Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Brief Report: On an Exercise for Training Beginning Marital and Family Therapists in Language Skills

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Brief Report: On an Exercise for Training Beginning Marital and Family Therapists in Language Skills

Article excerpt

When my family of origin spoke historically or socially of the War, they might have meant World War I or II. However, the War also meant my mother's divorce in 1950 from my father. Such idiosyncratic use of language, while common, may be confusing to someone outside the family (Doane, 1978; Doane et al., 1982; Wynne, 1984). The fact that some words and phrases can have entirely different meanings for different individuals, even among family members, means that therapists must pay particular attention to both the general meaning and the specific application of words the client uses.

Becker (1984) identifies the tendency for words and phrases to have idiosyncratic applications for different individuals as the "linguistics of particularity" (p. 425). Words or phrases, therefore, convey unique messages to each individual speaker of a language, often including traces from past events, conversations, and persons in the participants' current conversation (Becker, 1984). Idiosyncratic use of words and phrases may be especially pronounced within a given family system (Becker, 1984; Doane, 1978; Doane et al., 1982; Wynne, 1984). However, corresponding examples of the linguistics of particularity (Becker, 1984) are found in all conversational contexts, including the therapy session.

The therapist's awareness or lack of awareness of idiosyncratic applications of words and phrases may be crucial to the outcome of a session (Troemel-Ploetz, 1977) or of training. Most therapeutic models do not address, or offer only limited awareness of, language application, eliminating an important client/therapist resource (Chenail & Fortugno, 1995). This is unfortunate because therapists "traffic in words" (Percy, 1954/1987, p. 159) and "see everything through the mirror of language" (Percy, 1991 , pp. 419-420). A training exercise intended to illustrate the linguistics of particularity would therefore do well to be dramatic because "asking


to consider language is like asking a fish to consider the nature of water" (Percy, 1991, pp. 419-420).


Supervisors(1) of marital and family therapy agree that beginning therapists need to be trained in language skills (Glaser, 1980; Haber, 1990; Rambo, 1989; Small & Manthei, 1986; Winkle, Piercy, & Hovestadt, 1981). When supervisors train beginning marital and family therapists to become more competent in language skills, they often find this training complicated by developmental (Warburton, Newberry, & Alexander, 1989; Wheeler, Avis, Miller, & Chaney, 1989), gender (Reid, McDaniel, Donaldson, & Tollers, 1987; Roberts, 1991; Shields & McDaniel, 1992; Storm, 1991; Taggart, 1989), and cultural (Lappin, 1983; McGoldrick & Garcia-Preto, 1984) differences in each beginning therapist. Also, beginning therapists often have not reflected on their understanding of the purpose that language will serve in the therapy session (Chenail & Fortugno, 1995).

The following clinical example from an academic setting illustrates the importance of therapists' sensitivity to their own and their clients' idiosyncratic application of words in their linguistics of particularity. A young woman in her late 20s talked to her therapist about her desire to find "a clean job." The therapist heard this in the context of her experience as a substance abuse counselor and assumed that the client meant sobriety or a workplace free of drugs. The training supervisor questioned the therapist's assumptions because the client could be referring to something else, for example, work in a laundry, cleaners, or germ-free environment. When the therapist questioned the client further, she learned that "clean job" meant a job with no stress, a job where she was the boss, a job that would be fun.

The training supervisor's questioning of the beginning therapist's assumed definition of "clean job" opened the door for multiple interpretations of the same words. …

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