What Just Happened?: Covert Communication

Even though I’ve seen it many times I’m still surprised when someone on the verge of meeting their goals quits counseling. Working with Alexis for over a year she’d moved from a dead-end job she despised to a career path she loved. She stopped renting, and found a small but perfect home to share with her dog. During her sessions she began talking about dating. She seemed ready; her life was stable, she’d worked through a lot of her past hurts and she’d created a strong self-identity. But something felt off to me. I wasn’t sure Alexis was ready to date.

Gregory Bateson, a family therapist from the 1950’s calls my intuitions “metacommunication.” He explains that each response has two messages: the first, words or verbal content, and the second, context, intonation, history, body language and silence, among many others. For example, Alexis said, “I know I’ve dated men who weren’t good for me; with our work together now I know how to spot a good man.” Her words sounded good and referenced many discussions we’d had about dating. However her smile looked forced, she couldn’t make eye contact, her tone of voice was higher, and her toe was tapping incessantly. I had seen these behaviors when Alexis began counseling, and they were clues to me that the words of her first message did not match the indicators of her second message.

Throughout what would be our final session I tried many different interventions to bring the metacommunication to the forefront. Alexis had a different agenda. Not only did she not want to start dating, she didn’t want to admit she wasn’t ready to date. No matter how many times I assured her that dating was completely her choice, she couldn’t be honest with herself or me. As the saying goes (sometimes attributed to Mark Twain), “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Observing your own metacommunication or asking friends and family for help take time this week to notice what you’ve been missing. Of course like Alexis you can always convince yourself to stay in denial but sometimes the cost is just too high. “