Janet Beavin Bavelas, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is one of of the co-authors of Pragmatics of Human Communication and, as a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Victoria, still at the forefront of research into interpersonal communication. The research team she leads specializes in the study of face-to-face dialogue – their findings have direct applications in psychotherapy, counseling, coaching, and management. I had the privilege and the pleasure to attend her workshop on microanalysis at the 2010 SFBTA Conference in Banff, Canada.

I was so happy to finally encounter an empirical research method dedicated to exploring the power of interaction to produce change! In my opinion, every Solution-Focused practitioner should become familiar with Janet Beavin Bavelas work: her research results are an essential part in establishing the scientific credentials of Solution-Focus.

Besides being an innovative thinker and a thorough scientist, Janet Bavelas is also a very engaging person and she very kindly accepted to be interviewed for my blog – here are her answers to my questions. I suggest  you take the time to read this interview again and again – as her motto goes, “Life Happens in Detail” and many insights wait for you in the details of her thought-provoking answers. Enjoy!

1)  You have been working a lot with Solution Focused practitioners in the past few years, using Microanalysis to investigate Solution Focused conversations. Can you briefly tell us what draws you to Solution-Focus?

Good question–especially because I’m an experimental psychologist, with absolutely no practical training in therapy or anything else!  I’m glad someone finally asked me that question, because I’ve had my answers ready:

First, Steve, Insoo, and I had the same roots, learning from the Palo Alto Group and especially John Weakland.  The three of us were not there at the same time, but that experience was a lasting influence for all of us.  (I agree with Steve and Insoo, who in a 1991 article pointed out that their SFBT was just one small change from the original Palo Alto Brief Therapy.)  In addition to John’s many wonderful qualities as a mentor, there was the focus of the whole Palo Alto Group on language and communication. That heritage makes it easy for my research group to teach what we do to SFBT folks.  For example, you have the right focus on observable communication rather than on inferred mental processes.

Second, I admit that I am always attracted to good idea that is 180° from what everyone else is thinking.  The new idea has to be a good one as well as challenging assumptions that no one usually questions–then I’m interested.  That was true for the original Brief Therapy and is also true for SFBT.

The third reason is ethical. My personal ethics will not accept inventing negative characterizations of a client and imposing these labels on someone who is vulnerable.  I say “inventing” because there is usually no basis except the opinion of someone in authority. For example, diagnosis usually categorizes an individual based on a single highly limited observation, with no objective check or recheck. The individual arrives at a consultation with one problem and leaves with at least two! More broadly, clinical theories of  personality, cognition, emotion, or brain processes almost always indulge in circular reasoning.  For example,

Why does this person behave this way?  Because he has distorted cognitions (emotions, perceptions, brain processes, or whatever).  How do you know he has distorted cognitions (or whatever)?  Because he behaves that way!

I see this kind of labelling in organizational settings as well. It’s intellectually and scientifically unacceptable, and it’s also disrespectful.  Lacking evidence to the contrary, why not focus on the incredible abilities and resiliency of humans? There is plenty of evidence for those, if we will just look.

2) I understand the main tool in your research is microanalysis of dialogue, which is defined as “the detailed and reliable examination of observable communication sequences as they proceed, moment by moment, in the dialogue” (in “Microanalysis Workshop Manual”). I love it because it is as empirical as it gets. Can you tell us more about it and about its usefulness?

Microanalysis is useful—even essential—because according to my guiding motto, “Life happens in detail.”  Life does not happen in the abstract, globally, or approximately.  That’s true in most areas of research–for a good friend who studies the neurons of primitive marine animals, for a colleague who is an oncologist, and for another friend who is a musicologist.  All of us respect and admire the beauty and precision of the details.

The difference between microanalysis and ordinary observation of communication is that  if you and I were to watch an interaction in real time and form our impressions, they would probably be different from each other’s—and we couldn’t check out those differences because the data aren’t there any more.  But if we watched the video moment by moment, honouring every meaningful observable behaviour, we would see what was happening (which would probably not be like the first impression either of us had).  So I love microanalysis for the same empirical reason you do—it’s observable, it’s there whenever you look, and it always wins out over any clever interpretation I could think up.  Microanalysis draws on everything I know as an experimental psychologist, and in recent years we’ve taken those principles in an entirely new direction, looking at communication in applied settings such as psychotherapy and medicine.  There are a lot of examples in the Research Methods section of my new website (http://web.uvic.ca/psyc/bavelas/).

Microanalysis also has an aesthetic attraction for me.  Recently, I asked some of my  SFBT research collaborators what their goals for our new research project were.  Each of them was primarily interested in developing their training and supervision tools, which is great.  When they asked me the same question, I had to confess that I just love watching and analysing these sessions.  Specifically, I love discovering how minutely orderly communication is.  Of course, it has to be, because we rely on it all the time, in all of our interactions, even with strangers.  But discovering how it is orderly is exciting, and those discoveries are still just beginning.

3) The “gold standard” in evidence-based practices in therapy today seems to be CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Yet according to your research (Smock, Froerer & Bavelas, under review) CBT experts are heterogeneous while SFBT  practitioners are homogenous, i.e., when you look at what actually happens within a session, CBT practitioners are very different from each other in what they say or do, while SFBT practitioners are pretty much consistent in what they say or do. What are the implications for the body of evidence which supports CBT?

Let’s sort out some terms first.  The “gold standard” is a term from medicine that ranked one kind of research design (called randomized controlled trials; RCTs) above all others. These are studies that compare one kind of therapy to a control group by outcomes measured at the end of therapy.  CBT proponents claim that they have lots of this kind of evidence, often implying that others don’t.  There are a couple of problems with that claim. First, other treatments also have RCT evidence, including SFBT.  In addition to several published articles, there is a book coming out soon that summarizes the SFBT evidence (Franklin, Trepper, Gingerich, & McCollum (Eds.), Solution-focused Brief Therapy: From Practice to Evidence-Informed Practice. Oxford University Press).

Also, the emphasis on a single research design is misleading because one kind of research design answers only one kind of question; it’s incomplete by itself.  I’ve written about some alternatives—complementary research designs, including microanalysis—in the Franklin et al. book.  Also, I’m currently editing what we hope will be a special issue of a major journal on a broader range of SFBT research approaches, all of which are also more useful to practitioners. RCTs are population studies, but a probability value based on a large number of people tells you almost nothing about how to treat the individual in front of you.

Finally, I agree with many other methodological critics who point out that RCTs don’t tell us what is working (or not working).  Even proponents of CBT point out that CBT is many different therapeutic approaches, now merged under one name.  So which practice(s) meet the gold standard?  We’ve demonstrated the heterogeneity of CBT experts’ practices in two studies:  the Smock, Froerer, and Bavelas study that you mentioned and also in the Korman, Bavelas, De Jong study.  (Peter De Jong and I described those two studies in our plenary at the Banff SFBTA conference; http://www.sfbta.org/conferences/2010_handouts.html,  and they are part of that special issue I mentioned).  In both studies, using different measures, the SFBT experts were very consistent with each other (and with the SFBT model), whereas CBT experts did quite different things from each other. (In short, whenever you hear a CBT claim of being evidence based, you should ask “Which specific kind of CBT?”

4) In your workshop at the SFBTA (Solution Focused Brief Therapy Association) Conference in Canada, in November 2010, you said (and I am relying on my notes here, with all their limits): “it is not true that SFBT has no theory. SFBT has a very sophisticated theory, but it is about interaction and language”. I agree and I think it is a very important point. Can you elaborate?

Of course there is a theory.  If there isn’t a theory, why do folks refer to the “SFBT model”?  If there isn’t a theory, how can it be 180° different from other approaches? I think the theory just isn’t written yet.  I wish I had the time and could find an SFBT expert who also does!

Also, those who say there is no theory (including, sometimes, the founders) may be accepting the notion that if there is no psychological theory about people’s mental processes, then there is no theory.  But since the Palo Alto Group (and Pragmatics of human communication), there is a new paradigm about what a theory is, and it includes social processes such as communication and language. The main tenet is that language itself can produce change.  If we can make co-construction more specific and observable, that will be a major part of the theory.

SFBT also makes assumptions (e.g., about what people are like and about how therapy or coaching work)  that are very different from other approaches or assumptions. This would include the premise that people are basically sound and resourceful, which leads to a “not-knowing” stance in therapy or coaching in which possibilities develop through talking about them (rather than being handed down from an expert.

5) From the foundational Pragmatics of Human Communication. A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes with Paul Watzlawick and Donald Jackson, published in 1967, to your current work using Microanalysis, you have been at the forefront of research into human communication for more than 40 years. What do you think are the major insights psychology has gained in this field in the past 40 years?

Let’s first look outside the field of Psychology, narrowly defined.  In Communication Departments (which are primarily in American universities), Pragmatics has had a big effect.  It is common for those scholars to say that it was one of the books that started the field of Interpersonal Communication, when the field had previously been solely about rhetoric or mass communication. The other major influence has been in any field that does some kind of applied work with people (psychiatry, counselling, social work, nursing, etc.).  The original book and its translations in eight languages are still in print, and I often learn about its influence from very far-flung places. The insight these professionals or academics cite is the possibility of looking at interaction instead of individuals and in recognizing that interaction is primarily communication.  So that’s the short answer to my modification of your question.

You asked about Psychology, though, which means Departments of Psychology in North America (not counselling psychology, psychiatry, etc., and not in Europe or Latin America).  In Psychology, any insights from Pragmatics would have been in social psychology, and I would say that they have gained virtually no insights at all; the book has been almost completely ignored—for two reasons.  First, Pragmatics was not based on experimental (much less, quantitative) research and didn’t seem likely at the time to lead to any research with those methods.  Second, both academic social psychology and clinical psychology are tightly focused on the individual and virtually refuse to examine communication between people.  I discussed these attitudes in print at various times; e.g., The two solitudes: Reconciling Social Psychology and Language and Social Interaction and Face-to-face dialogue as a micro-social context. The latter article demonstrated that, ironically, psychology researchers actually distort research results that demonstrate anything outside the individual.  And I strongly recommend Kurt Danziger’s 1990 book, Constructing the subject, which shows how psychology theories manage to keep the individual isolated from social interaction.

It may therefore seem contradictory that I did my undergraduate and doctoral degrees in Stanford’s Department of Psychology, and I have spent my professorial career in a Psychology Department at the University of Victoria. Why on earth would my training and career base be in Psychology, where I obviously don’t fit?  Partly, I just prefer being non-mainstream, not getting pulled into the way others are thinking. Being inter-disciplinary was a strength of the Palo Alto Group, and I’ve followed that model.  Notice that I’m often talking and publishing to communication researchers, psycholinguists, psychotherapists, coaches, doctors and health care professionals, computer scientists, and many other groups that I don’t belong in. Being different doesn’t mean being in conflict. The reason for choosing Psychology in particular as my discipline was the research methodology that this field has developed when it’s at its best.  I love experimental work and learned its precision and elegance from some of the best in the field.  I wanted to find a way to use these methods to study the ideas that started in Pragmatics, to show that they could benefit, grow, and change from good experiments—and that the experimental method could expand to cope with communication and interaction, not just isolated individuals.  I’ve been fortunate to have had some success both in research and professionally while working on that goal, and it’s what I’m still devoting my career to.

Sadly, I’ve recently learned that the publisher of Pragmatics does not seem to understand the book either.  They’ve issued a paperback version, which is great, but with a new Foreword that I was not even told about.  The new Foreword is full of errors and, in my opinion, undermines the book and my old colleagues. As the only living co-author, I’m going to post a list of those errors on my website and circulate them as well as I can.

6) Last but not least: in your Workshop, you invited us to adopt the following mantra to evaluate claims regarding what works in therapy: “citation, citation, citation”. I loved it, and it became one of my personal commandments. There are too many fads out there that have no empirical support whatsoever.  In your opinion, what are the top myths in current pop psychology that lack “citation”?

Oh my gosh, where shall I start?  I guess my top two would by these:  The widespread myth that there is a separate, secretly read “body language,” so you can learn to read someone’s emotions and “real feelings” from their posture or face, seeing things not revealed in their words.  There’s no evidence; most of our communicative actions are highly integrated, producing complex but coherent messages.  On our new website, we’ve organized all of our articles on this topic so they are readily available.

Or there’s “active listening” and “listening skills,” which originated as someone’s opinion, never were based in research, and don’t fit what people naturally do.  These practices, in our studies, are rated as phony and artificial; they don’t fit a natural dialogue.  In Microanalysis of communication in psychotherapy, we describe two studies that demonstrated our claims; they are unpublished, but I have pdf copies for anyone who’s interested.

More abstractly, there is the notion that communication is just delivering packages of information back and forth.  There is good experimental evidence that the participants shape the information together, moment by moment. (E.g., Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986, and Schober & Clark, 1989; both are available on Herb Clark’s website at Stanford). Every dialogue very quickly becomes a private dialogue, in the sense that the participants start to use shorter phrases and words with their own meanings, and often come to a viewpoint that neither had at the beginning.

But just citing something is not enough; one has to read it! The article cited above (Face-to-face dialogue as a micro-social context) revealed that most of the authors who cited our experiment probably hadn’t read it.  A colleague of mine who was part of our “equivocation research” is helping me with a similar examination of citations.  And, as mentioned above, even the new Foreword to Pragmatics of human communication isn’t accurate about the book!