Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Richard Johnson Presents Workshop on Family Therapy with One Person

Presenter Richard Johnson (left) with Alumnae/i Association President,
Vice President Candice Goldberg and Faculty Liaison David Kezur

More than 45 alumnae/i and guests attended Family Therapy with One Person: Coaching Individual Clients Toward Change in Family Relationships, the Alumnae/i Association lecture presented by Richard Johnson, PhD, LCSW, on Friday, March 6th.

Dr. Johnson began his presentation with an excerpt from the Academy-Award winning film, Moonstruck. In the movie’s final scene, a husband faces up to his adultery and reconciles with his wife; two brothers who have feuded for years put aside their differences; and a lonely widow convinced she is "bad luck" accepts a new love.

The message of the clip is that family members often fail one another in important and painful ways, yet they remain family forever and must find their way forward.

Dr. Johnson began by noting that while helping clients deal with difficult family relationships is a major part of most therapy, planful techniques for this work are not widely used. Coaching is an approach grounded in ideas developed by Murray Bowen and elaborated by Monica McGoldrick and Betty Carter. Coaching, or family therapy with one person, offers clients a process for making change in their family relationships even without the participation of other family members.

Coaching is "differentiation in action," Dr. Johnson said, guiding clients through a process of changing their own participation in unsatisfying family relational patterns. For clients who are ready to "let go of the rope," coaching teaches the possibility of dealing with differences, even deep differences, without loosing connection – without resorting to "fight or flight." Instead, coaching teaches clients to observe non-reactively the relationship patterns in their original family, explore their own role in these patterns, and move planfully toward changing their part in the family dance.

The process involves an exploration of family relationship history through use of a genogram, a timeline, and the teaching of basic family systems concepts that organize our understanding of family relational life. In this work, the client moves away from a stance of emotional reactivity into one of family researcher. The perspective gained from this shift supports the client’s work to unhook from intense reactivity to these patterns. The process of change, Dr. Johnson said, is built upon an ownership of one’s emotional reactivity to the old triggers in family relationships, and depends upon client resolve to move beyond reactivity to real choice.

The goal of coaching, Dr. Johnson said, quoting Monica McGoldrick, is "to help clients define themselves proactively in family relationships without emotionally cutting off or giving in." The coaching mantra guiding clients in family interactions is "don’t attack, don’t defend, don’t placate, don’t withdraw."

The kinds of changes clients ultimately attempt (client differentiation moves), Dr. Johnson said, happen on three levels. The simplest and least anxiety provoking move involves altering rote patterns of interaction with family members that have no vitality - ie. doing things differently in ways that signal interest rather than obligation. A second, more challenging, move is the purposeful deepening of authentic, personal, one-to-one relationships with family members in circumstances outside larger family gatherings. The third and boldest move involves withdrawing from back channel family processes and asking at all times for direct, transparent family interaction. Dr. Johnson described experiences, from his private practice, of shifts clients have made that led to more satisfying family connections. He also spoke about clients who are moving more cautiously and struggling with resentments of which they are not ready to let go.

In the course of his talk, Dr. Johnson used film clips to illustrate the dilemmas of differentiation: one from the clinical work of Peggy Papp; the other from the film I Never Sang for My Father. Both clips highlighted the painful cost of high emotional reactivity to the pressures of family life. Two other films were used to illustrate the powerful ways family history shapes family life and constrains relationships: one from the clinical work of Monica McGoldrick; the other from Nobody’s Business, a documentary film by Alan Berliner that focuses on his father’s life .

In the question-and-answer session following the lecture, several audience members spoke of the ways in which coaching might be applicable to their own family situations. One of the themes participants shared in this discussion was the dilemma for family therapists who, in seeking to influence patterns in their own families lives, are often perceived as professional meddlers who are using their knowledge as power.

The next Alumnae/i Association Lecture, the last of the 2008-2009 academic year, is on May 1. Martha Edwards, PhD, will speak on An Integrated Approach to Working with Couples.