|Healthcare Training Institute - Quality Education since 1979CE for Psychologist, Social Worker, Counselor, & MFT!!
The Passive Voice
Read content below or listen to audio.
Left click audio track to Listen, Right click to "Save..." mp3
In the last section, we discussed three examples in which changing words when speaking can increase self-awareness. These three instances were: changing "it" to "I", changing "can't" to "won't", and changing "have to" to "choose to".
In this section, we will discuss three Gestalt-type changes therapists and clients can make to their sentences to enhance self-awareness. These three changes are, changing passive voice to active voice, changing questions to statements, and asking "how" and "what" instead of "why".
3 Changes to Enhance Self-Awareness
♦ Change #1 - Passive Voice vs. Active Voice
The first change therapists and clients can make to their sentences to enhance self-awareness is to change the passive voice to the active voice. As you have probably experienced, one of the primary processes clients use to avoid taking responsibility for their behavior is to use the passive voice. For some clients, speaking as if they are reacting to life, rather than active in life, is both a cause and an effect of their view of themselves.
Remember Anita from Section 3? In a recent session, Anita stated, "My husband got really angry last night because dinner didn't get ready on time!" Noticed how Anita said, "dinner didn't get ready on time." Rather than, "I didn't get dinner ready on time."
♦ Five-Step Technique: Happened to Me
To draw Anita's attention to her use of passive voice, I asked her to try the "Happened to Me" technique. The following five steps are outlined in the back of your Manual.
-- Step # 1 - To begin the Happened to Me technique, I asked Anita to make a list of all of her activities through the day up until our session.
-- Step # 2 - Next, I asked Anita to rewrite all of her statements using the passive voice: "I was gotten out of bed, my face was washed, breakfast was fed to me", and so on.
-- Step # 3 - I stated, "Cast away all the volition and will in your behavior. Imagine yourself in a completely predetermined day in which all of your behaviors and actions are set for you. Reflect on how this makes you feel."
-- Step # 4 - Next, I asked Anita to reverse this process, by replacing all of the passive verbs in her statements with active ones. I stated, "You may have to exaggerate some of your activities to use the active tense. Assume you have complete control over what you do." "I got out of bed. I washed my face, I ate breakfast."
-- Step # 5 - Finally, I stated, "Reflect on how using the active tense makes you feel. Now, consider how much responsibility you are willing to take."
Would using the Happened to Me technique help your Anita increase his or her awareness of the use of the passive words?
♦ Change #2 - Questions to Statements
A second change clients can make to their sentences to enhance self-awareness is to change questions to statements. As you have experienced, clients may use pseudo-questions that are actually declarations. For example, a client who asks, "Don't you think it's stuffy in here?" is likely to mean, "It is too stuffy in here for me," or, "I would like the window opened." Anita frequently used pseudo-questions in our sessions.
On one occasion, when we were discussing how Anita and her husband divided the care of the new baby, Anita asked, "Don't you think it would be fair if Mark got up for half of the night feedings?" I stated to Anita, "You may have given your own answer just now. Try changing that question into a statement, and let's see what you have to say." Anita then stated, "I think it would be fair if Mark got up for half the night feedings. I don't think I should have to do it all myself!"
♦ Change #3 - 'How' and 'What' instead of 'Why'
In addition to changing from the passive tense to the active tense, and changing questions to statements, a third change a therapist can make to his or her sentences to enhance self-awareness is to ask "how" and "what" instead of "why". Clearly, self-understanding converted into change is an important goal in therapy. However, I, like you, have found that asking "why" questions about a client's behavior poses four difficulties.
-- First, in my experience, asking "why" questions implies causality, and may detour the course of therapy into seeking a prime cause that will unlock the basis of a client's behavior.
Second, "why" questions tend to lead to "because-type" answers. Because-type answers place responsibility on an unknown or external locus of control. Clearly, "because" answers may also indicate process such as justification or rationalization.
In addition to implying causality and leading to "because" answers, a third problem posed by asking "why" questions is that "why" questions may encourage the client to enter a "figuring things out" stance. I have found that this cognitive, problem-solving stance rarely enhances the experience and understanding of emotions in the "now."
Fourth, "why" questions may be perceived as accusatory by some clients, leading to defensiveness.
As you recall, in Section 3 we discussed Anita's need for a friend she could talk to. Anita stated, "I know I should call one of the other mother's from daycare, to see if they'd like to do something. But every time I sit down and pick up the phone, I just… flake out on it." Rather than asking Anita why she was unable to make the calls, I stated, "How do you stop yourself from making these calls?"
As you can see, this statement acknowledges a problematic behavior, and focuses on facilitating Anita's awareness of the content and structure of the process of stopping herself from reaching out to other mothers. This statement shows respect for Anita's ability to become aware of her own motivations. Would you agree? Of course, by examining the "how" and "what" of Anita's behavior, we also uncover the "why" of the behavior by examining Anita's experience of being unable to make phone calls to other mothers.
Would sessions with your Anita be enhanced by focusing on asking "how" and "what" questions rather than "why" questions?
In this section, we have discussed three changes that can be made in sentences to enhance clients self-awareness. These three changes are, changing passive voice to active voice, changing questions to statements, and asking "how" and "what" instead of "why".
In the next section, we will discuss four ways in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behavior during Gestalt therapy. These four ways of responding are: indicating how the client's nonverbal behavior is congruent with what is being said; responding to discrepancies between verbal and nonverbal behavior; pointing out nonverbal behavior when the client is not speaking; and distracting or interrupting the client.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bouchard, M.-A., Lecomte, C., Carbonneau, H., & Lalonde, F. (1987). Inferential communications of expert psychoanalytically oriented, gestalt and behaviour therapists. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 19(3), 275–286.
Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2014). The art in fiction: From indirect communication to changes of the self. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(4), 498–505.
Ferreira, F. (2020). In defense of the passive voice. American Psychologist. Advance online publication.
Furley, P., Kohlhaas, S., Englert, C., Nieuwenhuys, A., & Bertrams, A. (2019). The expression of ego depletion: Thin slices of nonverbal behavior as cues to momentary self-control capacity. Social Psychology, 50(5-6), 305–321.
Gold, E., & Zahm, S. (2020). Buddhist psychology informed Gestalt therapy for challenging times. The Humanistic Psychologist, 48(4), 373–377.
Kraus, M. W. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy. American Psychologist, 72(7), 644–654.
Vader, A. M., Walters, S. T., Prabhu, G. C., Houck, J. M., & Field, C. A. (2010). The language of motivational interviewing and feedback: Counselor language, client language, and client drinking outcomes. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(2), 190–197.
Wagner-Moore, L. E. (2004). Gestalt Therapy: Past, Present, Theory, and Research. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(2), 180–189.
What are four difficulties posed by asking "why" questions?
To select and enter your answer go to .