The Responsiveness Ladder (workshop for therapists)

I had a great response to my workshop on what I call the responsiveness ladder at the Scottish Transactional Analysis Association conference on Saturday 18th November 2017.

The idea of the ladder came from thinking about exchanges between people that ought in theory to go well but which actually end up making things worse. Think about a person who is getting anxious because they are running late. Let’s call this person the struggler. And, lucky them, they have a supporter. The supporter says, in a calm and warm voice: “No need to worry about it. Just call them and let them know you’re a few minutes behind.” At this point the struggler has some sort of meltdown, perhaps resulting in exclaiming “you just don’t understand” (or worse) or, on another occasion, turning into a sulk. In the workshop we looked a lots of other cases of exchanges like this, and also at some therapy tools that can be used to understand them, such as the Drama Triangle from Transactional Analysis.

The responsiveness ladder takes a slightly different approach to the Drama Triangle. It suggests that at different times and in different contexts we can managed different levels of sophisticated in our responses. When things are going well – we are well-fed, well-rested and so on – then we can respond with our best rational self. We are, in this case, on the top-rung of our responsiveness ladder. But when things are going badly – we are stressed, we are hungry, we are tired etc. – then we are on a much lower rung. At the lower rungs we are – like much younger versions of ourselves – not equipped to respond in such sophisticated ways.

This is something that we all – many of us anyway – might know intuitively. The ladder is a way of making it explicit. And of emphasising, as I said in the workshop:

never mind what rung you think that person ought to be on, pitch yourself at the rung they actually are on.

If we pitch our support at a rung that is higher than where the struggler currently is, our support will land badly. To be effective, we need to tune into the rung they are at. Does this mean we have to “baby” people? Or that we have to as, as Transactional Analysis might say, “Rescue” people, i.e. offer un-requested help while discounting the struggler’s ability to think and problem-solve for themselves? After all, we know that the struggler is capable of behaving in grown-up ways, so why can’t they just do that? In the workshop I argued that often pitching to the rung they are at is the fastest and most efficient way to respond. And that when you do this, it helps the person quickly climb back up their responsiveness ladder.

Basically, if someone is upset, it’s often best to save all the rational talk until they are feeling a bit calmer or more connected. And it makes sense for a supporter to focus on helping the struggler get calmer and connected before anything else because, well, not only is it kinder, it’s also more efficient and more practical.

Of course, if you are often the supporter of someone who is often on their bottom rung, you might want to do something about that whole setup. And the workshop didn’t contest that. But it did look at how we can be surprised over and over again by something that, once we describe it in terms of the responsiveness ladder is perfectly predictable. Knowing more about what’s going on – or having better ways to describe it – gives us more options for how to move ahead.

From the workshop abstract:

The responsiveness ladder is a tool for clients and therapists seeking to understand why well-intended offers of support, comfort and practical advice can repeatedly go very wrong. When under stress, we drop down the rungs of the responsiveness ladder. Transactions that are pitched at too high a rung are experienced as unhelpful, discounting, and even antagonistic. The image of the ladder and its rungs can help us understand why things go wrong, help us adjust how we pitch our transactions, and help us focus on what a person can manage in the given moment instead of focusing on what they “should” to be able to manage.

I do have slides for the workshop, although they might not make too much sense outwith the presentation. But do get in touch if you’d like to see the slides or ask more about the model. I would like to write up the workshop at some stage, not least to incorporate some of the great ideas participants came up with during the session.. And if I do, I’ll update this page.