Professor Explores The 'Talk Of Therapy'

September 18, 1997

ATHENS, Ga. -- What's occurring at the "micro-level" of a therapy session is the subject of research by a professor at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"We've examined the talk that occurs between a therapist and his clients, and how that talk -- at a very subtle level -- makes a difference in their interactions," said Jerry Gale, who is director of the FACS Marriage and Family Therapy program.

By using discourse analysis -- a process that breaks down a conversation into the finest of detail -- Gale and doctoral student Steve Kogan have examined a therapy session in minute detail. They'll present the results of their study Sept. 20 in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

"This process provides a way for we as therapists and as researchers to look back at ourselves and what we do," Gale said.

In their study, Gale and Kogan examined a videotape of a therapy session conducted by Michael White, an internationally known therapist who has been influenced by postmodern thinking.

The goal of this method of therapy isn't to "solve" the family's problems, but to introduce new possibilities for family members to consider in how they interact, Gale said.

Although there are theoretical guidelines for therapists who adopt postmodern ideas, little research has been conducted on what actually occurs in a postmodern therapy session, Gale said.

"With this analysis we had a better way to describe how Michael White incorporated postmodern practices in therapy," Gale said. "Although it might appear on the surface that he limits himself from an expert role in the therapy, it becomes interesting when you examine how he manages the talk of the therapy session."

In looking at how these practices are embedded within the culture, Gale and Kogan examine at the microlevel how all the participants manage the talk to achieve different outcomes.

"We asked how each conversational move functions within the text of the session and how it affects the next utterance or recontextualizes a prior utterance," Gale explained.

Their transcription notations include such things as pauses or lack of pauses, the length of breath intakes or exhalations, any overlapping of talk, and indicators of whether talk is louder, softer, quicker or more animated than surrounding talk.

"Each person performs his or her own agenda during a therapy session," Gale said. "An agenda represents a pattern of what a speaker accomplishes in the interaction and it may be unrelated to their intentions or how a speaker accounts for her or his behavior."

For example, a person may say, "I'm not a racist," but then proceed to attribute negative characteristics to a person's race.

In their findings, Gale and Kogan determine that the therapist did successfully conduct the therapy session using postmodern theories. In particular, the therapist helped manage the talk such that each of the participants became central and more accountable to the developing story. In other words, neither of the couple was marginalized.

"The use of textual analysis to decipher what occurred in the therapy session provided a way of making more transparent how the individuals taking part are centered or marginalized depending on what the participants say, how they take turns talking, and how they respond to each other," Gale said. "It also allows us to see how various political and cultural issues make their way into a therapy session and how they are dealt with by the therapist."

Although Gale and Kogan were examining the application of postmodern theories in their study, Gale emphasized that textual analysis could be successfully applied to a variety of therapy styles.


University of Georgia

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