Every good comedian knows that in order to be successful at their job they must be adept at reading the room. This means watching the body language of the patrons in the audience, looking for signs of inattention or boredom, and being able to feel whether there is a connection with their audience. An entertainer who does not have this skill can quickly lose the audience.
Therapists need to have this same skill in order to engage clients in a way that is meaningful to them. Therapeutic “reading the room” is akin to attunement. It requires that therapists not only carefully observe nonverbal signals, but also risk opening up their own right brains to being emotionally exposed and surprised. Actually feeling a shift in the atmosphere of a room, getting a tingling feeling somewhere in their bodies, hearing “bells” go off in their heads, or experiencing a blow to the gut, a sudden wave of sadness, or the lightening of a burden are valuable clues that something significant has just happened. These are some of the clues that what has been said by both partners in that moment must be remembered and pursued–explored in exquisite detail and ever deepening meanings.
Being skillful at reading the room creates a state of attention that helps the therapist fully notice when a partner spontaneously utters a statement that encapsulates the historical feelings that a couple has been compelled to relive. I have shared some examples of these statements in previous posts: “I just have to wait”; “Nobody’s home”; “You’re not worth it”; “You couldn’t possibly love me”; “No one will ever understand me”; “I won’t ever be good enough”; “I don’t feel safe with anyone”. A therapist who is reading the room will get an internal signal that immediately conveys–Pay Attention! This is an important key to understanding this couple, and we will be coming back to it again and again.
The right-brain reading of these significant phrases is the road to understanding why couples’ problematic interactions look the way they do. A couple who must relive “You couldn’t possibly love me” will repeatedly interpret their interactions toward each other to fit that statement, no matter what the external reality is. The therapist who understands this fact can help the couple express all of the feelings locked in their right brains that are trying to get metabolized through the reliving of this phrase, instead of working on making the couple look at “reality”.
Reading the room is how therapists create a safe space for encouraging and welcoming the self-expressions of both partners. Metabolizing old feelings requires that they come out of the clients’ mouths in their own words–not out of the therapist’s mouth in someone else’s words. Correctly reading the room tells therapists when they have heard the particularly significant words from their clients that must be explored, mined, unpacked and validated for transformation to occur.