Help clients understand and break the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle!

Facilitate effective communication
and problem-solving
- p. 1 of 4

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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        This article is one of a series on effective professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical survivors of childhood neglect and trauma. These articles for professionals are under construction.

        This series assumes you're familiar with:

        Before continuing, pause and reflect - why are you reading this article? What do you need?

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       This article is one of a series on effective clinical interventions with low-nurturance family clients. A "low nurturance family" is one in which members seldom get their primary needs met in wholistically-healthy ways. An effective intervention is behavior of the clinician which significantly raises the family's nurturance level in the opinion of all involved. Interventions summarized below are usually a series of sub-interventions. Each clinician will evolve a personal style on designing and delivering strategic behaviors like these. Over time, many become habitual and require no conscious thought.

        This two-page article covers...

  • useful background readings,

  • a summary of why Lesson 2 exists,

  • basic Lesson-2 interventions, and

  • intervention options for each of the seven Lesson-2 skills

Background Reading

        To get the most from this article, choose the curious, nonjudgmental attitude of a student, and read...

  • this introduction for professional clinicians and clinical educators,

  • this slide presentation on the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is a root stressor with typical low-nurturance families. If you have trouble viewing these slides, see this.

  • this overview of the clinical model on which these articles are based;

  • this summary of requisites for effective professional service with low-nurturance clients; and...

  • this overview of effective clinical assessment of the six types of client families covered by this model; and read...

  • this introduction to effective interventions with low-nurturance families and persons recovering from psychological wounds; and...

  • these slide presentations summarizing effective communication and problem-solving basics; and...

  • scan these Lesson-2 articles and resources, and note this Lesson-2 guidebook that integrates the key Web pages in the Project.

Why Does Lesson 2 Exist?


all infants, kids, and adults communicate to try and reduce current discomforts (fill their needs), and...

the high majority of all clients and many professionals don't know how to communicate effectively or how to improve that. This unawareness or causes promotes most personal, family, and social "problems."

        See how you feel about these basic premises - A = "I agree; D = "I disagree;" and ? = "I'm not sure" or "It depends" (on what?):

"Ineffective" communication means one or more people did not get their current primary needs  met well enough locally and/or chronically. (A  D  ?)

The nurturance level ("functionality") of any relationship and family is directly proportional to how effectively the people can think, communicate, and problem-solve. (A  D  ?)

Most adults don't know what they don't know about effective communication, so they accept the results of ineffective communication as "normal."  (A  D  ?)

People in a "troubled" (stressful, toxic, unsatisfying) relationships and families (a) are usually wounded survivors of childhood neglect, who (b) usually have difficulty thinking and communicating effectively - specially in conflicts and crises. (A  D  ?)

Any motivated adult or child can learn to apply the seven effective-communication skills in Lesson 2 and see improved outcomes (more mutual needs met more often).  (A  D  ?)

Even if a person is fluent with these vital skills, s/he can still think and communicate ineffectively if s/he is dominated by a protective false self. (A  D  ?) Lesson-1 interventions aim to replace such unseen dominance by true-Self guidance over time.

Effective clinicians will...

  • usually be guided by their true Self,

  • be fluent in and model the seven communication skills, and...

  • will know how to (a) assess clients' communication effectiveness and (b) motivate clients to improve theirs.  (A  D  ?)

A priceless long-range benefit to helping adults improve their communication effectiveness is raising the odds they'll help their descendents and others they care about learn these vital skills and live more satisfying, healthy, productive lives. (A  D  ?)

        Key Implications of these premises:

        There are many benefits to helping any individual or family client to...

  • become aware of the unseen [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its common personal and family effects; and to

  • progress at Lesson 1 (reduce psychological wounds) and Lesson 2 (build effective communication and problem-solving abilities) concurrently; and...

        Achieving lasting progress at these interrelated clinical goals is long-term work. If case conditions limit client contact, the best intervention goal is to "plant seeds;" and...

        Typical clients and supporters will not know what you just read. So average clients - and many supervisors, case managers, and clinical consultants - will not include Lesson-1 and 2 goals and interventions in the work. Effective clinicians will be proactive in explaining and providing them.

Perspective on These Interventions

        The effectiveness of Lesson-2 interventions depends on...

how qualified the clinician and any supervisor, case manager, or consultant is, including knowledge and fluency in communication basics and skills;

how accurately the clinician assesses specific communication blocks and deficits in the attending clients and their family system;

the clinician's style of teaching and modeling effective-communication and problem-solving skills and techniques; and...

where each attending client adult is currently focused, relative to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If adults are ruled by a false self and/or feel they are in a crisis, they will probably not be able to retain and experience the benefits of Lesson-2 basics and skills.

        As with all teaching interventions, the clinician needs to stay aware of the dynamic balance between theory and practice (experiential learning).

        Over time, effective Lesson-2 interventions should cause the clients to spontaneously report less family stress, more cooperation and satisfaction, increasing self-confidence, and a firm commitment to expanding their  skills.

        Note that these interventions apply to all conflicts among (a) personality subselves and (b) social relationships. Adults learning to apply to communicate effectively reduce one of several basic unawarenesses that stress typical low-nurturance families and relationships.

        These illustrative Lesson-2 interventions are grouped as (a) basics, (b) skill-building, and (c) application (effective problem-solving).

A) Basic Lesson-2 Interventions with all clients:

        Tho each intervention can stand alone, the order shown below provides an optimal way of helping clients learn and experience effective-communication fundamentals. Effective clinicians will watch for chances in every client and collegial contact to make these interventions. The best way to present these basics is in a seminar or class for a group of family adults or professionals.

        The steps comprising each intervention, and key related options, are outlined below. The & symbol below indicates a printable handout in this site that can augment verbal instruction. Follow the numeral links for more detail on each intervention.

Stay aware that Lesson 2 is one of up to 7 key topics that can raise the nurturance-level of any client family or other group.

2-1)  Ask clients to define "communication," and propose a new definition if appropriate.

2-2)  Propose that communication occurs to fill local needs - i. e. to reduce current discomforts.

2-3)  (a) Note the difference between surface needs (symptoms) and underlying primary needs, and (b)  explain why awareness of this is important for effective problem solving.

2-4)  Describe, illustrate, and discuss communi-cation needs and need-conflicts

2-5)  Define, illustrate, and discuss "effective communication,"

2-6)  Explain, illustrate, and assess the client for significant communication blocks

2-7)  Define, illustrate, and model communication sequences, patterns, and outcomes

2-8)  Inventory and affirm client's current com- munication strengths

2-9)  Refresh clients on personality subselves and psychological wounds as needed, and relate them to communication outcomes;

2-10)  Define, illustrate, and model E(motion)-levels and hearing-checks

2-11)  Define, illustrate, and model "awareness bubbles," and when and how to use them.

2-12)  Define, illustrate, and model "R(espect) messages," and propose why they're important

2-13)  If/when appropriate, describe and illustrate mapping communication sequences to help assess local or chronic process-blocks.

2-14)  Follow up on and reinforce each of these items in future sessions

Intervention 2-1)  Ask participating clients to define communication, and edit or propose a new definition if appropriate

        Why? If client adults can't meaningfully define communication, they're much less likely to (a) learn how to discern effective communication, (b) spot, discuss, and resolve communication blocks, and (c) want to learn and use all seven Lesson-2 skills. Success at all six other client Lessons and creating a high-nurturance family depend on clients' communicating effectively!

Ask each participating client to say their present definition of "communication" out loud. Propose that shared clarity on this vital definition among family members promotes more effective thinking and communication. Expect typical clients to give vague, general answers, and or to say something like "I've never thought about it."

Propose something like "any perceived behavior in one person that causes a significant physical, emotional, spiritual, and/or mental reaction (change) in another person is 'communication' - not just 'talking and listening'." Note client reactions to this (new?) idea.

        This definition implies that it's impossible for people to "not communicate" - e.g. "silence" and "no reaction" generate meanings ("messages") in the receiving person. ("Your silence means you don't really respect or care about me.")  Expect this to be a new idea to typical clients, and reinforce it as appropriate as the work proceeds.

2-2)  Propose that communication occurs instinctively in most/all living things, to fill local needs.

        Why? To clarify and strengthen clients' awareness of their communication needs, behaviors, and habits, and expand their metatalk vocabulary.

Propose that...

  • all creatures have current dynamic needs - i.e. emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual discomforts, and that...

  • all behaviors are instinctive attempts to reduce (fill) these needs.

Implication - being "needy" is normal, not shameful, selfish, or weak. Option - if a client associates "being needy" with being weak, wrong, or bad, ask if s/he would say that  digesting food, urinating, sleeping, yawning, or sneezing is weak, wrong, or bad.

Ask each client what they were taught about ranking their (a) personal rights & and (b) current needs against other people's needs. ("Who's needs do you usually attend first in non-emergencies?"). Propose that chronically ignoring or discounting your own needs and rights is self neglect, which always indicates unawareness and false-self dominance and wounds.

2-3)  (a) Propose, illustrate, and discuss the difference between surface needs (symptoms) and primary needs &, and (b) why this distinction is vital for effective communication.

        Why? To motivate clients to (a) focus on helping each other identify and fill primary needs, and reduce frustrations and guilts from focusing on surface needs, and (b) pass this vital concept on to dependent kids and important others.

Illustrate the difference between surface needs (symptoms) and primary needs, and seek client understanding and acceptance of the concept. Note that habitually trying to fill surface needs suggests that the person (a) may be controlled by a false self, which (b) lacks inner and environmental awareness (communication skill # 1).

Propose that typical unaware adults and all kids are used to trying to fill surface needs (symptoms), so often their and any partner's primary needs remain unfilled - causing frustrations and weakening relationships and self confidence. Identify client examples of this and its outcomes - i.e. primary needs met or not?

Option - ask clients to read and discuss this article & and pass it on to other family members

Explain and illustrate dig-down skill & as an effective way of discerning primary needs from surface needs.

Intervention 2-4 Describe, illustrate, and model communication needs and need-conflicts

        Why? To empower clients to learn effective metatalk, and to identify and negotiate win-win compromises to communication-need conflicts - i.e. to raise their communication effectiveness.

Propose that (a) a need is a normal mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical discomfort; and (b) all creatures instinctively communicate to lower current discomforts (fill current needs). Discuss and reframe as needed, and sense if clients agree or not. Typical clients may agree, and are not used to thinking in terms of "filling needs." They will need repeated coaching, modeling, and encouragement to integrate this core concept.

Explain and illustrate the six primary needs all people try to fill by communicating, and differentiate them from other current needs. Discuss this as necessary, and sense if client adults agree or not. Options - (a) ask clients to identify their respective needs in recent effective and ineffective communication sequences; and/or (b) identify each person's communication needs in current session interactions.

Describe and illustrate (a) the communication need-grid with any two people, and (b) the concept of partners' communication needs meshing or conflicting. Ask clients for recent examples of both situations, how they usually handle conflicting communication needs, and what usually results.

Illustrate using process- awareness and metatalk to describe a communication-needs conflict ("So I need to vent, and you need to problem-solve."). Option - illustrate using the other communication skills to find a mutually-acceptable compromise to needs-conflicts.

2-5)  Define, illustrate, model, and coach "effective communication"

        Why? People need a clear, conscious definition to judge the effectiveness of their situational and chronic communication behaviors and choices.

Ask each attending client (a) to define "effective communication," and (b) whether their family adults share a common definition. Option - ask each participating adult and child to describe...

  • the last time they experienced "effective communication,"

  • "What made it effective?", and...

  • Do the same for "ineffective communication."

Ask each client to...

  • identify someone they feel is or was a consistently-effective communicator, and...

  • say specifically why they say so; then ask clients to...

  • identify someone who is or was an unusually ineffective communicator, and...

  • say specifically why they say so.

Propose that effective communication occurs when each participant (a) gets their main primary needs met well enough (by their definition), (b) in a way that feels "good enough." Then discuss clients' reaction to this idea. All Lesson-2 assessments and interventions are based on this fundamental idea.

        Reality-check this definition by asking clients to describe recent experiences where their communication "went well," and didn't go well.

Facilitate clients building triggers or anchors (reminders) to help family members stay aware of...

  • their communication effectiveness in important situations (specially conflicts), and of

  • the results (outcomes) of effective and ineffective communication - i.e. who, if anyone, gets their primary needs (a) met well enough (b) in an acceptable-enough way?

        More basic Lesson-2 interventions...

2-6)  Explain, illustrate, and assess participating clients for significant communication blocks

        Why? to (a) expand clients' process awareness, (b) expand their metatalk vocabulary &, (c) strengthen adults' ability to spot and reduce local and habitual blocks and increase communication effectiveness, and (d) motivate and empower co-parents to teach their descendents about these blocks and how to avoid and reduce them.

Propose that a "communication block" is any individual or joint ability, attitude, priority, knowledge, or behavior that usually hinders or prevents effective thinking, communication, and problem-solving. Emphasize that blocks are normal and common, and come from personal and mutual unawareness of communication dynamics and basics + psychological wounds. Their occurrence does not mean anyone is bad, stupid, or wrong!

(a) Review communication sequences and outcome (2-7 below) and (b) confirm that clients understand each concept. Then (b) Illustrate them in general, or with client dynamics and examples.

Review this inventory & of common communication blocks, and invite initial reactions from participating clients. Note that unawareness of these blocks is part of the "unawareness hazard" that stresses most typical families and relationships. Option - ask "As children, did any of you hear your senior family adults discussing "communication blocks" and see them help each other to reduce them?"

Review (or introduce) the Lesson-2 skills of awareness, metatalk, and empathic listening, and check to see that all clients understand the concepts ("Pat, how would you describe 'Metatalk' to an average 12 year old?"). When they do, propose that one of many benefits to using these and the other four skills is intentionally and permanently reducing major marital and family communication blocks if adults are guided by their true Selves.  

Encourage client adults to (a) intentionally expand their vocabularies with these metatalk (communication-process) terms &, and to (b) teach the terms to other family members. This will improve family members' abilities to describe what's "going on now" in and between their subselves, people, and related homes. 

Option - have the clients describe a significant communication block in their home or relationship/s, and illustrate how they could effectively discuss and reduce the block with these skills.

Option - follow up over the next several sessions to see if clients are noticing and beginning to talk cooperatively about their communication blocks and how to resolve them. If they don't, that probably indicates one or more adults are significantly wounded.

As the work proceeds, watch for chances to (a) spot and discuss blocks among client family members ("Sounds like Marty's used to interrupting other people.") and (b) explore their effects in session and in the clients' homes and relationships.

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Continue with more basic, communication skill-building, and problem-solving interventions

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Updated April 30, 2013