Families I work with find out after a few sessions that I do things a little differently as a counselor. I start most counseling sessions asking about strengths. Why is this different? Well, families usually come to therapy because of struggles. It can seem off-putting, therefore, when I ask what individuals are good at, where the family thrives, and where individuals shine. I have a purpose in the way I open session, though. That purpose is to start session from a regulated, positive place, so that we can get to a point of working on “the real stuff,” the stuff which brought families to therapy in the first place.
Dr. Bruce Berry, a leading expert on trauma, suggests that there is a sequence of engagement that powers human functioning. This sequence is like a ladder. The sequence is regulate (first rung), relate (second rung), reason (third rung) (Perry, 2020). If I start session asking what has gone wrong, individuals go into defense mode. They may even go into their amygdala brain and fight, flight, or freeze. At that point, the thinking brain has disengaged, and we can do no higher lever work. We might even need to spend the rest of the session working on re-regulating. Starting with strengths, however, starts from a place of regulation, from a place of love, from a place where families feel calm, and proud, and able. Then, from that regulated place, we might be able to move up, and talk about the harder stuff, the relationship stuff, the stuck thinking stuff, the trauma. If we do not start at the bottom though, we will never get to the top.
Starting with strengths, though, is not just something that I can do as a therapist. It is something that families can do at home, too. Family members can learn to praise one another more regularly in order to build relationships (Gobbel, 2021). When kids have a rough day at school, parents can start with asking what went well, and if the kids are regulated, then talk about the other stuff. Spouses can start by sharing what they like about their spouse, and then, if there is conflict, share about opportunities for improvement. The goal is not to ignore the hard stuff, but to lead with the good stuff, because ultimately, families want more good stuff.
Marriage researcher John Gottman suggested that good marriages need a “magic ratio” of good stuff to “bad stuff.” That ratio is five seconds of positive interaction for every one second of negative interaction (Rusnak, 2020). Although the research was with married couples, I would argue that its results might extend to family relationships as a whole. For healthy identity, people need to hear about five times as much positive as negative content. Since therapy is just an hour a week, I would argue families need to practice starting with strengths, because one hour of therapy simply is not enough to talk about them.
Starting with strengths is the way I practice therapy. I encourage families to start there, too. Whether or not families come to therapy, starting with the positives is a way to regulate and start whatever the moments of life may hold from a place of strength.
Gobbel, R. (2021, October 5). Has trauma informed become another behavior modification technique? Robyn Gobbel. https://robyngobbel.com/traumainformed/
Perry, B. (2020, April 2). [Info NMN]. Regulate, relate, reason (Sequence of engagement): Neurosequential Network Stress & Trauma Series [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNuxy7FxEVk
Rusnak, K. (2020, December 7). The Magic Ratio: The key to relationship satisfaction. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-ratio-the-key-to-relationship-satisfaction/