11. Verbal Fluency - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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11. Verbal Fluency

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

A challenging and potentially beneficial interpretation for the therapist to try validates an aspect or some degree of the individual's negative interpretation.  However, this interpretation addresses another layer of meaning that has not been overtly stated.  For example, Dirk declares that Madeline "…is on my ass all the time about being away.  She doesn't get how nasty it is out there."   The therapist can "agree."  "Yeah, I can see she's complaining about you being gone.  She probably doesn't know how it is to deal with all that stress at work."  Moreover, the extension can verbalize a deeper intent or motivation in the criticism.  "She doesn't get it about work, probably because she misses you.  Somehow she still wants more of you… she still wants to be with you.  It'd be good if you (Madeline) can say that in a way Dirk can understand.  How about it, Dirk?  Want help Madeline find a better way to ask for more time together?"  The therapist may need to spoon-feed appropriate language to both partners in this different communication process.  The different communication process may not only be emotionally or psychologically foreign, but the partners may have limited skills for following through.  Temperamental qualities appear to be related to skills deficits, which in turn affect behavioral choices.  "…impulsivity correlates negatively with verbal skills.  Verbal skill deficits may contribute to impulsive behaviour through an inability to use verbal internal controls to inhibit inappropriate behaviour (Camp, 1977; Douglas, 1972).  The verbal-performance deficits observed in impulsive populations have also been interpreted as evidence of developmental arrest in brain maturation (Joseph, 1982).  In the latter model verbal analytical brain processes fail to develop at the same rate as the more impulsive irrational behaviours mediated by the motor areas resulting in impulsive, aggressive and antisocial behaviour" (Dolan and Anderson, 2002, page 519).

Strong verbal fluency would assist in dealing with problems that arise, while poor verbal fluency to articulate feelings and needs would tend to intensify frustration and thus, acting out.  "Whereas nonviolent men expressed sadness in reaction to the criticism scenario, IPA were unlikely to articulate such feelings and tended to express anger instead.  It is unclear whether this is because partner violent men truly did not experience sadness or because they were reluctant to express it aloud in the laboratory.  Sadness could be the underlying felt emotion, expressed in terms of the secondary emotion of anger (Greenberg and Safran 1989), as is common among men, especially those with externalizing problem behaviors (Greenberg 1993), such as intimate partner violence" (Costa and Babcock, 2008, page 399).  The therapist may present language for Dirk to accept and then perhaps, to use.  Expression of vulnerable feelings may be outside his familiar comfort zone.  He may not have had much practice articulating sad, anxious, hurt, or fearful feelings other than angrily.  The therapist may offer, "Dirk, it must really suck to work so hard... to deal with so much crap in this lousy economy, and feel that Madeline just doesn't get it.  To feel she doesn't... can't appreciate what it costs you in your soul to be beat down at work... and then have her not understand on top of it.  That must be hard and... it must hurt too."  The therapist is verbalizing and offering verbal articulation of the deeper emotions that Dirk feels but have otherwise kept within.  The therapist presents a model of emotional communication- of verbal fluency.  "... it must hurt too.  Doesn't it, Dirk?"  Adding the direct question to Dirk, gives him the opportunity to affirm the feeling expressed.  If he can do this, the therapist can prompt him further, "Tell Madeline how hard it is for you."

If the therapist can get someone such as Dirk to own feelings and tentatively verbalize them, the level of aggression may be modulated.  Further work would include managing the discourse as it starts to veer off course again into accusations and negativity.  Another progression would be to ask Dirk, "What would work better for you for Madeline to do?  She shouldn't just say nothing, but what's a good way for her to let you know what she needs?"  The therapist manages this interaction to invite conciliatory messages and reduce aggression.  The therapist has directed Dirk to make an invitation rather than an aggression.  The explicit message that Madeline needs to communicate goes along with an implicit message is that there are better ways versus no way.  The better ways get problem solved in therapy for use at home when conflict arises.  "There is substantial evidence that men who are violent toward their spouses do lack conflict management skills... Consistent with the hypothesized deficits in conflict management, violent men are less effective problem solvers, less assertive, and more aggressive in response to hypothetical conflict situations with female partners (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997; Dutton & Browning, 1988; Riggs et al., 1990; Rosenbaum & O'Leary, 1981)"  (Halford et al., 2000, page 220-21).  Conflict management problems in men whose parents were aggressive appear to influence subsequent relationship aggression.  Interventions or therapy may help improve conflict resolution skills may help prevent future violence.  Therapy can offer to train both partners in verbal mediation skills.  Dirk's willingness or resistance to consider trying this different approach… willingness to be taught the communication and emotional skills needed would be indicative of his depth of psychological aggression and attachment anxiety, and of the potential benefit of therapy.

Jacobson and Gottman state that, "…never did we hear a batterer say anything like, 'That's a good point,' or 'I never thought of that,'—comments that most married men (and women) say all the time during an argument.  Instead, we observed that batterers become more aggressive when their wives asserted themselves.  Another way that batterer's arguments diverged from those of nonviolent couples—perhaps the key difference—is that nonviolent couples have what we call 'a withdrawal ritual,' where at some point the escalation process stops or reverses itself.  Some couples take breaks, other couples compromise, still others do both.  In battering couples, the women are typically quite willing to stop at a point where they start to sense danger, but once the husbands are 'activated,' violence follows.  Although the violence is unpredictable, we were able to identify certain warning signs.  When belligerence and contempt during an argument were combined with attempts to squelch, control, or dominate a wife's behavior, that was a sign that a batterer was close to crossing the line" (Jacobson and Gottman, 1998, page 63).  The inability to take "breaks" or otherwise alter a cycle of upset to violence or of increasing tension predicts further problems.  The social information processing deficits of abusers fail to interrupt the negative progression.  They exacerbate rather than decelerate or stop increasing anxiety, anger, and the probability of abuse.  Low and inadequate verbal fluency can further frustrate expression of intense feelings, which increase the possibility of gross aggression and abuse.  The therapist can use each and all distinguishing characteristics or traits for both assessment and to guide therapeutic strategies and interventions.  In many cases, the difficulty of a strategy or intervention will further assessment, that can lead to shifts in therapeutic directions.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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