What is the Communicative Approach ?

The Communicative Approach was founded by Robert Langs. Click here to read his biography.

Psychoanalysis has turned reality on its head: We are taught to think of ourselves as distorters and misperceivers, unreliable slaves to our inner fantasies - especially when we are patients in therapy. But the communicative approach has shown that it is more accurate and compelling to see ourselves as highly reliable perceivers, with the understanding that our most valid perceptions are experienced unconsciously and encoded in the stories we tell to ourselves and others. Knowing how to decode these stories is the key to a truly accurate view of the human emotion-processing mind and emotional life.

The full name of the Communicative Approach (CA) is "The Communicative-Adaptive approach." This highlights the two most distinctive features of the CA: first, that it is a new way to understand human emotionally-laden communications and second, that it has shown that the primary function of the emotion-processing mind is to cope with - adapt to - immediate emotionally-charged triggering events.

What is the communicative approach?

The communicative approach (CA) was developed by Robert Langs MD, In the early 1970's. It is a new theory or paradigm of emotional life and psychoanalysis that is centered on human adaptations to emotionally-charged events--with full appreciation that such adaptations take place both within awareness (consciously) and outside of awareness (unconsciously). The approach gives full credence to the unconscious side of emotional life and has rendered it highly sensible and incontrovertible by discovering a new, validated, and deeply meaningful way of decoding unconscious messages. This procedure-called trigger decoding--has brought forth new and highly illuminating revisions of our understanding of both emotional life and psychotherapy, and it calls for significant changes in presently accepted psychoanalytic thinking and practice.

The CA has exposed and offered correctives for much of what's wrong with our current picture of the emotional mind and today's psychotherapies-critical errors in thinking and practice that have cause untold suffering throughout the world. In essence, the approach has shown that emotional problems do not arise first and foremost from disturbing inner memories and fantasies or daydreams; nor do they arise primarily from consciously known thoughts and patterns of behavior. Instead, emotional disturbances arise primarily from failed efforts at coping with current emotionally-charged traumas. The present-day focus by mainstream psychoanalysts (MP) on the past and on inner fantasies and memories has been replaced in this CA with a focus on the present, as experienced and reacted to consciously and unconsciously-in brief, the primacy afforded by MP to fantasy and imagination has been replaced by the primacy afforded by the CA to reality, trauma, and perception (especially unconscious perception).

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the key feature of the CA is to contrast it with mainstream psychoanalysis (MP):

MP: Emotional problems arise from our inner conflicts, especially distorting memories and fantasies.

CA: Emotional problems arise because an emotionally-traumatic current event has gone unmastered. This failure to cope is secondarily affected by a person's past life history and current inner mental life.

MP: The central problem in emotional life involves resolving past conflicts that have become inner-mental conflicts in the present.

CA: The key problem in emotional life involves coping with a contemporaneous emotional trauma and its ramifications.

MP: Unconscious messages are conveyed in every conceivable way, in everything we do and say.

CA: Deeply meaningful unconscious messages are conveyed exclusively by narratives--the stories we tell ourselves and others, including dreams, daydreams, and other types of tales. There is little in the way of deep unconscious meaning in our analyses, speculations, explanations and other intellectual-reasoning activities-unconscious meaning is expressed in stories.

MP: "The unconscious" can be inferred directly from what people say and do. It is to be formulated in terms of patterns of behavior and unrealized memories and fantasies. Images can be explored at face value for their implications and symbolic meanings.

CA: The critical unconscious meanings disguised in our stories cannot be inferred directly-they can be discovered only through a decoding effort. This decoding method - trigger decoding - is initiated with a search for the decoding key, the current event that has provoked the encoded message (note the role played by coping or adapting). These traumatic incidents take the form of emotionally-charged experiences -- triggering events or triggers, for short. In order to properly decode an unconscious (encoded) message, you must know the incident to which it is a response. This enables you to decode a story in light of its evocative trigger-unconscious messages are never conveyed directly or manifestly, but always in disguise.

Brief example: A patient tells her therapist a story about her butcher having his finger on the scale and cheating her. The therapist mistakenly tells the patient that her problem is that she sees men as trying to exploit her (an MP intervention-the problem is in the mind of the patient). But there is a trigger for the story the patient just told: The therapist had just handed the patient her bill. Consciously, the patient looked at the bill and accepted it as such. But she then thought of this story, which conveys an unconscious perception that her therapist has over-charged her-which he has.

As always, the unconscious mind knows what's really going on (it's incisively in touch with reality), while the conscious mind misses a lot (it's inclined toward defensive obliterations and denials-all conscious-system therapies self-explorations and therapies suffer from this deficit). The trigger of the therapist's over-charge evoked this encoded story in which the butcher is used to allude in disguise to the therapist (displacement is involved). Notice too that even though this error was not recognized consciously, it was registered unconsciously via unconscious perception and processed with a deep unconscious intelligence.

In general, we tell stories about another time, place and person (displaced tales) in order to convey in disguise our unconscious experience of an immediate situation with someone who is upsetting us. Direct readings of images and symbolic interpretations cannot uncover these critical disguised messages-they are revealed solely through trigger decoding.

MP: The emotion-processing mind has many functions and tasks-perception, memory, defense, adaptation, self-observation, etc.--all of relatively equal importance.

CA: The single most important function of the emotion-processing mind is to cope with (adapt to) emotionally-charged triggering events.

MP: The emotional mind is a single system with conscious and unconscious components.

CA: The emotion-processing mind is a two system entity. There is a conscious system that is linked to awareness and it serves as the system with which we cope directly. The system is, however, extremely defensive and inclined toward obliteration and denial-much of it, at bottom, in the service of the denial of the unbearable prospect of personal death (death-related issues are connected to every trauma a person suffers). As a result of this defensiveness, our conscious view of the emotional world is extremely restricted and often in error-conscious perception and thinking are an unreliable basis for making emotionally-charged decisions.

The second system, the deep unconscious system, takes in information and meaning through unconscious (subliminal) perception and processes these inputs unconsciously as well. Once the processing has been completed (and it's very rapid), the system emits encoded messages that reflect the nature of these adaptive efforts. Operating outside of awareness, the deep unconscious system is relatively non-defensive and quite in touch with the true nature of events and their implications-it seldom misperceives. It therefore serves as a highly reliable system for making emotionally-charged decisions-but doing so requires the use of trigger decoding in order to ascertain the nature of unconscious experience.

MP: In psychotherapy, the critical search is for transferences-patients' distortions of what their therapists are saying and doing.

CA: In psychotherapy, the search is for patients' valid unconscious perceptions of the real or actual implications of what the therapist is saying and doing.

The CA replaces MP's largely incorrect formulations of patients' unconscious distortions with formulations of their accurate unconscious perceptions. On the whole, the critical role played by unconscious adaptations and perceptions in emotional life and psychotherapy are missed in MP, while they are placed center-stage in the CA.

All in all, MP and CA have very different conceptions of the unconscious domain. The CA sees the interventions of therapists as the key triggers for patients' unconscious experiences in therapy, while MP ignores most of the implications of what therapists actually do and say in sessions, especially their unconscious meanings. Furthermore, the CA has discovered that patients' unconscious experiences in therapy are focused almost entirely on the therapist's management of the setting and ground rules of therapy, while MP has a naïve and uninformed understanding of the unconscious ramifications of the frame-related and other activities (interventions) of therapists.

Essential Features

As a new theory of how we cope with emotionally-charged incidents and events-a theory of emotional life-the main features of the CA are:

*Humans have evolved and are designed mentally to cope with immediate emotionally-charged experiences-triggering situations.

*These adaptive thoughts and behaviors have both conscious and unconscious sources and features. We cope emotionally on two levels: first, directly and with undisguised awareness of what we are reacting to and how we are reacting (conscious system activities), and second, indirectly (reacting to one person when the response belongs to someone else) and without awareness of what we are reacting to unconsciously-this information is never directly recognized, but always is encoded in our stories (deep unconscious system activities).

*Because we are so terrified and disturbed by traumatic emotional experiences-much of it through their connection to harm and death-we use a lot of denial consciously. This denial-ultimately a denial of death-is self-protective, but very costly in self-harm and harm to others. Unconscious death anxiety unwittingly motivates many destructive decisions, choices and actions. All in all, the most powerful influences in our emotional lives are perceived outside of awareness (subliminally or unconsciously) and responded to similarly--without our knowing the deeper reasons for what we are doing.

*Perception has primacy over fantasy and memory-what we perceive at the moment is what we adapt to first and foremost. Past experiences and our memories and inner state affect how we cope, but our prime devotion is coping in the present.

*Unconscious perception is a basic human resource. Unconscious experiences are reflected in unconscious messages-messages that are disguised or encoded in the stories we tell to ourselves (daydreams), dream about, and tell to others.

*Many of the most frightening things we perceive, and their most disturbing implications, are perceived unconsciously and conveyed through encoded stories.

*These unrealized events/inputs strongly affect every aspect of our emotional lives.

*Decoding disguised messages in light of their triggers is critical to developing a sound picture of what you are reacting to unconsciously and the deeper reasons for why you do what you do and say what you say.

*By design, the emotional mind is made up of two systems: First, a conscious system connected directly to awareness. This system creates manifest or surface messages and is responsible for daily coping efforts. It is a system of 'What you say is what you mean.' The sequence is: conscious perception, conscious processing, conscious response. It also is system that screens out and denies many important emotionally-charged meanings and experiences because their implications are unbearable to behold.

Second, a deep unconscious system that is connected to awareness solely through encoded messages. It is a highly perceptive system-we know the truths of our emotional lives unconsciously rather than consciously. This system creates encoded messages that must be decoded in light of the triggers that set them off. It is a system of 'What you say is not what you mean; what you mean is disguised/encoded.'

Suggested Reading:

1. Unconscious Communication in Everyday Life. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1983.

2. Decoding Your Dreams. New York: Henry Holt, 1988 (Ballantine Books paperback).

3. Rating Your Psychotherapist: The Search for Effective Cure. New York: Henry Holt, 1989 (Ballantine Books paperback).

4. Take Charge of Your Emotional Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.

5. The Evolution of the Emotion-processing Mind: With an Introduction to Mental Darwinism. London: Karnac Books, 1996.

6. Death Anxiety and Clinical Practice. London: Karnac Books, 1997.

7. Rules, Frames and Boundaries in Psychotherapy and Counselling. London: Karnac Books, 1998.

8. Dreams and Emotional Adaptation. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker, 1999.

His evolution of the Approach is described below.

This is a brief history of the creation and evolution of the communicative approach discussing its main accomplishments and current challenges. It also includes information about Langs' current clinical research and other relevant interests.

The communicative approach arose after Langs had completed his classical psychoanalytic training. It waRobert Langss a reaction to unfinished aspects of his personal analysis and to nagging doubts that he had about psychoanalytic theory. His observations of gross lapses by therapists and the recognition of disguised or encoded responses to these therapist-errors by their patients convinced him that the primary view of the emotion-processing mind - as he came to call it - should not be as a projector of fantasies and memories as suggested in psychoanalytic theory, nor as a distorter based on past experiences, but something totally different. Langs discovered that within the patient/therapist relationship there appeared to be an unconscious perceiver within the patient (and therapist) whose primary function was to cope with environmental inputs, namely, the behaviors and communications from each other.

This immediate adaptation in the emotional realm is the key to communicative theory; and unconscious perception is the key to understanding the emotion-processing mind and its deep unconscious experiences as reflected in the encoded communications from patients.

It emerged that for the deep unconscious system, as it came to be called, the therapist's management of the setting and ground rules of therapy are most critical. The clinical method of trigger decoding was set in place and unconscious validation via positively cast stories in response to interventions became the criterion by which the validity of an intervention and its theoretical rationale were established.

On this basis it was possible to forge a formal science of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in which measurement and mathematical models were used to discover deep laws of human communication and the emotion-processing mind. These evidently are the first predictive biological laws to have been unearthed and their many ramifications have barely been developed.

This pioneering work by Langs led him to study the architecture of the mental module that has evolved to adapt to emotionally-charged triggering events. It became evident that the emotion-processing mind is a two system entity. There is a conscious system that is prone to defense and obliteration in the emotional domain, and it is motivated by various forms of death anxiety, of which existential death anxiety is the most dreaded.

The second system of the emotion-processing mind is called the deep unconscious system. It receives information and meaning via unconscious perception, is relatively nondefensive, has a strong and capable intelligence of its own that processes incoming messages and their meanings, and encodes health-giving directives that can serve the healing process when they are properly trigger decoded by a therapist. In contrast to the conscious system, the deep unconscious system strongly prefers secured rather than modified frames and reveals a deep appreciation of the therapeutic value of such frames.

Langs' current studies involve the search for ways to help patients deal with the secured frame, and the existential death anxieties that drive them away from meaningful forms of therapy and insight - the difficulty being that severe death-related experiences intensify the use by the conscious system of denial-based mechanisms that favour knowledge reduction in lieu of knowledge acquisition. These psychobiologically evolved and personally developed tendencies wreak havoc for the lives of patients and therapists alike.

The oddities of the emotion-processing mind - its dread of meaning and secured frames; its excessive vulnerability to death anxieties; and its inability naturally (without trigger decoding) to make use of its resourceful deep unconscious wisdom - led Langs to the studies of the design of the emotion-processing mind and its evolutionary history. He found that language acquisition was critical to the development and inherent dysfunctions of this mental module - it played a role in the human awareness of self and death, be it of loved ones in the present, past, or future, or of oneself in the future.

Langs' evolutionary studies led to a view of the emotion-processing mind as a Darwin machine - a huge resource whose adaptive preferences are selected by environmental events and then sustained. Selectionism prevails most strongly in the immune system and this realization led to a study of that bodily system for several reasons: It is a model of selectionism; it has evolved to defend against microscopic predators and the emotion-processing mind has evolved to deal with macroscopic predators (mainly other humans) - the two systems protect humans from external disasters; and it shares design features with the emotion-processing mind. As the older and more evolved entity, the immune system can shed a great deal of light on the design and operations of the emotion-processing mind.

Currently Langs is studying and writing about the emotion-processing mind and the immune system -- and the broader need for therapists to immerse themselves in science. Langs continues to write and publish books for psychotherapists and the general public. But he is mindful that by design, most human minds dread the invaluable truths of the communicative approach and that the approach therefore has an unusual and almost daunting problem in convincing therapists of the wisdom and value of its postulates and clinical methods. He, therefore, has been developing special means of bringing attention to the approach. Chief among them are his recent playscripts which act as a way of both representing the approach's ideas through drama and of attracting interest in this work.

His play, "Freud's Bird of Prey," with its themes of death and frames - and power, life's romances and struggles, and such - has had well received staged readings and will be published this autumn by Zeig, Tucker & Co. His one-woman play, tentatively titled: "In the Mirror of My Life: Lou Andreas-Salome," which is a vast panoramic tale concerning a most unusual woman and her life, deals with many strong themes and events, but mainly with violated frames and the triumph of life over death. Lou was involved with men like Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud (she was a psychoanalyst in her later years) and so the play has a special aura to it. It recently received a staged reading in Hanover, Germany (which is near Gottingen, where Lou lived out the many years of her later life) at a meeting of the European Society for Communicative Psychotherapy.

(Producers, directors, and actors please take note - these are works well worth staging.)

Langs is, as you might expect, planning still more.

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Robert Langs, M.D.
Founder of Communicative Psychotherapy

Robert Langs, M.D. is the creator of the communicative approach (CA). He is an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, analytically trained in a classical Freudian psychoanalytic institute in New York City, who is known today as an important psychoanalytic revolutionary and revisionist.

Dr. Langs is a graduate of The Chicago Medical School and he received his psychiatric training at The Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. He was Research Fellow at that institution and then did research at The Research Center for Mental Health at New York University. He also has served as a clinical researcher at The Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, NY, Visiting Professor of Psychiatry at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and Visiting Scholar at Regents College, London.

He is the author of some 130 scientific papers and forty books on psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and related subjects like dreams, the architecture and evolution of the emotion-processing mind, death anxiety, the ground rules of therapy-and more. His books have been written for both the general public and the profession; sales exceed one million books. Among his accomplishments are a new and validated understanding of the unconscious realm and its profound effects on emotional life; a practical way of decoding unconscious messages; a mapping of the design of the emotion-processing (adaptive) mind; a presentation of the evolution of this mental module or coping structure; the development, with Anthony Badalamenti, Ph.D., of a formal, mathematically-based (true) science of human communication and psychoanalysis; a deep understanding of the forms of human death anxiety and their pervasive influence on human emotional life; and a view of the emotion-processing mind as a primarily defensive and denial-based coping structure whose design and functions are remarkably similar to those of the immune system-the discovery that the two systems are our means of protecting ourselves from microscopic predators (the immune system) and macroscopic predators like other humans and natural disasters and death (the emotion-processing mind).

Dr. Langs presently practices, teaches, and writes about communicative psychotherapy. His most recent devotion is to creating dramas-one and two act plays-that are effective art forms, while conveying through narrative tales the insights of the CA into the nature of emotional life.

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