The New Therapy
you have the opportunity to observe a serious or emotionally charged
conversation between two people, notice how much time they give
themselves to digest and metabolise the other person’s words, to sense
and absorb their undertones and resonances, to silently take in
what the other person has said — and to take them in — before
responding. Notice too, what it is that they each take in and
respond to. Do they respond only to what the other has been talking
about — or do they respond to the person as such and the emotions
and state of mind they have been directly or indirectly giving voice to.
Do they take each other’s words “at face value” or do they also respond
to the face that the other person is showing them through these
words. In a word: do they simply exchange words and opinions or
do they engage in a genuine dialogue; listening and responding
not only to what is expressed in words but also to what is
communicated dia-logically, i.e. through the word.
“How to defuse challenging behaviour, manage difficult people and control your own emotional responses.” These were some of the key phrases used to promote a management training workshop entitled ‘Dealing with Conflict, Confrontation and Disputes’. Each of the three phrases, reflects, in my opinion, a wholly distorted view of the nature of behavioural communication and the emotional ‘difficulties’ that people have with it. The basic precepts of Communicative Receptivity Training stand in marked contrast to the type of thinking embodied in the phrases quoted above. They are:
1. that ‘challenging behaviour’ is not something to be ‘defused’ but a form of emotional communication that needs to be acknowledged and fully received. The ‘challenge’ lies not in the behaviour as such but in our capacity to receive and identify with the emotions it communicates. To do so does indeed challenge our ‘boundaries’, calling upon us to let go of the rigid mental dividing line we normally establish between our own emotions and those of others.
2. that so-called ‘difficult’ people do not require to be ‘managed’ but to be fully received. What makes a person ‘difficult’ is not their behaviour as such but other people’s difficulty in receiving the emotions it communicates. Within a group context the ‘difficult person’ acts as a mirror and mouthpiece for unacknowledged emotions of the group as a whole, and the difficulties these express. The difficult person’s behaviour challenges the group to ‘own’ these emotions and acknowledge these difficulties. The group’s response however is often to turn the difficult person into an emotional scapegoat for them.
3. that we do not need to control our own emotional responses but simply to feel them. Both the urge to act out and give free reign to our emotions and the attempt to ‘control’ them, are substitutes for simply feeling these emotions, and using them to gain a deeper sense of the emotions of others — what they are trying to get us to feel. Suppose, for example, that person A is experiencing stress or some other personal difficulty and ‘takes it out’ on person B, saying or doing something that makes B feel a strong emotional reaction, for example of hurt or irritation. The real aim of A’s provocative behaviour is precisely to communicate their own emotional state and the difficulties it expresses. As a result, it will not help matters for B either to hit back at A with their own emotions of hurt and irritation or simply to ‘control’ these emotions. Neither strategy will help A to feel that their emotions and difficulties are being received by B. But if B allowed themselves simply to feel their own emotions of annoyance and hurt and follow them back to the behaviour that provoked them, their orientation could shift back from self to other, from I to Thou — allowing them to perceive A’s emotional communication more clearly and receive it more deeply. B might also realise that what is really ‘annoying’ or ‘irritating’ them is being challenged to take in the emotions and difficulties that are currently ‘hurting’ A. Our own emotional reactions to others often serve to defend and reinforce our ego-boundaries. Focusing on our own feelings — whether by controlling or expressing them — relieves us of the need to let down our barriers and take other people’s feelings in.
All communication difficulties are the result of a single primary difficulty — that of fully taking in the other person, group or culture. For this is exactly what the essence of communication is — receiving and being received. Communication is not about imparting ideas or information to others or even ‘expressing’ emotions. It is about receiving others — whatever they impart or do not impart to us, express or do not express — and being received by them. Unfortunately, the will to impart and express, to make our point and get through — the will to be received — often replaces the will to receive others and take them in. When the will to impart and be received dominates over the will to receive and take in, communication becomes a self-defeating form of competition. All the more tragic then, that “successful communication” is still defined as success in ‘getting through’ to others, rather than success in receiving the other. This misunderstanding of ‘successful communication’ and the resulting formulae offered for becoming a ‘successful communicator’ are the principal cause of communicative conflict. For the fact is that in order to ‘get through’ and be received by others we must first of all fully receive the other. This we cannot do if we are receptive to others only in order to be received by them and only to the degree necessary for us to ‘sell’ our own message to them — the effective definition of ‘marketing communications’. Such false and calculated interest in others may temporarily win them over — win ‘markets’ and customers’ — but it cannot bring the joy and human enrichment that comes from authentic receptivity.
Where communication and organisational cultures are founded on the practice of mutual receptivity the need for different forms of manipulative, controlling aggressive or violent behaviour to ‘get through’ is undermined, and with them the defences aroused by these behaviours. In most cases the so-called ‘Difficult Person’ (DP) — the one who appears to disrupt inter-personal or group communication or to express an underlying pathology — is in fact a ‘Person in Difficulty’ (PD). By this I mean specifically someone who has never or rarely had the experience of feeling fully received by others, and who therefore is constantly attempting to ‘get through’; communicating through behaviours that arouse strong emotions in others, challenging their defences and boundaries.
perceive others as ‘difficult’ at times, and we are all sometimes
perceived as ‘difficult’. Each of us knows what it means to be seen as a
Difficult Person. Similarly, we each have our personal difficulties and
know what it means to experience ourselves as a Person in Difficulty or
to be treated as one. The problem is that the PD is often perceived as a
DP. Thus a doctor whose job it is to help a PD may also perceive them as
a DP — a ‘heart-sink’ patient. Psychiatrists and social workers,
psychotherapists and counsellors, on the other hand, may be called upon
to treat a Person in Difficulty precisely because their ‘difficult’
behaviour is troublesome to others and causes them to be classified as a
DP. The professional helper or carer may understand that the DP is
actually a PD in need of help, but this does not mean that their
sympathies may not be stretched or that they may not experience the PD
principally as a DP, and respond to them as such. By the term ‘Difficult
Person’ then, I understand anyone at all who another person
experiences difficulties in relating to, whether in a private or
professional context. By the term ‘Person in Difficulty’, on the other
hand, I mean anyone with an experienced personal difficulty or problem
of any sort, mental or physical, psychological or somatic, social or
behavioural. Anyone in need of help, whether or not they acknowledge
this need themselves and seek help from others.
receptivity is central to communication, and if behaviour is
understood as a form of communication, then it follows
necessarily that we cannot change a person’s behaviour through
communication unless we first of all receive what it is communicating.
A good example here, is the parent-child communication. For the parent,
communication may serve the primary function of getting the child to ‘do
what it is told’ or to in some way control or change its behaviour. For
the child or adolescent on the other hand, the behaviour may serve
principally as a means of emotional communication. If the parent is
unwilling or unable to acknowledge the emotions and emotional needs
communicated through the child’s behaviour, any attempt to change or
control the latter will be self-defeating. Their emotional communication
not being recognised and received, the child or adolescent will either
escalate the unwanted or ‘difficult’ behaviour which serve to
communicate their emotions or else withdraw from communication entirely.
So far we
have spoken of PDs, DPs and OPs. Onto the scene now we need to introduce
a new figure — the ‘CP’ or Caring Person. The Caring Person is someone
who genuinely desires to help Persons in Difficulty, assisting them in
understanding and if possible overcoming their personal difficulties.
Ideally, he or she is therefore someone with life experience and
emotional empathy, able to understand other people’s personal
difficulties and the emotions connected with them. One would expect a
skilled or professional CP to be able to perceive and fully receive the
emotions communicated through the PD’s behaviour. Doing so would
automatically give the PD a feeling of being fully received. This is
turn would relieve the PD of the need to use difficult or pathological
behaviour to get through to others and communicate their difficulties
emotionally. A genuinely receptive CP would therefore not react
emotionally to a DP’s behaviour, nor would they seek to alter it
through persuasion, or merely to control or manage it through
medication. In practice of course, this ideal model of the CP is rarely
fulfilled. This is not so much, I believe, because of the personal
inadequacies or limitations of those who place themselves in the role of
carers, nor even because of the pressures placed upon them by the
institutional contexts in which they may work. Instead it is a result of
a number of Basic Assumptions about the nature of therapeutic
communication — an assumption that is actively reinforced by most forms
of professional training for ‘helping professionals’, whether
psychiatrists or GPs, social workers or nurses, psychotherapists or
counsellors. The first assumption is that attending receptively to
others is a prelude to providing them with some form of helpful
therapeutic response. In fact the way we attend to others, the awareness
we have of them and our inner perceptions of them are already a form of
response, one which communicates to the other whether or not we express
our emotional perceptions in words. How we see and react inwardly to
another person’s behaviour shows itself visibly in our own behaviour,
however much we may seek to conceal it. The way we hear what someone is
saying in turn says something to them — communicates wordlessly.
The things we do or do not ‘pick up on’ are picked up by the other. The
PD will always themselves perceive, consciously or subconsciously, how
they are being inwardly perceived by the CP. Indeed the face they show
to the CP is itself at least in part a response to the way they are
being heard and seen, or not heard and not seen.
A PD will
sense immediately and instinctively whether or not a CP is prepared, not
only to offer their own emotional perceptions but to receive their
emotions and share in bearing them. Easily said. Less easily done. For
here again we hit upon the central issue of ego-boundaries, the
identity boundary between self and other. We cannot attune to
another person’s emotions without feeling those emotions ourselves.
Indeed feelings as such can be understood not as the private property of
Self or Other, but as the very wavelengths of attunement linking us with
others through emotional resonance. Similarly, to identify with
another person means identifying a specific self-state or ‘self’ of our
own that is on the same wavelength as that person and in resonance with
them. This in turn requires a strong sense of our own core self —
that ‘inner’ self whose identity is broad and flexible enough to embrace
a multiplicity of different selves and self-states. Ego-identity is an
experience of identity as a private property of the “I” or ego. But the
stronger our link with our own core self or identity the more we can
identify with others, experiencing a plurality of different selves or
self-states in resonance with those of others. The awareness of the core
self is a ‘field’ awareness embracing many actual and ‘probable’
identities. The personal or professional role of a CP is part of their
ego-identity. But the fulfilment of that role is a function of their own
inner identity or ‘self field’. The ego experiences itself as a self
apart from others. The core self is the self that can
experience itself as a part of others and others as a part of
itself. A CP in touch with their own ‘self-field’ or ‘core self’
will not only be better able to identify with a Person in Difficulties.
They will also avoid the danger of identifying the Person with
their Difficulties, recognising instead that both are but one outward
expression of the inner human being — the PDs own inner identity or core
self. As a result, the PD will feel received not only as a
‘Person in Difficulty’ but as a self.
Receiving the person goes hand in hand with recognising, relating and responding to the individual’s trans-personal or core self. This is something we can only do with and from our own core self. What I call ‘core contact’ is a direct contact with the inner self of another, made with and from one’s own core self. Core contact can be compared to eye-contact. There is a difference between looking at someone’s eyes and making genuine ‘eye-contact’. In the first case, I perceive an object — someone’s eyes. In the second I meet the self or “I” that looks out through those eyes. Neither the “I” that I look out with nor the “I” that I meet is the “I” of the ego. For the gaze of the ego is always an ‘objective’ one i.e. one that reduces the other to an object. The gaze of the self is nothing essentially visual, dependent on the eyes or eye-contact. In listening to others we can also make ‘core contact’, meeting and holding them with our listening attention, which can be compared to an inner gaze. Inner awareness of and attention to others can be defined as the gaze of the self. Where others merely figure in our awareness as part of some overall purpose, the gaze of the self gives way to the external, calculating or clinical gaze of the ego. As long as we look at or listen to someone purely ‘in role’ and to fulfil our own agendas, whether as managers or carers, core-relatedness is replaced by ego-relatedness. We may be attentive to their behaviour and what they have to say. We may show respect to the Person but we do not make contact or relate to them on a ‘core’ level, responding to the inner human being with and from the inner core of our own being. Core contact with the inner selves of others is based on inner contact with our own core self. Similarly ‘core communication’ is impossible without inner communication with our own core — that self which can feel itself as a part of others and feel others as a part of itself. Just as there is a difference between looking at someone’s eyes and meeting their gaze — making core contact — so there is also a difference between perceiving and reacting to someone’s ‘look’ (for example a look of disapproval or hostility) and receiving their gaze — using it to inwardly identify with their emotional state.
It is not just our through our eyes and ears alone but through our bodies as a whole that we receive another person as ‘some-body’ — as an embodied self and not just a talking head or ‘difficult person’. It is only through our own bodily receptivity to the body of the other that we can receive an inner impression of what they are expressing through their body language. Bodily self-awareness is the vital link between the ego and the core self. It is the key to both awareness of our own emotions and awareness of the emotions communicated by others. By simply allowing ourselves to feel our own emotions in a bodily way — rather than expressing or repressing them, controlling them mentally or discharging them cathartically — we also contain our emotions in a bodily way. In thus containing our own emotions we are also indirectly containing the emotions of others, taking into ourselves part of the emotional intensity or ‘energy’ driving their behaviour. Feeling and containing emotions in a bodily way, without reacting from them is empowering. If someone’s behaviour causes us to feel increasingly angry or disappointed for example, letting ourselves feel that anger or disappointment and fill our bodies will give us an increasing sense of bodily solidity and weight. Reacting angrily or mentally repressing the disappointment, on the other hand are both responses which disempower. They are both a type of active surrender to the behaviour triggering those emotions, cutting us off from our own bodies and with them our own solid, bodily sense of self. Conversely, feeling our emotions in a bodily way we can follow them back to their source in the behaviour of the other — gaining a deeper bodily impression of the conscious or subconscious emotions communicated through this behaviour. The field of our bodily self-awareness has both an inner and an outer dimension. The outer field is the space around our bodies and surrounding the body of the other. By being fully aware of the other person’s body as a whole with our own body as a whole, we embrace and receive them in the outer field of our bodily self-awareness. By staying grounded at the same time in the withinness of our bodies and the emotions we feel there, we are better able to connect with our own inner self to the emotional ‘withinness’ of the other person’s body and the self that dwells there.
practical focus of Communicative Receptivity Training is not on mental
self-management but on the bodily dimension of emotional
awareness and receptivity. Its theoretical dimension, however, focuses
on the emotional dynamics of groups and organisations, and in particular
their capacity to realistically confront difficulties and contain the
emotions connected with them. The Difficult Person often serves as a
container or target of these emotions and their ‘challenging’ behaviour
as a symbol or symptom of difficulties and challenges confronting the
group or organisation as a whole. Every individual within a group speaks
not only for themselves but for the group as a whole, expressing the
unspoken thoughts and feelings, questions and difficulties of its other
members. The group’s difficulty with an individual and the individual’s
difficulty with the group are thus not only an expression of its
member’s personal difficulties but of difficulties confronted by the
group as a whole and all of its members. The dynamics of dyadic or
one-to-one communication between people follows similar principles. Any
dyadic inter-relationship between person A and person B is also
quadratic, for it also involves a relationship between a side or aspect
of A mirrored in B’s behaviour and a side or aspect of B mirrored in A’s
behaviour. In speaking for themselves, A also gives voice to an aspect
of B and vice versa. A expresses B’s unspoken thoughts and vice versa.
A’s behaviour communicates not only emotions ‘belonging’ to A but also
emotions unexpressed by B — and vice versa. That is why communicative
receptivity is more than just ‘empathy’ with the feelings of others
but rather a process of acknowledging and attuning to the aspects of
ourselves in resonance with those feelings. A dyad can be understood
as a group of two. In any dyadic relationship there is always a degree
of asymmetry, with one partner being the one to take responsibility for
the relationship as such, and the mode of communication that
takes place within it. Where communication runs into difficulties, it is
this partner’s capacity to embody a stance of communicative receptivity
that breaks the vicious circle of conflict created by two people trying
to get through to one another without either of them fully receiving the
The benefits of CRT are twofold. By offering a new understanding of what lies behind ‘difficult’ behaviour, it makes it a lot easier for managers and those working in groups and organisations to relate to the so-called Difficult Person, without having to resort to methods of emotional manipulation and control. This is something of particular importance for the Leading Person, who also needs to recognise the DP’s role in containing emotions and expressing difficulties experienced by the group or organisation as a whole. For the Caring Person and all those who work professionally with Persons in Difficulty, it offers a new understanding of what it means to really receive and take in a client’s personal difficulties whilst at the same time (1) not identifying the client with these difficulties (2) not making it their prime aim to control or change the behaviours through which these difficulties are expressed, and (3) not classifying the behaviourally difficult client as a Difficult Person.