Can a conversation save your life?
I recently met a therapist who practices dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). She and her team work with clients who may struggle with a number of issues including borderline personality disorders and thoughts of suicide, among other things. As we talked it seemed to me that her practice was very much focused on, well, talking. Her practice of therapeutic talk has a pretty good track record of helping people find ways through each scary personal wilderness.
In Doing Dialectical Behavior Therapy: A Practical Guide (NY: The Guilford Press, 2012), Kelly Koerner describes some pieces of how this therapy works:
Emotion dysregulation is the inability, despite one’s best efforts, to change or regulate emotional cues, experiences, actions, verbal responses, and/or nonverbal expression under normative conditions.
Gaining control is a matter of recognizing biologically-based contributing characteristics, focused regular therapeutic conversations, skills training, self-monitoring and a host of other strategies and tactics.
As a non-therapist outsider, I am simply curious as to how far conversation can go to help people become well again. And I am very curious as to what a therapeutic conversation looks like. While we may or may not suffer the particular illnesses that Koerner notes, I am reasonably certain anyone reading this can testify to the clarifying power of a conversation with a good friend and the long-term impact conversations have on keeping us…sane.
In ListenTalk: Is conversation an Act of God? I try to show what happens in our simple and ordinary conversations. I found a few philosophers to talk with some ancient texts (pre-order ListenTalk here), and what they ended up saying together continues to surprise me. It’s a book that will be interesting to people of faith, but the big idea is that since people matter, our talk together matters. And more than that, we actually come alive in tiny ways when in conversation.
I’ve begun tracing the different paths where conversation is truly an engine for some particular outcome. I’ve noted the product place of conversation in many business settings. I’ve wondered about the role of conversation in connecting any/all of us to God. And now here is another example of using the ordinary tool of talk to uncover and possibly address deep-seated need.
Talk. It’s a marvel.
Other Shop Talks you may find interesting:
- Writing with Sheet Metal (Shop Talk #2)
- Is Your Job Fulfilling? (Shop Talk #3)
- Power Distance Vs. Skunkworks (Shop Talk #8)
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
And that’s saying something.
According to Mrs. Kirkistan, these are two of my (many?) positive traits:
You’re a good sleeper and a good eater.
She is right: I am. Both.
That’s the kind of stuff we say about an infant, in which case it is high praise indeed: getting that little human to sleep and eat bodes well for future growth. It’s some of the first stuff we can say with any authority about a newborn.
But we struggle to praise an adult.
If we look at those same qualities on the other end of the lifespan, “good sleeper” remains a positive. Older folks have a hard time sleeping (it turns out all sorts and ages of people have a hard time sleeping). What constitutes a “good eater” changes through the years as well. Moving from a voracious eater to a judicious eater seems an especially praiseworthy approach that can span the years.
Still, how can we offer praise to one another in a meaningful way? The trophy for “just showing up” is nearly worthless and most of us see through that. But acknowledging the contributions we each make goes a huge way toward helping each other find and lay hold of our better meaning-making activities.
Yesterday my client drew a red star next to a paragraph he liked. It’s a small thing, but in conversation I told him it was meaningful that he did that. Our best work, it seems, goes by mostly unremarked. That’s how we know it is good—no one says anything. This is in contrast to when we are kids and our parents praise us for picking up our toys or finishing our Brussel sprouts. Even in school we look for praise from teachers and professors to know that we are doing the right thing/on the right track. But most of life doesn’t work that way.
Giving feedback can help us close the circuit for each other. Even if barely acknowledged, a complement does a whole lotta good.
But it better be true. Otherwise it’s just pandering.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Deep in the bowels of the Thorp building.
Image Credit: Kirk Livingston
A place for everything and everything in its place
I’ve put a recurring early-morning block on my calendar titled “Decenter.” The block or early morning quiet and focus has actually been on my calendar for decades, but I’ve recently retitled it based on a cue from Merold Westphal, a philosopher who teaches at Fordham University.
Westphal, writing in The Phenomenology of Prayer (NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), introduces prayer as a “decentering” activity. As a conversation, prayer takes me out of the center of my universe. Like the prayers of the old poet-king or the prayers of the inveterate letter-writer, these are conversations that recognize some other as the center of everything. Those two saw God as the center—I’m with them on that.
Of course, “de-centering” is not the way we could describe many of the prayers we pray. We send up endless lists to some imagined order-taking god, with caveats about when (“Now works for me. How about now?”) and where and how. And especially how much. But listen to Westphal:
…prayer is a deep, quite possibly the deepest decentering of the self, deep enough to begin dismantling or, if you like, deconstructing that burning preoccupation with myself. (Prayer as the Posture of the Decentered Self, 18)
Again and again I find myself at the center of all existence. Maybe you do too. We’re sorta set up for that, given eyes and ears that operate from a central pivot, constantly swiveling about to take in all we possibly can.
It seems natural enough to think everything revolves around us.
The truth is we need help to back away from this “burning preoccupation.”
Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston