Paradoxes in Teaching and Coaching
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT
November 12, 2023
In RfG teaching and supervising, I have recently become aware of certain inconsistencies in the messaging I impart to my students/supervisees. During RfG training, students learn to direct RfG enactments by giving instructions to other students who play the role of clients. Since RfG’s inception, enactments of RfG games or exercises (G/Es) have been preceded by these specific instructions, which provide direction to the players and are initiated for some rationale or purpose of the therapist (sometimes called the Director). When learning a G/E, RfG students are taught both through verbal instruction and by accompanying non-verbal means (principally, physical demonstrations) to follow certain procedures characteristic of that particular G/E. Coaching of students by RfG trainers during or immediately following an enactment is often used to correct inaccuracies or omissions in the initial giving of these instructions.
In training, the initial focus is on the Director’s behavior, not the performance of the students in-role as client players. During more advanced training, students are instructed to attend to client behaviors that depart from what the Director expected. Such departures are usually inferred to have resulted from clients either forgetting/misinterpreting the instructions given, or from their choosing to depart from the Director’s instructions.
There is a crucial difference between an RfG Trainer’s expectations of student Directors during training (that they deliver accurate and complete instructions) and the Trainer’s expectations of these RfG-trained students when they are working with their clients during clinical practice. In clinical practice, RfG practitioners should not assess client-player performances solely in terms of how faithfully clients followed directions (that is, by the correspondence between explicit Director instructions and client observable behaviors). RfG enactments are not primarily intended as a test of clients’ ability to carry out functional tasks based on literal instructions! Instead, the clinician needs to attend to the existence or absence of a spirit of playfulness, and importance should be assigned to any curiosity and experimentation on the client players’ part.
Thus, an inconsistency arises in using the same standard for assessing the proficiency of training therapists as for assessing clients. When it comes to evaluating RfG students during training, evaluating their mastery of the giving of precise and accurate directions should not carry over to judging clients negatively should clients fail to execute enactment directions accurately. To be sure, when clients mis-hear directions, ignore coaching or follow their own impulses, as they frequently do, the resulting performances will differ from the outcomes intended by their therapists. But rather than view these departures as problematic, RfG therapists are trained to maintain a playful, non-judgmental therapist stance, welcoming such unexpected moments in an improvisational spirit, even embracing “mistakes” as a tool for discovery. As trainees come to learn later, repeating instructions in order to correct misheard ones is not necessarily the best choice or the best use of time in clinical practice, both because the results of some errors are harmless or even interesting and because RfG encourages exploration, adventuring and learning from whatever happens.
As therapist/directors offering RfG enactments to clients in multiplayer scenes, we routinely attend to their acceptance/blocking of each others’ offers made during the ensuing enactment. A more subtle point is that clients, when offered the performer/player role, are choosing whether to accept offers from us: first choosing whether to agree to play at all and then whether to follow the specifics of the instructions we give. Said differently, we can punctuate the sequence of communications to view client/player choices both as responses to our offers and also as offers made to us.
Coaching Pro’s and Con’s
Take as an example the “Presents” (gifts-giving) exercise. The therapist offers this exercise to two clients who are invited to take the roles of Giver and Receiver. Now, just as we are looking for the Receiver to accept the premise that the outstretched hands of the Giver hold a gift, we as therapist/directors need to accept the performance-as-a-whole as an offered gift. When you offer client/players coaching or corrective feedback, it may feel to them that you didn’t fully accept their gift/offer.
When the players who are receiving your directions don’t carry them out as instructed, it becomes your choice to accept however they performed it. This applies to all games. If you give further corrective instruction, the players may feel you did not accept their offer of how they played, as noted above. More importantly, the attitude conveyed during any corrective coaching will strongly, even decisively, influence the Adventure-Minded spirit of playfulness and discovery at the heart of RfG therapy. Nearly always, clients drop out of the playspace when the therapist intervenes during an enactment. For that reason, it is usually preferable to allow the enactment to conclude, next offer brief clarification of instructions or offer other corrections, and then invite the players to replay that enactment. It should be evident that all of these options are done with players still on stage—returning them to their off-stage positions should be reserved for Post-Enactment Processing (PEP).
In accord with RfG’s roots in improvisation, the meta-message throughout RfG training is that one should welcome the (predictably) unexpected during therapy. Student/Directors will learn to activate such greater emotional and cognitive flexibility in their Use of Self more from their RfG Trainer’s personal example than by explicit instruction. And they will find, working with their clients, that their own respectful curiosity and openness to discovery will potentiate clients’ growth via these same virtues!