How do you get people to be honest with themselves and others? Here are some thoughts from a retired psychotherapist. Let's take a marriage-counseling scenario as an example.
You probably can guess how this gambit usually goes: One partner opens by playing the "victim," while portraying the other as the "persecutor." It becomes the therapist's job to figure out the real story.
In the case of Manny and Sarah (not their real names), Manny was a Drug Enforcement Agency special agent. He was especially challenging. This dominant figure had become a proficient actor out of necessity based on undercover work. Dealing with hardcore, paranoiac drug criminals had made this middle-aged officer immune to his own emotions. His occupation did not make him someone who was inclined to "share" and "tell all" in a therapeutic setting.
Sarah, on the other hand, wanted to play the victim from the start. It was all about Manny being away from home on assignment for long periods of time. He "loves his job more than he loves me," and "I'm trying to be a good wife and getting nothing in return."
The first step to get honest communication going with this couple was to put them at ease and establish rapport. Manny did not want to be part of this process and was only in counseling because his wife insisted. He obviously did not trust therapists, and perceived them as naïve. They could not possibly understand the pressure of his job anymore than his "nagging wife" did.
So a little "I can identify with you, Manny" approach was in order. I revealed an understanding of his sense of isolation based on my earlier military experiences as an intelligence officer.
Soon, Manny's resistance began to melt. The idea that someone understood and "maybe" could be trusted started to emerge. Empathizing with feelings of despair and helplessness put Sarah at ease as well.
The next step was to listen carefully and look for inconsistencies. Generally honest people don't intend to lie, but as a psychological defense, they can often convince themselves that a perception of a relationship situation is an undisputed fact.
Bringing things into a realistic perspective, a therapist might say something like, "Sarah, I'm confused here. You say because of his work, Manny is never home. But according to my notes from last week, he has not been on an undercover assignment for over a year. Can you help me with that?"
Often, a partner will lie or mislead if he or she is trying to avoid negative consequences or protect the feelings of the other. For example, if one has had secret affairs, it is unlikely that fact will be exposed in couples counseling without probing.
One way to get the truth is to simply ask for it. Don't expect the first reply to be accurate. However, if the therapist is persistent and convincing that an honest answer will be beneficial, often the truth will follow.
The more a therapist understands the facts of a situation, the more likely clients will "stick to the script" and not go astray with embellishments or outright falsehoods. Facts are helpful when gathered from participating third parties or documentation.
Therapists must put their own personal feelings aside. Feeling sorry for Sarah being married to a "cold and calculating" DEA agent only reinforces her perceptions and makes it easy for her to continue with a distorted narrative. On the other hand, the same applies to Manny. Yes, he has a tough job, but family needs are equally — if not more — important.
Of course, I'm not getting into the actual counseling process here for Manny and Sarah, but rather demonstrating methodology used to get a baseline for honestly so that the actual therapeutic process can begin.
You may not be a marriage counselor, but you can see how these same techniques can be used to bring forth honesty in many of life's relationship situations. Some misstatements or misperceptions of fact can be harmful, while others are simply ego-enhancers.
Therefore, we all need to choose our battles carefully, along with our confrontations wisely in order to create productive and trustful communication.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.