Communication and metacommunication

This post will explore some of the basics of Dr. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA), one of the popular theories in the humanistic psychology movement, and will also briefly cover “metacommunication” as a principle in communication theory. Eric Berne is perhaps best known for his book The Games People Play, which popularized some of his concepts regarding TA – a psychoanalytic theory. Another popular book about TA was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Harris.

Communication theory posits that every statement made within a relationship works on two levels: the content of the statement, and as a statement about the nature of the relationship. So I’ll start with some thoughts on what a relationship is and the different kinds of transactions that occur in relationships. A relationship can be a casual ongoing series of social transactions, such as your relationship with your postal carrier or a store clerk whom you see from time to time, or it can be something deeper. Dr. Berne listed the kinds of transactions that occur in relationships, from the superficial to the intimate.

The most basic transactions are what Berne called rituals, polite exchanges that superficially acknowledge a relationship, but contain no real, meaningful content. “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m  fine. Hot enough for you?” The next level of transactions is pastimes, where two or more acquaintances pass the time together, watching TV or playing a game, with no sharing of meaningful content. After that is activities, where people get together to engage in purposeful pursuits, with a goal in mind, without getting past superficial interpersonal exchanges. In the next level of transactions, games, there’s an effort to connect and share meaningful communications, but the people involved engage in inauthentic manipulations. It was this level of transactions that Berne primarily focused on in The Games People Play.  A popular song borrowed its title: “Oh the games people play now/ Every night and every day now/Never meanin’ what they say now/Never sayin’ what they mean.”

TA is a psychoanalytic theory because it re-casts Freud’s superego, ego and id as parent, adult and child, and analyzes games in relationships within that framework. I’ll write about games and crossed transactions in a later post. For now I’ll just say that the highest level of transactions in TA is intimacy: non-manipulative, authentic relating.

Having said that relationships can range from superficial to intimate, now I’ll elaborate on communication and metacommunication. On one level, any statement within a relationship is characterized by its content, whether it’s a “How ya doin?” communication that simply affirms that a relationship exists, or whether it contains more meaningful content. But on another level, metacommunication, the statement is a comment on the nature of the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you ______.” If you have no problem with the statement, then you and the person who said it agree on the nature of your relationship. If you find the statement creepy or inappropriate or offensive, there’s a disagreement about the nature of your relationship.

Take the example of a newly-single mother,  the night after Dad – who used to be the sole parental disciplinarian – moved out.  With Dad gone, Mom has had to take on that role. The first time Mom (in Dad’s absence) tells Junior it’s time for bed, she’s saying. “We have the kind of relationship where I can order you to go to bed.” If Junior complies, putting on his pajamas and brushing his teeth, he’s affirmed Mom’s new role. If he replies, “I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” he’s attempting to reject Mom’s new definition of their relationship, implying, “I don’t have to do the things you tell me to do if I don’t want to.” If Mom lets Junior stay up, she’s let him define the relationship. If she says, “Nine o’clock is your bedtime. If you’re not in your pajamas with your teeth brushed in ten minutes, no TV or video games tomorrow,” she’s asserting that she is the parent and gets to define the relationship.

Another example involves a woman who has just taken a job in an office managed by a lecherous boss. If, on her first day of work, he tells her “You look hot in that dress” and she doesn’t object, she’s  communicating that she accepts his understanding that “We have the kind of relationship where I can comment on your body and make suggestive remarks.” If she doesn’t want this kind of treatment to persist, she needs to reject his assertion as to the nature of this new relationship. “Mr. Smith, I know you meant that as a compliment, but I really don’t feel comfortable with you talking to me like that.” In saying that, she’s asserting that the relationship is professional, not personal, in nature.

I’ve found this principle of metacommunication to be very helpful in making sense of the complexities of human interactions. (Or, as Eric Berne would have it, “analyzing transactions.”)  You already know intuitively, from your own experience, the essence of what I’ve written about in this post; I’ve just given you the principle behind what you  know,  and given it a name. The term has another meaning that I’ll get into in a later post: within a relationship, metacommunicating means communicating about how we communicate, talking about how we talk together.


Client-centered therapy and active listening

Dr. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy was one of the major therapies within the human potential movement. I had the good fortune to meet him briefly when he was the keynote speaker at a convocation of the Association for Humanistic Education, held at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) in 1976. I’d just listened to his address and then joined my ex-wife, Doris, who was selling her hand-crafted jewelry from a blanket on the lawn outside the education building. Dr. Rogers came out of the building and Doris’ display caught his eye. He was being escorted by a faculty member, but stopped to look. I can’t remember anything that was said between the three of us, but I was in awe of the man and couldn’t believe I was actually talking to him. He bought a piece of Doris’ jewelry as a gift, so I’ve subsequently made the claim that Carl Rogers helped put me through grad school.

Rogerian therapists don’t make analytic interpretations, or provoke authentic responses, or recommend goals to the client. Goals are established by the client, who does a lot more talking than listening in therapy sessions. A good Rogerian therapist is an active listener, who strives to understand the client’s sense of self, interpersonal boundaries, and experience of being-in-the-world by carefully listening to his words. The therapist might ask clarifying questions, but mostly listens. Actively.

After listening to a detailed account of a client’s issues with her dominating mother, the therapist doesn’t respond with an interpretation, but reflects on his understanding of her experience. “It sounds like every time you’re around your mother you end up feeling angry and worthless. I also heard you say that you keep having intrusive thoughts about your mother dying in an accident, and you feel terribly guilty about having these thoughts.” If the therapist has accurately and non-judgmentally reflected the essence of what the client was trying to express, this usually promotes increased trust and a fuller disclosure on the subject at hand. When the therapist is on the mark, the client knows that the therapist cares, listens carefully, doesn’t judge him, and seems to understand. If the therapist misses the mark, the client will usually let him know right away.

Often in everyday life we only give part of our attention to what others tell us, or are distracted by our own thoughts or reactions. Listening is often a passive act. Active listening means giving our full attention to what we’re being told, without allowing our thoughts to distract us. It’s a kind of mindfulness. In a different arena, music appreciation, certain kinds of music demand more of the listener than others. To fully appreciate chamber music, or a sitar raga, or jazz by Coltrane, you have to quiet your own thoughts and give your full attention to the music. In the interpersonal arena, sometimes we need someone who cares enough to listen actively when we have something important to say, whether that person is a therapist, a pastor, a spouse, a family member, or a trusted friend.

Active listening is a learnable skill. I started learning it in grad school. Even when I was working in a therapeutic mode other than client-centered therapy, I was an active listener. I’ve always believed that I owed it to each client to give them my full attention. Sometimes I’d do a brief meditation between clients, to clear my head. Like most things, you learn active listening by practicing it. You have to learn to suspend your own thoughts, and you do that by simply noticing any thought that intrudes on your active listening. Like a stray cat, if you don’t feed it, it goes away. Focus on listening without judging. You can practice listening actively to classical music or jazz, too. Learning to listen actively to complex music is its own reward. Active listening gets easier with practice.

When a parent would come in complaining that their child used to confide in them, but stopped, I’d coach them in active listening and non-judgmental reflection. When a child feels understood and validated, she develops higher levels of  trust and is more willing to talk about what’s important in her life. Learning to be an active listener will give you a tool that some therapists use to establish trust and encourage disclosure. It will make you a better parent, friend or spouse. When you listen carefully and reflect back what you’ve heard accurately and non-judgmentally, the person you’ve been listening to knows that (1) you care enough to (2) really hear them (3) without judging them and (4) you seem to understand and accept what they’re going through. Everyone (other than sociopaths) wants to be understood and validated, and you can help people you care about feel accepted as the unique person they are. In terms of personal growth, Carl Rogers  taught that self-acceptance is the fertile ground in which the seeds of growth can flourish.

Freedom of attitude

Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I’ve recommended it, as “bibliotherapy,” to clients in my clinical practice more than any other book, by far. I recommend it too you as a book of useful philosophy. Its conclusions resonate with cognitive therapy, Buddhism and the Serenity Prayer.

Dr. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and a survivor of a Nazi death camp. The first part of the book isn’t an easy read, as it recounts the hellish circumstances of daily life in a death camp and the heartbreaking choices people were sometimes forced to make. Frankl had studied to be a doctor before he and his wife were arrested for the crime of being Jewish, and sent by train to separate death camps. He never saw her again.

In his book he separates his fellow prisoners into two categories: those who continued to fight for survival, and those who lost the will to live. There were many ways to die in a death camp. Just refusing an order from a brutal guard could get you beaten to death. Giving away your bread to others would hasten death by starvation. Some chose death over life in Hell.

A philosopher by nature, Frankl sought to determine what made the difference for those who fought to live, rather than surrendering to circumstance. His conclusion was that those who lost the will to live were those who could no longer find meaning in their suffering. Frankl found meaning in hope for survival and of possible reunion with his wife. His love for her was alive, as well as his hope. He knew he had something to live for, even if he couldn’t specify what it was, even if there were no guarantees.

Viktor Frankl asserted that we have a choice that nobody can take away from us, regardless of our circumstances. We are always free to choose our attitude toward whatever situation we find ourselves in. If I’d heard this from someone else I might not have given it much weight, but I learned it from Viktor Frankl. I’m unlikely to ever find myself in a situation nearly as dire as what Frankl lived through. If he could apply this wisdom in a Nazi death camp, surely I can apply it to any circumstance I find myself in.

Any fortunate circumstance can be sullied by a negative attitude, and any unfortunate circumstance will inevitably be made worse by negative thinking and expectations. A positive attitude, on the other hand, can make good situations even better, and a positive attitude opens the possibility that an otherwise intolerable situation can be made bearable. We find – or create – the meaning of our life circumstances by our choice of attitude. A negative attitude cannot improve anything.

Frankl called his approach to psychotherapy “logotherapy,” from the Greek word for meaning. In his professional practice, he tried to help his patients discover or create meanings that helped them in their struggles. Exercising your freedom of attitude allows you to re-frame your experience. What does it mean? Are you suffering because that’s what you deserve? Or is your suffering a test, an ordeal from which you can emerge, a better person? Nobody can decide the meaning of your life experiences but you.



The paradox of identity, Part 2

“Authenticity” is one of the most important words in the lexicon of gestalt therapy, and it’s an essential component of intimacy. I’ve described intimacy as “emotional nakedness” with another person, but that doesn’t imply a sexual relationship. Sexual intimacy is just one kind of intimacy. People in authentic relationships don’t put on acts with one another. They aren’t afraid to be seen as they are, warts and all.  Unfortunately, authentic relationships are hardly ever modeled by characters in TV dramas and soap operas and sitcoms, because it doesn’t make for good drama – which relies on conflict to keep things entertaining.

Dr. Fritz Perls, the reigning guru of gestalt therapy when I was in grad school, wrote a lot about how we’re socialized to be “phony,” in the guise of politeness. He said that it was the job of the gestalt therapist “not to let go unchallenged” any inauthentic expressions by a client in a therapy session. The client of a skilled gestalt therapist often finds himself “sitting on the hot seat,” even in individual therapy. There are some highly effective gestalt techniques that disarm the client’s typical, often reflexive, defenses, leaving him to experience his own “unedited,” authentic here-and-now feelings. Perls said that past and future are fictions; we live our lives in the here-and-now.

If a client started to relate a past unpleasant experience, the gestalt therapist would ask her to relate it in the present tense, to bring it into the here-and-now of her experience. If the client made a statement couched in generalized terms, i.e.”You know how it is when someone gets on your case…” the therapist would ask her to make it an I-statement, i.e. “When somebody gets on my case I ____.” The therapist might interrupt a rationalized response to a question about a thorny issue and say, “Are you aware that you’re  clenching your fists?” This call to be present in her body in the here-and-now disarms the client’s intellectualizing.

When a client “protesteth too much” an inauthentic feeling or response, i.e. “It really doesn’t bother me anymore when my father tells me I’m stupid.” the therapist might say, “Say the opposite. Tell me that it really bothers you when your father calls you stupid.” “But it doesn’t!” “Say it anyway.” Having the client repeat the opposite statement – usually more than once – often produces an authentic emotional response (sometimes tears or rage) and a moment of insight. Probably the best known gestalt technique is the “empty chair,” where you have the client face an empty chair and visualize her father (mother, boss, lover, molester, etc.) sitting in that chair. “Now I want you to tell him what you just told me.” “But he’d never let me!” “He has to listen. He can’t interrupt. Tell him what you’ve always wanted to tell him.” This technique often elicits powerful, authentic responses that the client has typically repressed.

In my last post I wrote about people pleasers and their phony (inauthentic) behaviors. Another mindset that engenders phony behavior is that of the “con,” the bullshitter. Like the people pleaser, the con tries to read you and puts on an act; but unlike the people pleaser, the con wants to get something you have. If he wants you  to like him, it’s only a means to an end. A con is always onstage, performing. Cons and people pleasers pay the same price: they deprive themselves of the opportunity to have an authentic identity. Most of us want to be liked for who we truly are. People who can’t or won’t be authentic in relationships can never know who they truly are. If someone seems to like or admire them, is it really them they hold in esteem, or their act? They can’t come to know the real person behind the masks they habitually wear. It can be scary to enter into a truly intimate relationship, whether with a therapist, a new friend, or a lover. But the more intimate relationships we have in our lives, the better we know who we uniquely are.

“Autonomy” is another important word in the gestalt lexicon, and increased autonomy is a frequent goal of therapy. In my experience, the best marriages and friendships are characterized by intimacy and a mutual respect for one another’s autonomy. This ideal of intimate relating is captured in Fritz Perls’ “Gestalt Prayer,” which was a very popular poster back in the days of hippies and encounter groups:

“I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.”

The paradox of identity, Part 1

This post begins with my approximation of one of my “standard raps” (talks) as a leader of psycho-educational therapy groups – my examination of the concept of identity: “We think of identity as that which is unique to us, that which characterizes us as the singular person we are, But there’s a riddle embedded in the concept. How do we know who we really are? Think of Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away,” alone on an island for a long time. As time goes on without human contact, how can he know who he is? How can he know if he’s kind or sensitive, or if he’s kept his sense of humor? Only when he meets Friday can Robinson Crusoe begin to reconstruct an identity.

The paradox of identity is that it relies on relationships with others to define it, and doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. No one person is the absolute authority on your identity – but neither are you, because you can’t be objective about yourself. The person your intimates know you as might not always validate your Cherished Self Image. (We all have one.) I remember one of the first times I was with my divorced first wife, Doris, in the company of my then-girlfriend Maria – my wife of twenty-seven years. (We all remain close friends.) When I made some reference to myself as a laid-back person, they both laughed loud and long.

I’m not a laid-back person by nature; that was just part of my Cherished Self Image. People who know me well know that I’m an intense person, with lots of energy. That doesn’t mean I can’t ever be laid back, just that it’s not my default mode.”

In my career as a psychotherapist I came across a number of folks who were people pleasers. I was good at spotting the insecurities that go along with being a people pleaser, because I used to be one, myself. People pleasers want to be liked by everyone – even people they don’t like. Some people in therapy with me had, or developed, insight into their compulsion to please others, even at their own expense, and made it a goal of therapy to get over their “phony” people pleasing ways. The opposite of phony-ness is “authenticity,” which can be learned with attention and practice.

As a young man, just out of four years in the Army, I felt like everybody  in the psychology program knew more than me. I hadn’t developed a secure sense of who I was. I’d gotten over some bad habits of my youth, but I had a lot of self-doubt about my fitness to be a psychotherapist. What I recognized was that when I met new people – especially if I liked or respected them – I tried to come across as the person I thought they might want me to be. I sought their approval by trying to please them. I said things I didn’t really mean, and did favors it wasn’t in my heart to do. I monitored others for signs of disapproval, so I could improve my act.

I knew I couldn’t be an effective therapist unless I stopped being phony with others. Providence supplied my mentor in this process, in the form of my gestalt therapy professor. Dr. Fred Axelberd was known for a frankness in personal encounters that some saw as brutal, but he became my primary role model for being authentic. As an example: If a grad student asked him after class, “Hey, do you want to go have a beer and finish this conversation?” and he didn’t want to , he’d simply say, “No.” and walk away. No context, no explanation, no excuse. If the student felt hurt or rejected, that was on him. Fred didn’t feel like he had to justify his social decisions to others. One day Fred looked me in the eye and asked me, “You want everyone to like you, don’t you?” I couldn’t deny it, and resolved to change.

People pleasers are excessively “polite” and have to justify any “no” they might express. They say polite/phony things rather than simply expressing their wishes. “Sorry, I’d like to stay but I can’t. I’ve got to ______.” Recognizing my own need to seek approval from everyone, I set about emulating Fred and not making excuses for my decisions about what I wanted to do with whom, when. It’s a cognitive behavioral therapy technique called “exposure,” where you confront your fear of drowning by getting in the water. I taught myself over time that if I said or did something authentic, and someone didn’t like me or disapproved as a result, it wasn’t the end of the world. I could survive someone’s disapproval.

Fred Axelberd’s “Gestalt Man” course provided fertile ground for my personal growth, as well as experiences that trained me to do therapy in the gestalt mode. One of the course requirements was being videotaped in front of the class, both as the client in a gestalt session, and as the therapist. I spent time in what gestalt therapists call “the hot seat,” and got a taste of the vulnerability that psychotherapy clients can feel. After each session, we’d all watch the videotape, which could be stopped at any point if Fred or a classmate had an observation or suggestion. It felt like being examined naked in public, but I learned a lot about myself in the process. There’ll be more about identity – and gestalt therapy – in my next post.









The virtues of ignorance

The 2014 film “Birdman” was subtitled “The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance.” I have my own thoughts on that topic, but first I’ll  deal with the more obvious downside. Ignorance might be bliss for some, but it tends to lead to bad judgment and errors. There is individual ignorance and group, or shared, ignorance. In the political arena, ignorance on the part of voters or legislators leads to bad governance. Propagandists know that perception frequently trumps facts, and often cultivate public ignorance in service of their employers. The anticipated result of a successful propaganda campaign is orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale.

A general principle that I learned in grad school lodged itself in my brain and has helped me to think critcally ever since: “Beware the mono-factorial hypothesis” The mono-factorial hypothesis says that A causes B, ignoring other possible factors in tho equation.  On a graph this is a straight line correlation: for every additional unit on the X-axis, there is a corresponding movement on the Y-axis. Connect the dots and you get a straight line.

The mono-factorial hypothesis provides simple answers to complex questions. “He beats his kids because his daddy used to beat him.” If childhood abuse caused people to abuse their own children in adulthood, then everyone who was ever abused would go on to be an abuser. Not settling for a simple, mono-factorial explanation leads one to look for other factors and generate multi-factorial explanations. For instance, what are the other factors that explain why not all abused children go on to be abusive parents?

This may seem elementary, but in my years of clinical practice, I often saw people who were locked into mono-factorial explanations, such as, “He wouldn’t be an addict if he hadn’t stopped going to church.” Or, “Women are all alike.” Or, “Men can’t be trusted.” Such simplistic thinking also leads to Good Guy/Bad Guy thinking in relationships, as well as other over-simplifications of complex issues and situations.

In therapy groups, my “standard rap” (talk) on the virtues of ignorance went something like this. “I can’t take any credit for my intelligence; it comes from inherited genes. But I’m a pretty smart person who was lucky enough to get a good education and to earn a graduate degree. I read a lot and I know a lot about a lot of things. BUT, no matter how much I know, my knowledge will always be finite. It will always have boundaries, limits, shortfalls. No matter how much I learn, there’s no way to keep up with the explosion of knowledge. My ignorance, on the other hand, is VAST, limitless. It goes on and on. That applies to you, too. Knowing this, and living with a humbling awareness of all that you DON’T know is, I think, the beginning of wisdom.

Some of the worst mistakes are made when people think they know something that they really don’t. By paying close attention to your knowledge and beliefs, and trying to distinguish what you’re sure you know from what you think you know and what you have to admit you don’t know, you can avoid many mistakes. Keeping this mind-set has saved me from a lot of foolish decisions, based on thinking I knew something I really didn’t.” Since I often tried to inject some philosophy lessons into my group presentations, at this point I’d introduce the groups members to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know.

It’s not just our knowledge and beliefs that guide our decisions and our behavior, it’s also clusters of beliefs, called schemas: “this is what marriage is like,” or “this is what manhood/womanhood is about,” or “this is what I have to do to make it in this world.” Our personal schemas are learned from our families, religions and cultures. A man with a male-dominant schema for marriage (like the family he grew up in) is going to have a hard time if the woman he wants  to marry has an “equal partners” marriage schema. Some schemas are functional, and tend to promote love and harmony, while others are dysfunctional, and tend to promote hatred and disharmony – even violence.  The latter often stem from mono-factorial hypotheses and from the mistaking of beliefs for facts.

First blog post

You don’t have to be sick to get better


My psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) was the only program in the Southeast, in the grad school catalogs I studied, to promote itself as a “humanistic psychology” program. For a while humanistic psychology was anathema to many fundamentalist Christians, some of whom saw it as having Satanic origins and goals. All I’ll say about that is that there was nothing in the humanistic psychology movement that was dissonant with the Christian values I was raised with, and some of my classmates were Christians.

Humanistic psychology was practically synonymous with the “human potential movement” in psychology, and was referred to as the Third Force in psychology – the first being Freudian psychodynamic theory and the second being Behaviorism. It was an umbrella term for new theories and therapies that didn’t fit neatly into either psychodynamic or behavioral theory or practice, and wasn’t grounded in remediation of psychopathology. Many or most humanistic psychologists were interested in psychologically healthy persons, as well as therapies that didn’t rely on psychodynamic interpretations or behavior modification techniques.

Among the theories and therapies in the movement were Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy, gestalt theory and therapy, Transactional Analysis, William Glasser’s Reality Therapy, as well as various movement therapies (Feldenkreis, Alexander Technique, structural integration), encounter groups, systems theory, Eriksonian hypnosis, and neuro-linguistic programming. I’ll have more to say about some of these theories and therapies in later posts. It was an exciting time to study psychotherapy, and I couldn’t have chosen a better Masters program to prepare me for my career.

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” was an important part of the foundation of the human potential movement. Like all models it has its flaws, but it’s a model that explains how potentials for growth are limited by identifiable life circumstances. It isn’t grounded in psychopathology; everyone can be located somewhere in the model. Maslow described a universal hierarchy of needs, generally depicted as a pyramid. The most basic human needs are physiological, such as the need for air, food, water and shelter. According to Maslow, if these basic survival needs aren’t being met, you stay stuck in survival mode and can’t grow, or meet higher-level goals. Once these needs are met, you have the potential to grow.

Next up on the pyramid are safety needs. If you aren’t safe or secure in your life, you have to devote your efforts to security issues before you can move on and try to live up to your potentials. The third level of needs according to Maslow is social needs – healthy relating with family and friends. Our relationships are an integral part of who we are, and without them we’re incomplete. Maslow suggested that once we’ve met our essential needs up to this level, we can work on esteem needs: self-esteem, confidence, competence and achievement. Those who’ve reached this level in meeting their hierarchal needs have the potential to rise to the highest level: self-actualization.

Self-actualization is a process, not a goal. People who have their physiological, safety, social and esteem needs adequately met can devote their energies to personal growth – which may involve helping others and/or developing new competencies. Self-actualizing people can be authentic and spontaneous in relationships, and can follow their creative impulses, doing what they most want to do to the best of their ability. Of course life circumstances and obligations can limit what self-actualizing people are able to accomplish in terms of self-expression and achievement, but they can continue to grow and learn until they either lose their capacities or die.

Just because you’re grown up doesn’t mean you have to stop growing. Growth can be a life-long process if you cultivate the garden of your unique life. My next few posts will be about factors – including thoughts and beliefs – that can either facilitate or impede personal growth.