The Addiction Industry Should Learn From the Election And License Charisma

By Kenneth Gaughran 02/02/17

Addiction treatment should not be Chinese water torture but a life-affirming journey.

The Addiction Industry Should Learn From the Election And License Charisma
Communicative prowess--vocal and body language--might serve addiction counselors well.

It is well known that length of treatment is highly correlated with outcome in addiction treatment, and that qualities in the therapist and in the client-therapist relationship are connected to clients staying in treatment. Are “charismatic” therapists more likely to hold clients in treatment? And are those in recovery better able to connect with clients than clinicians who aren’t? Kenneth Gaughran tells his story and gives his opinion on these questions…Richard Juman, PsyD

While the pendulum swings back and forth from harm reduction to abstinence, one thing remains the same in the addiction counseling: the impact of the “charismatic counselor.” While I disagree with him on almost everything, and don’t in any way think he would make a good counselor, some of President Donald Trump’s communicative prowess—vocal and body language—might serve addiction counselors well. After all, counseling is a practice of persuasion and mirrored listening. Do licensing boards and those who employ addiction counselors overemphasize academic achievement and undervalue charisma in their empirical evaluations of potential counseling efficacy? I believe this administrative bias has evolved because of the misconception that the art of passionate counseling cannot be quantified, and people search for easy-to-calculate formulas when other, better answers are staring them in the face. I am not advocating Trump's often hateful rhetoric, but the way he used humor, cadence and voice fluctuation somehow usurps substance. A former actor, I understood that his formidable presence in the election ensured that he wouldn’t be ruled out. His ubiquitous message of “having your back” resonated with voters. His base audience was hurting—just like the addiction population—and his hopeful tone, delivered in an unorthodox but compelling way, was all these “left behind people” wanted to hear.

Similarly, when a patient with an addictive disorder enters the treatment room for the first time, 95% of them feel deep down that they are “on a highway to hell.” They want to connect with someone who can hear and relate to them at what I refer to as “ground zero.” Presenting a strong, passionate and non-judgmental stance—”We are going to go through the recovery hoops together”—reduces the anxiety quotient. Most importantly, giving the impression that the work will not be Chinese water torture, but a life-affirming journey, almost assures they will be back by week two—which is a grand slam for any counselor.

Even though you might only talk about baseball or dogs in that first session, if you provide the message, as Trump did—that you "have their back"—it takes the life and death undercurrent off the table. This initial denial of that 800-pound reality is the only way you should maneuver. Yes, pink elephants are there for a reason, but they didn't just spring up magically—they have taken years to be created and should only be addressed once full trust has been established. The old saying, “You can always tell an addict but cannot tell them much,” is the baseline mantra you should begin with. The creative way you weave and bob to elude that animal in early therapy is nothing you can learn in a classroom. The client needs to be hugged (metaphorically) away from fear and towards hope—a skill that is probably innate or learned by the counselor during infant nurturing.

Disarming a client’s defense mechanisms and pretending that recovery is a black and white issue has unwittingly landed more patients back on the street—as Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign did. It casts judgment before you even begin, and is like taking away a child's teddy bear prematurely.

An example of where this non-berating attitude proved powerful was in my late mother's struggle with cigarettes. She was a very bright schoolteacher who wasn't able to stop smoking no matter how hard she tried. She tried everything from acupuncture to hypnosis, including psychotherapy and group therapy. Her best experience was with a counselor who didn't give her a lecture when she told him she had been to Smokenders six times. She said that all the other therapists would opine how important it was to keep going back, but he surprised her by saying, “Obviously Smokenders is not for you, and I want you to stop beating yourself up by going.” She said that this contrarian stance instantly freed her from guilt—for the first time, she could remember she wasn't consumed with shame and had real hope. I, too, went to see this gentleman before he retired and found that his charisma—and his impact—came not from what he said, but how his healthy ego “be-bopped” around the negative and affirmed the positive. He knew that we were already on safe ground, and that any piling on would just be for his ego fulfillment. He was an artist who reeked of love, whose skill was a product of his healthy self-concept that you either have or don't have—but certainly can’t be taught.

I am not saying that an addiction counselor can start without a firm grasp of addiction. On the contrary, he should have to pass a test exhibiting an understanding of addiction and take the required academic hours that addiction counselors need. But let them take that in conjunction with some assessment of their social intelligence, ability to engage and, yes, charisma! For, once again, the qualities of charisma and empathy—the two most important qualities to effect change in a patient—cannot be taught. Why push people who don’t have the “right stuff” through a system where wounded, needy clients are waiting for help?

When I was a financial sales counselor, the industry used aptitude tests to calculate sensitivity, perseverance, empathy and charisma to hire sales trainees for brokerage organizations. If a person tested well on this test, the company would spend the money to train them. My HR Director told me: I ain't looking for no rocket scientists, just people who understand what makes people tick.

Professor Rigby 
of Claremont University notes that charismatic people “possess social and emotional skills that allow them to communicate effectively with people while also making strong interpersonal connections.” In other words, their charisma also opens up a window to be empathetic. William Miller, the guru of Motivational Interviewing, notes that ”acumen of human interpersonal skills” is the most important feature in MI.

In my experience, the best counselors are individuals more gifted in motivation than in didactic knowledge. It is as simple as making the client feel comfortable and important before implementing any counseling theory. Dan Cain, in the article “Is The Field’s Passion Disappearing?” in the Addiction Journal talks about how personality and experiential qualifications have been taken out of the equation in looking for counselors and been replaced by academic qualifications. He believes that there are meaningful positive abstractions that each individual counselor brings into their therapy sessions that is not being registered.

I have always strongly felt that that the “wounded healer” theme holds true in addiction counseling: those that had a meaningful shortcoming, and especially those who overcame addiction, had a bag of motivating tricks that others don’t. The very notion that they went into the abyss and came out the right side suggests that this special rite of passage has equipped them with tools that could only come through such an odyssey. Most important is the personal charisma that develops from the confidence of having successfully wrestled a dragon. The problem is that it cannot be deciphered on a resume. Addiction knowledge is often more a “street credential” than something you learn in ivory towers; it is a very personal experience that is fraught with unconscious self-shaming that only another addict can relate to.

I think back to a dozen years ago when I was struggling with 25 years of alcohol and gambling addiction. I was at a meeting where the speaker failed to show, and the chairman—a cross-addicted friend from GA and charismatic professional counselor by day—said that I would speak instead. I explained to him that I did not have the required 90-day sobriety, but knowing that I had been drinking for 25 years, he said, “I think you qualify.” He was right. Even though I was only several days clean, my years of rumination about my problem provided me an inner template of knowledge.

Afterwards, at the local diner, he said, “Ken, you have to first forgive yourself, then embrace this addiction quirk as a strength. Apply all the authentic passion you showed tonight, and the world is your oyster.” This individual had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his mom. Go ahead and try to tell him you need a Master's or PhD to get someone clean! He is assuredly responsible for at least 1,000 recoveries—but those numbers do not show on his business card.

Charismatic counselors can be the difference between life and death in this heroin epidemic. Since the overwhelming concern is to get the client back for the next session, who better than the charismatic counselor to help the client achieve that goal?

This is opposed to those horrible therapy sessions where you are being stared down and have to deflect phrases like, ”You have wasted a lot of time,” or ”Do you know what those drugs are doing to your body?” Or my favorite, ”It might be too late.” Yes, these are phrases I still hear, especially from therapists with a lot of letters after their name. Of course, there are wonderful therapists out there without egos and a lot of credentials—but these are the same folks who recognize a therapist with charisma credentials and jump hoops to try to gain the gift. The first encounter with a new client needs to be handled as if the counselor was an artist painting a portrait, with the client consciously or unconsciously giving hints of how he wants to be drawn (handled). When the therapist’s and the client’s feelings are both on the same canvas, then the beginning of a therapeutic union takes place.

Echoing our president: “What do we have to lose?”

Kenneth Gaughran is a “cross-addicted addict” in recovery who works as an Addiction Counselor, specializing in intervention and public speaking.

He holds a CASAC and a degree in Comparative Literature from NYU. He also is a freelance writer in the addiction field.

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