Awhile back, I was talking with a client of mine, and she was discussing her previous treatment. She stated that her previous treatment had not been very helpful. As we probed into this further, she divulged that she had not told her previous therapists that she had a trauma history. Because the therapists did not have that information, they could not address the real issue.
Now, I firmly believe that clients tell us what they want us to know when they are ready. I am not writing this to be critical of the client for not telling her previous therapists. The reason I bring it up is that it occurred to me that we, as therapists, often assume that we understand what is going on and don't always think to ask directly about other options. Training is becoming more "trauma-informed" these days, and clinicians are instructed to ask everyone directly whether trauma has been part of their history. If that training had been more present before, I wonder if my client would have had more helpful treatment?
People, in general, tend to make similar assumptions. We say something to a friend, family member, or significant other, and we assume that they understand what we mean. One person's idea of doing the dishes might be putting them in the dishwasher, where another person might include wiping down the stove, the counters, and the table as well. Frequently, we get frustrated when we have asked somebody to do something and they do not do what we expect. Similarly, we will often say something to someone else anticipating a particular response and then find ourselves angry or hurt when we do not get that reaction.
As I have thought about this in my own life and experience, I have come up with a technique I call "The McDonald's Method of Communication." Picture yourself coming up to the drive-thru at McDonald's. ("I don't go to McDonald's!" I hear you say, "The food there is terrible for you!" Just go with me on this one, okay?) When you get to the speaker, what do you do? Do you say, "Hmm, I don't know. Whatever you feel like giving me is fine?" Do you say, "Don't you know? If you don't know already, I'm not going to tell you"? Generally, I would think not. You say, politely,"I'd like a Big Mac, large fries, and a Diet Coke" (or whatever you prefer).
Think about what this form of communication does. It is brief, specific, and respectful. You communicate exactly what you would like, in an appropriate manner, and there is no question about what you need. Furthermore, if the person working the window is on their toes, they will either repeat the order to you or ask you to check the screen to verify that the order is correct. This, again, helps to make sure that the communication is effective. Finally, if you find a mistake in your order at any point, you have an option to correct the problem.
I wonder how much less frustration we would have in our lives if we spoke to each other the way that we speak to the people at the drive-thru? "Would you please wash the dishes and make sure that you wipe down the surfaces as well?" "Can you give me a hug? I've had a rough day." "When you did not say 'thank you' to me the other day, I felt taken for granted. Can we talk about it?" All of these express needs and feelings appropriately and invite others to respond specifically to your request. It may not feel as romantic or special to be so specific, but it greatly increases your chances of getting what you want. Others cannot read your mind, and you may not realize that you are asking or expecting them to do so.
A therapist I admire once told me that the secret to doing therapy was to "be present and assume nothing." This advice, I believe, carries over well into the everyday. I need to remember not to assume that others know what I want or what I am asking for. I need to remember to ask all of my clients about whether or not they have experienced trauma, had suicidal thoughts, or misused substances. I cannot assume that they will volunteer the information, and I might be missing out on important elements of their lives.
How would your life be different if you were more direct and specific? What might you be missing by not digging deeper? This all sounds very easy, and it is -- in theory. Self-esteem issues, traumatic history, lack of trust, depression, and other factors may make this much more difficult. If this seems overwhelming, I hope you will find me. I look forward to being present with you and assuming nothing.