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ASK, NOT TELL

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Have a hypothesis finally.. then what?

Updated: Oct 1


The 360 report described Jon (pseudonym) to be too outspoken. He admitted that his expressiveness was sometimes unproductive. Together with stakeholder interviews, it was clear that he had a pattern of speaking up aggressively against the authority figures in front of others. I had a working hypothesis – given the high anxiety level during projects, coupled with his own valency as evidenced and shaped by his upbringing, Jon was being put by colleagues into the role of ‘Martyr’.


Here came the tricky part. It is one thing that we can come up the possible unconscious processing. It is completely another thing in how to use it to benefit the client. The easier part is that it helps the coach to understand better the clients’ situation and even the interaction between the coach and the client. The trickiest is whether and how to bring the possible unconscious processing to the clients’ awareness.


In fact, I find this part to be the most difficult part in practicing systems-psychodynamics.


The temptation to share is very real. First, it is the excitement of intellectual discovery. Second, it is the urge to be helpful and result-oriented. In sharing the processing, hopefully then the client see some truth in it, and he may first feel more relieved that it is ‘not just’ about him. In addition, he can experiment to become less hooked, say, to be playful with the subtle mobilization by the others in meetings e.g. to refrain himself from being the first one to speak in resisting.


Yet, sharing the hypothesis explicitly can easily be counter-productive. First, such unconscious processing things are foreign to many normal people, perhaps off-putting to the action-oriented and proud-to-be-rational business executives. Second, it can trigger serious defense and thus resistance to work, ironically and especially if the hypothesis is true.


Imagine a coach said, ‘I suspect the group leverages on your valency to express, given your upbringing, to put you into the role of Martyr for them….’


A polite client will likely react with a blank face and switch topic. A more direct one (like Job) would probably say with annoyance, ‘What do you mean by the ‘group’?’, ‘You mean I am being controlled by others?’ And he is probably thinking, ‘Who is this guy…. bringing those therapy stuff to work place?’


How could one go about with the insights on unconscious processing then? I reflect on my own experience and a recent conversation with my supervisor. There seems to be a few points worth considering:


Don’t share – The default is not to share it no matter how certain I am with it. Just use the insight as one of the lens (don't marry with your hypothesis!) for me to understand the person / situation, and to my own sensations;


Be opportunistic – But when opportunity arises, I may bring it up partially and tactfully (more below). For example, in the case with Jon, he recited a recent open confrontation with his boss, after which almost immediately received text messages from colleagues… thanking him to speak out for them. Catching the opportunity, I explored with following line of enquiry:


- ‘How did you feel when you receive those messages?’

- ‘How did you feel the moment just before you confronted your boss?’

- 'And at that very moment, what were the others doing or not doing?’


I did not aim to establish the hypothesis as is with him. Instead, I tried to build his awareness on cues / signals when the possible unconscious processing (without naming it in the session) was about to ‘haunt’ him. At the same time, this allows me to verify the hypothesis.


Focus on impact and so-what – As illustrated with the example above, the client can benefit from the insight without knowing what the unconscious processing is explicitly. Instead, make the clients aware how the processing may affect them and what they could possibly do about it. After all, I do not know what the Apple M2 chip is but the laptop is enabling me magically to write and publish this post.


Casual daily language – Drop all the jargons, especially those associated with psychotherapy e.g. valency, complex, transference, defense. Ask questions in a way a regular person on the main street would do. In addition, I find it useful to be playful or even teasing a bit. It helps build the exploratory ambience for the client to consider new possibility.


I have to say it is not easy. Playfully enquiring into the possibility, say, in being a 'Martyr' requires very subtle tones, choice of words, timing, symbols and analogies. These are highly contextual to specific societies. I am still building my 'collection' in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.


Working alliance – As always, and particularly in exploring unconscious processing, working alliance is a pre-requisite. Before I make any move like the above, I try to ensure the client knows that my intervention / challenge comes from care. (Well, and even before that, I make sure I do care…) In fact, the focus onto the person should be primary over the method. See the post 'Just the Person'. After all, no one like to be analyzed by Sherlock Holmes but most would not mind exploring together with Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz. See another post 'Sherlock vs Dorothy'.


What other considerations would you add?

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