The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

A Burning Compliment

The recent discussion about intuition, body language and what might ‘really’ be going on in sessions reminded me of a case I’ve always cited as a cautionary tale about compliments but is also an example of how fickle body-language can be and how different ‘readers’ read very different messages.

I was in a large shed on the outskirts of Belfast, at the height of the troubles, with a conversation grinding towards an embarrassing halt. It was my own fault. I could have been watching TV in my hotel room but I’d volunteered to see some clients at the end of the teaching day. So at four-thirty I was driven through the troubled city and out into a desolate archipelago of ill-maintained housing estates. We headed for the most bleak of these: vast piles of pebble-dashed concrete dropped on a hillside amid a scattering of burnt out cars and broken supermarket trolleys. Parking on a main road under bright street lamps we made our way through litter and potholes to the estate boundary, freshly cleaned and pristine as far as the eye could see, kerb stones each in turn painted red white and blue. We had entered a loyalist stronghold.

What looked like an oversized garden shed halfway up the hill on patch of debris-strewn wasteland was the local child guidance clinic where I was to see some families embroiled in their own troubles. As a teaching clinic it had an observation room so students could observe therapy sessions through a one-way screen. I was to see the families while the team observed. The first session went well. Family and team were both pleased. The second was different. William and Bridget arrived; William barking at his three unruly children with Bridget looking exasperated by them all. William’s response to my opening question about the differences he hoped our meeting would make was both fulsome and forceful but spoken with such a strong accent that I couldn’t follow enough of it to construct a sensible response. We struggled on with my increasingly embarrassed apologies and his many repetitions. I think we both hoped that practice would take us a little closer to perfection but in the end William gave in and apologised for his English. The graciousness of William’s regret only added to my sense of failure. My job is to put people in touch with their strengths and resources not to uncover their deficiencies. Wanting to take the rap for this failure in communication I remonstrated with William, saying that he had no need to apologise for his English and finishing with the rather unnecessary “I’m sure your Irish is fine”. Though not the most sophisticated of compliments it was enough to set the conversation in motion once again. Or so I thought.

In the observation room time had stood still. William was a senior member of a very active loyalist paramilitary group and it would have been less insulting to spit in his face than suggest he spoke Irish. I discovered this when it was all over and William had taken his family home. The clinic team emerged from the observation room white faced and visibly shaken. Looking disbelievingly at my smiling face the clinic director said you don’t know what you’ve done do you? I was still oblivious so they told me and then took me microsecond by microsecond through that frozen moment. The director began with a confession: he said that his very first thought as I spoke the words was for his own safety, not mine. Another said he thought of nothing, his knees went and he began to slide down the wall. Another, the beefiest member of the team, said as he watched William physically reel from this verbal assault he began to work out the logistics of my rescue but was torn between organising a pre-emptive charge knowing that they would not reach William before the first blow, which might be made more violently knowing time was short, or wait until after the first blow hoping it wouldn’t be too serious. As another heartbeat began they saw William collect himself and begin my ‘trial’. They claimed to have seen William assessing whether or not my insult had been intended, coming to the conclusion that it was born out of ignorance but then considering whether ignorance of the ‘law’ was a good enough defence. Two whole heartbeats went by as they awaited my fate. The director began to see hope: “Maybe we’ll get away with just being burnt down”, he thought as William once again passed a verdict of ‘not guilty’, just a stupid Englishman.

All I saw was a shrug and a half humorous grunt and after that I understood every one of William’s words. Half an hour later he and all his family shook hands with me warmly as William, with a laugh, said it had been a very interesting conversation.

Chris Iveson


30th July 2023


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