs. "good" or "open and honest." Effective communication is the most valuable skill people can acquire to fill their primary personal and relationship needs. Do you agree?

        Any "conversation" between two people is usually three concurrent processes: my subselves talking together + your subselves talking together + delegates from each group using our voices and bodies to communicate with each other. When either person's team of subselves is disorganized and conflictual, communication effectiveness plummets. Therefore, the first step in raising such effectiveness is harmonizing each person's inner family of subselves.

        As a student and professional teacher of communication skills for over 30 years, I conclude that most people are unaware of (a) why they communicate, (b) how, (c) what, and (d) what's needed for ef-fective communication. They've never been taught seven related communication skills they could use to get more of their daily and special needs met well. Can you name and describe these skills?

        Do you assess your clients' (or children's) fluency with them, model the skills, and teach others how to avoid and resolve common communication blocks? Do you have a communication hero and/or mentor? Would your clients and associates describe you as one? I propose that communication knowledge, awareness , and fluency + inner-family harmony - are core requisites for effective clinical outcomes.

        Of the 7 self-study Lessons described in this site, learning to think and communicate effectively is second in overall importance - behind co-parents healing any false-self wounds. Premise: effective clinical service to any client is far more likely if professional/s intentionally work to strengthen their and their clients' communication effectiveness. If clinicians attempt this when they and/or their client are ruled by a false self, teaching communication basics and these powerful communication skills can't achieve their great potential benefits.

        Review the concepts of self talk (below) and subself communication for more insight on people's ceaseless internal communication. If these ideas raise your curiosity about your communication knowledge, try this quiz. Then imagine inviting your colleagues and clients to experience it, and what might happen if they did.

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"Self talk" - do you regularly experience a dynamic stream of thoughts + inner images + senses (hunches, intuitions) + day dreams + transitory physical sensations (stomach knots, headaches, throat lumps, "shallow breathing, "adrenaline rushes," etc) + "moods" + inarticulable or irrational urges?

        These comprise the universal human experience called "self talk" in this site. Related phenomena are "mind racing," "clanging" (compulsive word-rhyming), and "churning." You may add the symbolic language of night dreams and "cellular (bodily) memories" to these elements.  

        Self talk seems to be a mix of concurrent conscious + semi-conscious + unconscious levels of information exchange among our personality's busy subselves. Scan this brief example of ex mates' inner dialogs, and return. The "still, small voice within" which many consider spiritual  is a key self-talk element that we can choose to hear and heed in important situations. 

        The learnable skill of awareness illuminates this rich world of ceaseless internal communication. Every motivated client and professional can learn this skill. Clients controlled by a false self often "resist" self-awareness. Distrustful, myopic subselves fear they'll discover something awful, like "I'm really crazy!"

        Observing current and chronic self-talk nonjudgmentally reveals (a) what your active subselves need, believe, and feel; and (b) how they relate to each other and the world. You can teach clients to be aware of this ceaseless activity, which has been called "the 24-hour TV channel in your head." Encouraging clients to use their self talk and the seven communication skills to identify and resolve current problems (unmet needs) is a powerful strategic intervention over time.

        Hal and Sidra Stone's (inner) "Voice dialog" concept is an interesting, effective way help clients experience their self talk. Richard Schwartz's inner family system (IFS) paradigm adds conceptual clarity about who causes our inner-voice dialogs. Skillfully used, both concepts empower clients to make desired second-order systemic changes.

        Reality check: pause, breathe well, and listen in on your current self talk. What are your subselves "saying" about these ideas?

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Values Conflicts - As you know, human values are acquired opinions about something's worth, "goodness," moral or ethical correctness, or usefulness - e.g. "Being a vegetarian is healthier than being a carnivore." Values and priorities help us decide how to fill our current needs (behave) - i.e. how to survive.

        A quick way to sample your huge inventory of values is to finish the sentence "People (or "I") should..." These are personal preferences, and are usually not responsive to logic or persuasion. Millions have died across the Ages in fruitless attempts to force people to change their values and beliefs.

        When we develop a significant need ("I'm hungry"), our related behavior is un/consciously shaped by a mosaic of current values ("So when we get to McDonald's, I'll order a salad.") Our mosaic of values shifts across our lives, as does the ranking or priority of each value ("... but I'll eat red meat rather than starve.") 

        All social relationships grapple with minor to major values conflicts every day: I like seaside vacations, and you prefer mountains. I pay bills when they arrive, and you'd rather pay later. Adults and kids also constantly grapple with internal values conflicts between our personality subselves - "I should always tell the truth"; "Yes, but if we tell Margaret she has body odor she'll be hurt and embarrassed - and friends don't hurt friends." Part of "growing a relationship" is discovering significant values conflicts and evolving mutually acceptable ways to negotiate viable compromises. 

        Typical new stepfamily relationships are riddled with minor to major values conflicts while everyone works at merging and stabilizing their homes and many roles. These clashes start during courtship, though neediness and romance tend to mute or repress them.

        Divorcing families also develop a surge of values conflicts as they grieve and try to reorganize their relationships, routines, and daily activities. Ex mates who can't communicate effectively usually can't resolve significant values conflicts well. This amplifies co-parent hostility, frustration, and arguing.

        Typical adults and most (all?) dependent kids are unable to (a) identify and (b) resolve significant inter-subself and interpersonal values conflicts. They tend to deny, repress, or minimize them, or fight, debate or argue fruitlessly to "convert" the other person/s to agree. All these lower the nurturance levels of their relationships and families.

        So a useful early-assessment focus is determining if and how effectively clients identify and resolve their values conflicts, and intervening accordingly. Successful resolution strategies usually require each co-parent (i.e. their true Self) to resolve their internal (inter-subself) values conflicts successfully first, using these skills. As with all types of conflict, helping motivate clients to develop and adopt an effective conflict-resolution process is the real goal here.

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Loyalty Conflicts - a pervasive major stressor in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies looks like this. These complex dilemmas are more challenging in stepfamilies because they involve your or my (vs. our) child/ren, assets, and ex mate/s. Unresolved loyalty conflicts (combined with other kinds of disputes) may be the most widely cited surface reason for stepfamily re/divorce.

        The underlying problem is [ false-self wounds + unawareness]: typical co-parents don't know how to (a) empower their true Selves (Lesson 1) and then (b) identify loyalty conflicts and (c) negotiate win-win compromises to them.

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Pathology, pathological - Microsoft Bookshelf 2000 defines pathology as meaning "The scientific study of the nature of disease and its causes, processes, development, and consequences." I avoid these two terms because I believe non-biogenic human behavioral and relationship problems are not diseases. I pre-fer the more neutral term condition, as in "dissociation and addictions are wholistically-harmful human conditions on a continuum of severity."

        This preference springs from my experience studying and practicing clinical hypnosis for some years. I learned to respect the extraordinary psycho-physiological power of individual word-associations and the way they're expressed. Two decades of clinical experience with many hundreds of individuals, couples, and families has added the belief that all children and adults have a primal need for self and social respect.

        The complementary primal need is to avoid or reduce the discomfort of shame ("low self esteem"). To think "I am diseased" and/or have a professional clinician say or imply "You are diseased" can unconsciously trigger anxiety and shame, which promote or amplify false-self control.

        That promotes protective repression and denial, which significantly hinder personal healing. I acknowledge that for some people, the labels "my disease" and "my pathology" can promote healing by wanting to reduce the discomfort of being "sick." 

        As you know, "thinking" is the stunningly complex instinctual process of decoding coherent mean-ings from sensory stimulation and inter-related mental/emotional associations, images, and memories. From personal history and training, we all develop complex associations with (reactions to) individual spoken, written, and implied terms and phrases - e.g. the primitive revulsion reflex to the word "spider."

        These associations unconsciously shape our identity and self-perception, which affect our local and chronic serenity and well-being. I propose that true recovery from false-self wounds is best promoted by intentionally choosing emotionally-neutral vs. "hand-grenade" (emotionally explosive) terms - like condition rather than pathological, and wounded rather than sick.

        Questions worth pondering are...

  • "How do I feel about being diseased, sick, or having a pathological' condition?"; and...

  • "How does my supervisor, my colleagues, my instructors and mentors, and each of my clients feel about those terms?"

I suspect if you research this honestly with an open mind, you'll discover most people aren't conscious of what they associate with personal disease, sickness, and pathology. Your choice...

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Updated September 30, 2015