Using Grammar to Increase Immediacy and Affect

Martha Gilmore


One of the common difficulties I face in my psychotherapy groups is the tendency for group members to intellectualize and distance themselves from emotions and from others through use of a polite and formal grammar. This often leads to confusion and boredom and keeps members stuck in their old patterns of relating. While grounded theoretically in a psychodynamic framework, I use a variety of techniques in my groups including many that stem from my early training in interpersonal Yalom-style (Yalom, 1995), gestalt (Polster & Polster, 1973), and redecision (Goulding & Goulding, 1979) group therapies. With these perspectives and a personal appreciation of language, I have found that close attention to subtle verbal interactions can often yield very fruitful results.


This technique works particularly well with well-educated professionals with highly developed verbal and intellectual skills. This population tends to rely heavily on their intellectual and verbal skills for both achievement and as a part of their psychological defenses. They have been regularly reinforced for communicating in an objective, remote manner and usually fail to notice the impact of this on their personal relationships.

Besides these intellectually inclined patients, this technique works well with people with trauma histories who show similar linguistic tendencies unrelated to their educational level. In these patients, I see that this style of language serves to distance them from affect and muddy the attribution of agency. Thus it becomes difficult to know who has done what to whom, how anyone is reacting, and to follow any sort of story line as the listener drowses off in a dissociative daze.

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