Psychotherapist Tips: Minding Your Language?

Recently, I had a chance to witness what a person does in a therapeutic setting. He was working with a client who had a depressive episode and used Cognitive Behavior Therapy as the principle mode of therapy.  This client had an issue that some of us might find familiar Рhe had broken up with his partner of several years and the principle outcome was to stop having to feel the negative sensations of a breakup.

So, the therapist ¬†appeared to me competent in what he did, and came toward the closing of the session pretty well. But something strange happened: at the end of the therapy session, he said something along the lines of “imagine a time when you might experience a breakup again. She says you’re not worth the trouble.”

Now, according to my knowledge, I had not heard that phrase “you’re not worth the trouble” crop up in the entire therapy session. The therapist had the good intent of testing a future response. However, this particular phrase “you’re not worth the trouble” caused an emotional outburst. After calming the client down, it so happened that his was the phrase that he remembered hearing when his mother left his father (client was much younger).

Maybe this is a shout out to therapists who think that their mode of therapy is good enough. I think I used to be in that category, until I discovered NLP, learnt how to learn and model other modes of therapy (amongst many other things) and apply it to my current practice.

Language has hidden layers. In NLP, we call them ‘presuppositions’. According to transformational grammar theory (a little archaic, but still useful as a model), we have the deep structure of experience and the surface structure. The Deep Structure represents connections that people have beyond just the statement. A factual statement like “He is jumping into the pool” presupposes a few things.

  • at this very point, he is near the pool (a presupposed fact by the nature of the statement)
  • the pool has water (it is, after all, a ‘pool’)

You can’t assume, however:

  • he is happy jumping into the pool

This is a straightforward statement. Imagine if the statement was “I can’t believe my mother would treat my sister so badly”

  • Your mother treats your sister badly
  • Your mother did not tell you
  • You were ignorant that your sister was treated badly
  • Your sister was treated to a degree that is worse that your mental average

See… layers and layers of presupposed information.

Language, in my opinion, is the most complex of the layers within a therapeutic relationship, and I believe it is essential to know how language is used in order for us to maximize the therapeutic alliance, and to really hear what the client is telling us. If for no other reason at all, learn NLP for the purposes of discovering language and the way it functions in any kind of therapeutic relationship!