Talk as therapy

Talk as therapy: Psychotherapy in a linguistic perspective. By Joanna Pawelczyk. (Trends in applied linguistics 7.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011. Pp. 254. ISBN 9781934078662. $98 (Hb).

Reviewed by I.M. Laversuch Nick, University of Cologne

A recent addition to the Trends in applied linguistics series, the book under review presents an insightful look into language use in psychotherapeutic settings. Contrary to the author’s description, however, this work is not empirically based. Instead, it is a qualitative analysis of sixty-five hours of discourse recorded between a single therapist and his clients.  Complementing these audio-recordings are the ‘thick notes’ which the author took before, after, and during each session.

According to the author, her attendance did not lead to observer’s paradox, as the clients were exceedingly comfortable with the researcher, for two reasons: (i) the researcher lived with the clients and the therapist during the workshop and was, therefore, able to establish an uncommon level of trust and respect; and (ii) all of the clients participating in these sessions were therapists themselves who would not have been intimidated by the presence of a colleague. While these points are not to be completely discounted, it must nevertheless be stated that for these very reasons, the sessions were far from being representative. It would only stand to reason that the normal distribution and manifestation of power found in a counseling session would differ somewhat in a context where both the client and therapist are experts. It is worth noting the author’s cognizance of this potential confound.

An issue that the author fails to address, however, is the clients’ ethnolinguistic diversity.  The fact, for example, that many of the clients did not share a native language or national variety with the therapist might well have had a significant effect on the communication process in general and the use of discourse markers in particular. Aside from the failure to address this variable, the results presented would seem to be buttressed by a fairly robust methodological foundation.

The findings are reported in four separate chapters, divided according to the functional psychotherapeutic purpose of the linguistic data analyzed: (i) ‘The transparency of meaning’ in Ch. 2 (51–96); (ii) ‘Self-disclosure’ in Ch. 3 (97–150); (iii) ‘Communication of emotion’ in Ch. 4 (151–84); and (iv) ‘Emotional support’ in Ch. 5 (185–204). Within each chapter, there are the sub-sections divided according to discursive feature. For example, in Ch. 3, the author describes the many ways in which patients use ‘you know’. In some instances, it elicited confirmation from the psychotherapist; and in others, in combination with ‘I don’t know’, it was used to signal patient vulnerability and self-disclosure.

For linguists primarily interested in discourse analysis, this work may at times be somewhat frustrating in that the depth of the analyses offered is often sacrificed for the breadth of the observations made. However, for those whose interests encompass counseling psychology, the book will be not only thought-provoking but also deeply moving. More than anything else, this work gives powerful evidence for the deep healing which a talented, compassionate psychotherapist can offer.