Saturday, May 06, 2017

Return to Los Angeles: UCLA CLIC & Alexa Hepburn

Entry for April 2017:

In 2014, Olga Sutherland, Anssi Perakyla and I published a study applying Conversation Analysis (CA) to Compassionate Self-Soothing in Emotion-Focused Therapy, fulfilling the old dream of mine of applying CA to psychotherapy.  Then late last year, Olga contacted me about a new CA project on what she is calling deontics, which is basically how therapists get clients to do things.  In other words, she was proposing to apply CA to the long-standing issue of therapist directiveness, and had assembled a team of CA experts to work together on this.  Given that the Self-Soothing episodes we had studied previously were rich in therapist process-guiding, she proposed starting with this collection, which was primarily drawn from our Social Anxiety study data set. 

Then at the beginning of April, one of her collaborators, Alexa Hepburn, a well-known conversational analysis specialist now at Rutgers University in New Jersey, asked for permission to use excerpts from this collection for a colloquium that she was going to give at UCLA in mid-April at the Center for Language, Interaction and Culture (CLIC). What was the topic?, I asked.  Empathic and sympathetic responses to emotional expression, specifically crying, was the answer. 

This brought me up short, because of a remarkable configuration of circumstances: First, UCLA was where I did my PhD studies in Clinical Psychology in the 1970’s, and also where I studied Conversation Analysis for two years with Manny Schegloff, one of its founders.  Second, when I looked into CLIC, it appeared very likely that it was the successor to the collection of sociologists and anthropologists that I had rubbed shoulders with during those two years.  Third, I discovered that Alexa is from the UK and got her PhD at Glasgow Caledonian University.  Fourth, the topic was empathy and emotion, which is absolutely central to my practice as a therapist and trainer.  Finally, she was proposing to play a segment of me doing therapy.

Contemplating all this, I looked at my calendar and discovered that Alexa’s colloquium was scheduled for the 19th of April, a few days after my arrival back in California: It was actually possible for us to drive from the San Francisco Bay area down to Los Angeles to attend her colloquium.  I tentatively proposed this to Diane, and she jumped at the chance to catch up with our old friends Hugh and Gail, who live in West Los Angeles, near UCLA. In fact, we had been intending to make such a trip, but just hadn’t got around to organizing anything yet. 

The result was a hastily-thrown together, almost impulsive, trip to LA.  Diane booked the hotel, and I cancelled almost all of the 8 appointments I had booked for the two days of the trip. 

We arrived in LA at dinner time on a Tuesday evening, having arranged to meet Hugh and Gail at their favourite Mexican restaurant.  The next day Gail spent much of her day off driving us around West LA and Santa Monica, revisiting our old stomping grounds: The apartment we lived in for 5 years, off Santa Monica Boulevard; but also theatres, churches, restaurants and so, including the Santa Monica Pier.  Finally, she dropped us off at UCLA, where we wandered around  for an hour, including Franz Hall (the Psychology building) with its inverted fountain. It was a delightful nostalgia trip. 

Finally, we headed for Haines Hall, where Alexa’s colloquium was to take place. I remembered that this was the building where I’d studied CA for those two years. We settled into the Anthropology Reading Room.  In a bit, Alexa came in and introduced herself, also her partner, who turned out to be Jonathan Potter, of UK (U of Loughborough) CA and discourse analysis fame, now Dean of the School of Communications at Rutgers. 

Alexa Hepburn’s colloquium focused on making the case for opening up interactions around emotion expression for further investigation (e.g., Hepburn, 2004).  As an Emotion-Focused Therapist, this certainly made sense to me.  Focusing on crying, she presented three segments: one from a child protection telephone crisis line in the UK, one of two Australian sisters talking on the phone, and a solarized video segment of me using compassionate self-soothing with one of my socially anxious clients.  The solarisation did such a good job of disguising the identities of me and the client, that no one in the audience of 30 faculty, students and affiliated researchers recognized me.

It was an eerie experience seeing this segment so closely transcribed and analysed. Although Alexa had said something at the beginning of her talk about me being there, people were startled when they realized that the therapist whose interaction was being analysed was in the room.  Apparently, it is highly unusual for this to happen.  It was useful, however, to have me there to answer questions about the nature of the therapy, given that it involved a piece of two chair work in which the client touched the centre of their emotional pain. 

Alexa had had only a week or so to begin analyzing this last segment, enough time to do a very detailed Jefferson-type transcript of it and to develop a couple of observations about the interaction:

1. Transcribing emotional expression requires special transcription conventions for capturing sniffs, sobs, breathiness, silence, volume drops and sound stretches, and tremulous, creaky or squeaky vocal quality.

2. Various Listener actions in the three segments included:
-disruption licenses (“take your time”)
-reassurance/validation (“you’re doing the right thing”)
-sympathetic responses (“mmm”, “o::hhh”)
-tag questions (“… isn’t it?”)
-back to business responses (“Ohkay::, so…”)

Plus a variety of “empathic formulations”, such as “It’s very hard” and “I guess that just hurts so bad”.

3. One observation in particular struck me: In the EFT segment, Alexa described the client’s crying as “diagnostic”.  In support of this point I explained to her and the others present that in EFT, what hurts the most points to what is most important to the person.  In the segment with my client, the pain (and the tears) came when most strongly they tried to tell their vulnerable part that it was “worthy”.  In EFT terms, this is taken as evidence that core pain is associated with feeling “unworthy”.  Humanistic therapists don’t like to use the word “diagnosis” in its various forms, but in this instance that seems like an accurate characterization to me.

After the question and answer period, the organisers announced that dinner would shortly be served.  The tables were quickly re-arranged and salad, several types of pasta, and bottles of wine were put out, and the meeting continued as a social event.  We lingered for quite a while, talking to various people, while I marveled at the development of what is now a rich field of study, which has developed so far from the beginnings that I witnessed in the mid-1970’s. 


Sutherland, O., Peräkylä, A., & Elliott, R. (2014). Conversation Analysis of the Two-Chair Self-Soothing Task in Emotion-Focused Therapy.  Psychotherapy Research, 24, 738-751.  doi:  10.1080/10503307.2014.885146

Hepburn, A. (2004). Crying: Notes on description, transcription, and interaction.
Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37, 251-290.

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