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Peer groups, Cumbria spring group – third morning: authenticity, learning & interpersonal conflict

Have I screwed up?  I wrote yesterday about the first full day of this peer residential group.  I woke this morning with wisps of cloud in my mind ... a flash of Lady MacBeth ("out, damned spot") ... a whisper of shame, of guilt.  I was very direct with someone yesterday.  We happened to be randomized to a small group together and I shared both what I appreciated about them and things I found difficult in our relationship.  I was very open to receive the same "treatment", the same kind of feedback from them.  Rogerian, person-centred theory talks of a balance between caring ("unconditional positive regard"), authenticity and empathy.  Rogers, I think, was speaking particularly about psychotherapy, but he also applied it to other relationships.  I've written about conflict & confrontation in this blog, see for example the post "Conflict & disagreement, in and out of therapy".  And Les Greenberg looks at this too, see the handout "Honesty, transparency & confrontation".  In the latter, I've written "The Canadian researcher and psychotherapist Professor Leslie Greenberg has been a world leader in helping develop better understanding of how emotions can help or hinder our relationships and wellbeing.  In his book "Emotion-Focused Therapy" (APA, 2001: pp 100-3) he has some fascinating suggestions on how a therapist or "emotion coach" may best open up about difficult feelings such as anger or boredom triggered in their work with clients.  In many ways it is even more interesting to consider how relevant Greenberg's suggestions are to confrontation and honesty in other close relationships.  Examples include communication within couples, friendship, peer group work, and parenting.  A linking theme in all these relationships is that occasional disagreements and upsets are pretty much inevitable, but that overall there is a wish for the relationships to be caring, supportive and helpful.  An implication is that the value of honesty and emotional transparency is to be assessed by how constructive it is for the individuals and relationships involved."

Greenberg splits authenticity or congruence into two components - awareness and transparency.  I would add a third - courage.  He suggests that, in some senses, awareness is the easier of the two aspects to describe.  It's seeing clearly what's going on in oneself.  It's the emotional awareness that I talked about in yesterday's blog ... a sensitivity to thoughts, images, memories, associations, feelings, sensations, impulses, needs.  In some ways it's like having a good ear for music ... being able to pick out, to distinguish the different instruments in the orchestra as well as hear the overall sound.  Courage, I think, is crucial too.  I like the quote from C. S. Lewis "Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point", but of course there's also Alexander Pope's "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread"!

On transparency, Greenberg writes "The case of transparency, or the communication component of congruence, is much more complicated than the self-awareness component.  Being facilitatively transparent involves many interpersonal skills.  It involves the ability to express not only what one is truly feeling but also to express it in a way that is facilitative.  Transparency thus is a global concept for a complex set of interpersonal skills embedded within a set of therapeutic attitudes.  This skill seems to depend on three factors:  (a) the coach's attitudes, (b) on certain processes, and (c) on the coach's interpersonal stance.

First, and probably most important, congruent responses need always to be embedded within Rogerian therapist attitudes and need to be communicated nonjudgmentally.  In life one clearly can be congruently destructive.  Therapists know that being destructive is not what is meant by the term congruence as it relates to therapy, because the term congruence is really tacitly qualified by a number of other beliefs and views on how to be congruent.  The coach's expression of him or herself needs to be done for the client's benefit.  [Comment by me: This emphasis on "for the client's benefit" applies to other close relationships where there is a sense of service such as parent-child or teacher-student interactions.  With group work, friendships and couples the interaction is more "between equals".  It may then be more appropriate to see congruence as best expressed in ways that are as fair and as constructive as possible for all the individuals involved including oneself.]

When coaches express themselves genuinely, they need to do so in a disciplined manner.  They do not impulsively blurt out whatever they feel in the moment but communicate important core feelings.  To do this, they need first to be aware of their deepest level of experience, and this may take time and reflection.  Next, they need to be clear on their intention for sharing their experience - that this sharing is for the benefit of the client or the relationship and not for themselves.  It is also important for therapists to be sensitive to the timing of disclosure, sensing whether clients are open to what one has to offer or too vulnerable to receive it.  Discipline thus involves the therapist (a) not simply saying whatever he or she is feeling and (b) making sure that what is expressed is a core or primary feeling rather than a secondary one.  Another qualifying concept that I think helps clarify the transparency aspect of congruence is comprehensiveness - that congruence needs to mean "saying all of it".  The coach expresses not only the central or focal aspect that is being experienced but also the meta-experience, what is felt about what is being experienced  and communicated.  Thus, saying that one feels irritated or bored does not comprise comprehensive communication.  Coaches need also to communicate their concern about such a revelation potentially hurting their clients and express that they are communicating this out of a wish to clarify and improve a connection, not destroy it.  This is the meaning of "saying all of it".

Being congruent may involve the therapist saying what he or she is feeling in his or her body at the time.  It may involve speaking of a feeling that has been persisting over time and is not actually being felt at that moment in any visceral way.  Also, being congruent may involve the therapist saying something that spontaneously captures the sense of the moment.  The current or general feelings being congruently expressed may range from compassion to anger, from threat to joy and, depending on which emotion is being felt, it will be expressed in a very specific way, with its own expressive intentions.  Anger, for example, may be expressed to set boundaries and to assist in resolving a feeling of being wronged; compassion may be expressed to share it and to comfort.  Fear probably is usually expressed to inform the other person of one's reaction to him or her.

In addition to disclosing what one is feeling, being congruent might involve saying what one is thinking, disclosing an image, sharing a past experience of one's own, or commenting on the interaction between therapist and client.  The intentions here may be to convey one's understanding or deal with a relational difficulty.  A highly integrated or well-trained coach dedicated to helping will produce congruent responses of a different kind and quality than will an undifferentiated or egocentric therapist or a novice.  Being therapeutically congruent thus can be seen as involving a complex set of interpersonal skills as well as the intra-personal skill of awareness. 

Finally, it is the coach's interpersonal stance that is important in understanding facilitative transparency.  Affirming and disclosing stances are the key that make transparency facilitative.  Affirming responses are the baseline responses in supportive therapies.  What does a therapist do when he or she is feeling not affirming but angry, critical, and rejecting and cannot get past this feeling?  For a transparent response to be facilitative, feelings need to be expressed as disclosures.  It is not the content of the disclosure that is the central issue in being facilitative; rather it is the interpersonal stance of disclosure that is important.  Implicit or explicit disclosure involves a willingness to, or an interest in, exploring with the other person what one is disclosing.  For example, when attacked or feeling angry, coaches do not attack but rather disclose that they are feeling angry.  Coaches do not use blaming, "you" language; instead they take responsibility for their feelings and use "I" language that helps disclose what they are feeling.  Above all, they do not go into a one-up, escalatory position in this communication but rather openly disclose feelings of fear, anger, or hurt.  When the problem is one of the therapist experiencing nonaffiliative, rejecting feelings or a loss of interest in the client's experience, the required interactional skill involves being able to disclose this in the context of communicating congruently that the therapist does not wish to feel this.  Or, the therapist might disclose these feelings as a problem that is getting in the way and explain that he or she is trying to repair the distance so that he or she will be able to feel more understanding and feel closer to the client.  The key to communicating what could be perceived as negative feelings in a congruently facilitative way is generally occupying an interactional position of disclosure that is nondominant and affiliative.  Thus, in the context of feeling angry, a coach's facilitative, congruent process involves first checking whether anger is his or her most core feeling; if it is, then this needs to be disclosed in a nonblaming, non-escalatory fashion.  If the coach is feeling more hurt, diminished, or threatened, rather than angry, then congruence involves being aware of this & disclosing this in an effective manner."

Pretty wise stuff, I think.  Nearly all of what Greenberg says I agree with.  It is a bit different, not a lot but a bit different in peer group work or friendships or between couples.  Here, one person's needs aren't primary as the client's are in therapy.  The aim is, if possible, for everyone involved to learn, to move forward, in the end to benefit from exploring the difficulty.  And here in this kind of group, it can be particularly powerful and particularly helpful.  It can also be particularly unhelpful and damaging.  I'm probably more ready to move deeper into authentic challenge than most people I know.  Friends and others who know me well have sometimes told me that this is a quality they very much value about me.  In the past (in groups and in other close peer relationships), I've often been authentic in ways that have seemed helpful.  I've also sometimes been very direct, authentic & genuine and felt later that it wasn't helpful and was, in some ways, damaging for the other person and for myself.

And yesterday I was very direct with someone and now I'm concerned, engaged, committed to keeping working with it so that we have more chance of both benefitting.  But it's hard territory.  In my experience it's often the case that this kind of upset, this kind of conflict takes a while to work through.  That the "jigsaw puzzle" of our previous relationship/understanding fragments a bit and we may need to come back to the discussion again, very honestly, empathically, with care, for it to move to somewhere helpful.  And it can ... almost miraculously so.  It's been one of the joys of my life, how a relationship that has tumbled into misunderstanding, hurt, anger, can shift, move through, and come back to a loving, supportive place with something added.  With learning and growth.  We'll see.  This is up to us.  I hope today goes well ... see the next post "Peer groups, Cumbria spring group - fourth morning: 'vision express' & where are these groups going".  

And see too other posts this month on "Conflict: not too much, not too little, and how to make it constructive - some research suggestions (first post)" and "Conflict: not too much, not too little ... some research suggestions (second post)".


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