As a therapist, one of my jobs is to help people to communicate more effectively with the people around them. I help people to express themselves in ways that are clear and non-blaming so that the other party is aware of their needs, but not provoked to defensiveness. I talk about saying things instead of just thinking them because people cannot read each others’ minds. Most of all, and especially when raising young children, I tell people that they need to give clear messages.

So that is one part of what I do. It is not necessarily the only thing I do in terms of communication.

A long time ago I had a very strange and interesting experience. It happened during my internship in Boston at a family therapy institute. I was working with a multi-problem family in a fairly intensive manner– seeing the wife perhaps twice a week and the couple at least once a week in addition to telephone calls during the week. My supervisor was a quasi-genius. He was the person who always had the answers I was looking for. I would tell him what was happening and he would help me figure out what to do next. This went on for weeks.

And then, one day, I caught him in the hall and said, “I need to talk to you about the Jones family.” (not their name) He said, “I don’t want to hear.” I was taken aback, but I just assumed that he was busy and it wasn’t a good time to talk. The next day when I saw him, I again said, “I need to talk to you about the Jones family.” (still not their name) He said, “I don’t want to hear.” This happened for a few days. I continued doing for them what I believed was the right thing, but I missed the support of my supervisor. It was only later that I began to understand that he was telling me that I needed to trust myself.

At the same time, I noticed that my supervisor was looking forlorn. He was missing that verve and energy that he had had earlier in the year. I asked him if everything was all right. He said that he was fine.

One day as I was going to my inbox at the agency, I was carrying money in my hand for the coffee machine. As I reached into my box, some of it fell and I gathered it up as well as I could. Apparently I hadn’t found it all because when my supervisor came over to get something from his box, he found a nickel. He said, “Hmmm, where did this come from?” I jokingly responded, “It’s a payment for being good.” He smiled and a tear came to his eye. He took the nickel and put it in his pocket.

From then on, from time to time, I would leave him a nickel. He didn’t ever acknowledge it. Several months later we were in a group supervision setting and he said to me in a gentle voice, “I don’t need those payments anymore.” The other students didn’t know what he was talking about. One asked, “Was this some kind of token economy?” He answered, once again with a tear in his eye, “No, it was so much more than that.”

We never spoke of what had transpired, but by the end of the year he was looking more energetic and happier.

I moved away to Oklahoma. A couple of years later I saw him at a conference. I told him how much I appreciated everything he had taught me both directly and indirectly. I told him that I now understood the power of indirect messages.

He said, “Yes, I was really screwed up that year.”

But whether he meant to or not, he did teach me about the power of the unsaid, the gesture, the non-verbal communication. And now I teach that to others.

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  1. Thank you – this is a great lesson for me. Hope to put into practice.

    For some reason, it made me think of a post you did in 12/05. Whenever ever I am feeling melancoly (sp?) I go look it up and feel uplifted.

    Still waiting for a chat & coffee in Jerusalem

  2. lori barstow says

    I would love to have that chat over coffee in Jerusalem as well…Miss you love you…ME

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