(Engl. original:)
Reconsidering Communicative Psychoanalysis©
By P. Myers
(Copyright © P. Myers 1997, Aug.1998)

Communicative psychoanalysis has been largely developed by Robert Langs (1978, 1988, 1992a). Its key tenet is that, symbolised in narratives and behaviour, patients present valid, insightful truths about the therapeutic situation and indicate which therapist interventions are appropriate. In some aspects this is consistent with previous psychoanalytic thinking. Psychoanalysts have long recognised that, alongside the reverse process, expression of unconscious material can be influenced and structured by perceptions of current external events:

There is a mutual and reciprocal effect of the pressure of unconscious fantasy formations and sensory stimuli, especially stimuli emanating from the external world. Unconscious fantasy activity provides the ‘mental set’ in which sensory stimuli are perceived and integrated. External events, on the other hand, stimulate and organise the re-emergence of unconscious fantasies. (Arlow 1969: 8 – emphasis added) On the other hand, in psychoanalysis as a whole, it is unusual for patients’ material to be analysed primarily as symbolising perceptive responses to current external reality and, in particular, to the realities of the therapeutic situation undistorted by transference. But such an approach was presaged (Smith 1991a; Myers 1996) in the 1930s in Sándor Ferenczi’s (1933, 1939, 1988) work, and in the 1960s and 1970s in Harold Searles’s (1961, 1972, 1975) studies of schizophrenic patients. Langs (1973, 1975a,b, 1978, 1985a) specifically focused on this kind of analysis of clinical material. Further to this he developed an extensive metapsychological theory (Langs 1988, 1992a) to explain and support his clinical data, and an approach to working with patients, referred to as Communicative psychotherapy (Smith 1991a).

Communicative theorists (Langs 1982, 1985a; Smith 1991a) have also developed a distinctive critique of other psychoanalytic approaches to theory and technique; they reject for example the notion of transference, at least as classically conceived (Smith ibid.). Whatever the merits of this, in practice it has polarised debate and militated against disinterested examination of Communicative psychoanalysis’s own claims. Many of the proponents of Communicative psychoanalysis (Langs 1992a; Smith 1991a) have now come to view its perspective as fundamentally distinct from that of other approaches to psychoanalysis, to be judged on its own terms. It is this that the present article attempts to contribute to – reviewing Communicative psychoanalysis as a theory in its own right.

I have personally found Langs’s perspectives illuminating and apposite both as a psychotherapist and, perhaps surprisingly, in my work as a management consultant where my focus is the crossover between personal and organisational dynamics. At the same time, the tone and substance of Communicative writings has disturbed me. As Harris (1994) points out, in Langs’s most recent publications he appears to have moved on to intellectual pastures new. However, his many articles and books on Communicative theory indicate a belief that some of its aspects have been established beyond doubt. This does not sit well with Langs’s long-standing advocacy of scientific, or at least evidence-based, appraisals of psychoanalytic thinking.

In the article below it will become clear that key Communicative concepts such as ‘derivatives’ and ‘the frame’ have been defined ambiguously or in a contradictory fashion. Against this confused background I believe Communicative psychoanalysis has been in no position to even start to establish an evidence-base. The proponents of Communicative psychotherapy (Langs 1992; Smith 1991b, 1992) have asserted that, in comparison to much psychoanalytic theory, it has greater potential for scrutiny and evidence-based falsification. This is because a patient’s associations are taken to symbolise the external world of real events in therapy, rather than their internal one. If so, this privilege has been systematically neglected in the Communicative literature itself – scrutiny has been very much the exception. The present article begins to address these issues. Much of what follows is a whittling away of unwarranted contentions in the search for the foundations on which any kind of evidence-based theory would need to be built.

The article challenges the construction and validity of Communicative concepts and sets out certain guidelines and suggestions for their reformulation. It outlines how Communicative psychoanalysis might attempt to establish a genuine experimental base. In addition, the work of cognitive psychologists studying related phenomena in small group behaviour (Haskell 1978, 1982, 1990; Morocco 1979; Farell 1979) is highlighted in order to encourage cross-fertilisation and comparison between their work and Communicative psychoanalysis.

In the first place it is necessary to understand the claims that Communicative theory makes about patients’ material. Two historical examples suffice as an introduction. In a passage from Ferenczi’s clinical diary in 1932 he commented that patients quickly recognise when an analyst is rigidly clinging to a theoretical approach, but do not even ‘say this to themselves’. He looked back at the case of a patient who had ‘never tired’ of telling him about a nice but insufferably pedantic teacher, and the contrast with a nurse she had had earlier who always behaved naturally. Ferenczi (1988) now interpreted these narratives as a symbolic reflection, not of the patient’s internal world, but of her contemporary external world: his own actual drift into pedantic behaviour during her analysis.

Harold Searles, an American psychoanalyst who worked mainly with schizophrenic patients, developed ideas that echoed Ferenczi’s. In 1961, for instance, he described the behaviour of a woman patient as follows:

[She] for many months infuriated not only me but the ward staff and her fellow-patients by arrogantly behaving as though she owned the whole building, as though she were the only person in it whose needs were to be met. This behaviour on her part subsided only after I had come to see the uncomfortably close similarity between, on the one hand, her arranging the ventilation of the common living-room to her own liking, or turning the television off or on without regard to the wishes of the others, and on the other, my own coming stolidly into her room despite her persistent and vociferous objections, bringing my big easy chair with me, usually shutting the windows of her room which she preferred to keep in a very cold state, and plunking myself down in my chair – in short, behaving as if I owned her room. (Searles 1961: 393-4) Like Ferenczi, Searles believed that his patients’ narratives, or in this case their behaviour, could symbolise realistic perceptions of the behaviour that Searles himself had been exhibiting with them.

In Communicative theory this kind of analysis of patients’ material has become central. Both patients’ narratives and patients’ behaviour are analysed as symbolising unconscious perceptions of the therapeutic situation. Langs and his associates have adduced many examples. Langs (1975a), in an early instance, described a psychotherapist’s failure to understand his patient, and, in particular, an intervention in which the psychotherapist blamed and criticised his patient for the difficulties they experienced. Langs, who had supervised the psychotherapist’s work, then outlined the patient’s narrative associations that followed:

He had been on a bus the other day, when a man got on and was putting money into the coin box. It dropped to the floor several times. The patient laughed loudly, causing everyone on the bus to look at him. The patient then noticed that the man had a cane and he felt like "crap." Nevertheless, he continued to laugh to himself... He fell silent and remembered a time in his childhood when he sat with his grandfather and put chalk into rags that he then used to beat up children he didn't like… He remembered a time from his early twenties when he roomed with a fellow who was a criminal… once this friend had nearly killed a girlfriend. The friend had held up a medical supply house, looking for drugs, and had been shot in the process. (Ibid.: 145) In his discussion of the case, Langs wrote: ... the reference to the blind man and to the patient's own difficulties in seeing and understanding... is a poignant communication [of the therapist's lack of understanding]... The reference to the patient's senseless attacks seems admirably suited to communicate his perception of the therapist's inappropriate, senseless criticisms. (Ibid.: 148) In another example, Langs (1983) described a patient’s behaviour after his analyst recorded (albeit with permission) their previous session: [Bill, the patient,] had been abusive with his girlfriend and had invited a third party (Rodger) to join them in bed... we can now understand that his inexplicable behaviors were actually conscious messages that contained encoded unconscious perceptions of Dr. Barker’s decision to tape record the session... his actions with others had been strongly and unconsciously influenced by his analyst’s intervention. (p. 138) Langs’s thesis here is similar to Searles’s in the example already cited: unbeknown to the patient, aspects of their behaviour outside the sessions re-presented their actual experience in the therapy. The patient’s behaviour amounted to a portrayal of the tape recording of his therapy session as an abusive intrusion inviting third party involvement in what should have been a private therapist-patient relationship. Langs (1985a) gives many similar examples based on interviews with patients. Of course, in the therapeutic context itself, such instances of symbolic behavioural interactions outside of session time appear primarily as narrative accounts within the sessions. Perhaps for this reason the wider literature of Communicative psychoanalysis is dominated by descriptions of narratives that appear to symbolise patients’ therapeutic situation, and descriptions of behavioural interactions that appear to do so are less frequent.

Langs has termed narratives and behaviours that seem to represent symbolically the external therapeutic reality, ‘derivatives’. A therapeutic situation with powerful emotional connotations is said to evoke constellations of ‘derivatives’ (Langs 1978, 1985a; Smith 1991a). Alternatively, a single ‘derivative’ can symbolise the actual therapeutic situation in a multiplicity of ways: the patient’s narrative in the first of Langs’s examples cited above refers to a blind man and someone (the patient) who does not see what is going on at first – both of these images linked in Langs’s view to the therapist’s own lack of understanding.

Langs (1985b: 9) asserted that the term ‘derivative’ was ‘coined by Freud (1900, 1908) to indicate a manifest content that simultaneously expresses a disguised latent meaning’. This is inaccurate. In fact Freud’s (1900, 1908, 1912, 1915a,b) use of the term was more complex and certainly, for him, ‘derivatives’ of the unconscious could themselves be unconscious rather than manifest. But there is a more vital difficulty with Langs’s use of the term ‘derivative’. It bolsters a presumption that ‘derivatives’ must be derived from the prior existence of other separate mental representations of the external therapeutic reality. Langs certainly takes this position, and latterly (1988, 1992a) has formalised it by positing the existence of an intrapsychic ‘unconscious wisdom system’, a kind of self-contained unconscious perceptual system to which he attributes these prior representations. He believes ‘derivatives’ are ‘encoded messages’ from this system. I will return to this shortly.

Unfortunately, the term ‘derivative’ is now defined in Langs’s texts in terms of Communicative theory itself, as a disguised or encoded message about the therapeutic situation (Langs 1985b, 1992a; Smith 1991a). This is destructive to any attempt to put Communicative psychoanalysis on a firm footing. In order to examine Communicative theory properly, it is necessary to set out what its analysis of clinical observations entails without employing its metapsychological constructs. We need to ask what ‘derivatives’ are as an observed phenomenon; what is the data of Communicative theory?

Communicative theory centres on analysis of patients’ narratives, and/or their behavioural interactions, inside or outside of session time. Either kind of material is in effect treated as delineating a social domain, by description in the case of narratives, by enactment in the case of behavioural interactions. At the same time the current therapeutic situation is itself a social domain. There are at least two players in this latter domain, but there may be many more: someone making a referral, other patients, a receptionist, colleagues privy to case notes or to supervision material, etc. One way of putting the central claim of Communicative psychoanalytic theory is that, without patients’ awareness, social domains delineated by their narrative/behavioural material tend to be linked by analogy to their current therapeutic situation. When those who advocate a Communicative approach point to a ‘derivative’, they are in effect highlighting an analogy, of which the patient is usually unaware, between the social domain of the therapy and a social domain delineated by the patient’s material.

What is meant here by ‘analogy’ will need to be specified more precisely. The illustrations given by Communicative psychotherapists indicate that their patients’ nonconscious analogy shadows the everyday understanding of ‘analogy’. Therefore, formally defining what is involved presents us with the same difficulties that cognitive scientists face in describing conscious (i.e. deliberate) analogy. Before turning to this I want to clarify the relationship between expressing the tenets of Communicative psychoanalysis in the above terms and the approach to Communicative theory taken by Langs and his colleagues.

Firstly we need to be clear that particular analogies cannot be, in themselves, data in support of Communicative psychoanalysis. This is because analogies between a patient’s narratives or behaviour and the therapeutic situation can arise by coincidence. Particular observed analogies might or might not be a product of the ability of the therapist/researcher to find chance correspondences. That is why I have cast the central claim of Communicative psychoanalysis in terms of a tendency to analogy rather than in terms of the appearance of specific analogies in ‘derivative’ material. This is already a revision rather than an exposition of Communicative theory, but it is a necessary revision. Any data there is must be, of necessity, statistical in nature; we are dealing with skewed narrative/behavioural sets. The assertion should not be that any one narrative or action of a patient’s can be laid at the door of the therapeutic situation, but that patients’ narrative/behavioural material exhibits, in general (i.e. on average), a greater degree of analogical correspondence to their current therapeutic situation than would be expected by chance.

Secondly we need to unpick the notion that if evidence were available for ‘derivatives’ then it would follow that ‘derivatives’ need be derived from some prior/clearer mental representation of the therapeutic environment, let alone that they are messages from an ‘unconscious wisdom system’. Suppose it is indeed found that ‘derivatives’, or rather narrative/behavioural sets skewed towards analogy with external therapeutic realities, are a real, consistently replicable phenomenon. Would this imply that there must be, at a prior moment, other mental representations of these realities, then ‘encoded’, as Communicative theory would have it, in the ‘derivatives’? No, it would not. In case this seems counter-intuitive, let me outline a physiological parallel: the human immune system. This provides a well-researched instance of an apparently elaborate process of perception and re-presentation in which antibody populations tend towards analogical correspondence – in this case in molecular form – with specific invading antigens, but in which there is no distinct intervening representation which such populations ‘encode’.

In brief summary: the immune system’s lymphocyte cells have antibodies on their surface. These antibodies have binding sites with randomised molecular characteristics. Antigens (viruses or bacteria) bind to only those sites whose molecular shape corresponds to some aspect of their own structure. This facilitates the division and exponential population growth of the particular lymphocyte cells whose antibodies the antigens have bonded to. The antibody population which then evolves presents, through the molecular structure of its antibody binding sites, a statistical preponderance of characteristics which complement those of the invading antigens (Edelman 1992). The intention here is not to suggest that a similar process takes place in the generation of patients’ analogical material (although I would regard this as a possibility worth considering). It is to point up one of the logical lacunae involved in jumping from the adduced instances of ‘derivatives’ to the idea that these are derived from other prior unconscious mental representations of (therapeutic) social domains.

Taking a temporary leap of faith, let us suppose for a minute that narrative/behavioural sets in patients’ material do skew consistently towards analogy with the therapeutic domain itself, and that such ‘derivative’ populations derive from prior unconscious mental representations of the therapeutic domain. Even then, other doubts about Langs’s position would remain:

  1. Such mental representations would not necessarily need to be the preserve of a separate and integrated mental system.
  2. The ‘derivatives’ would not necessarily be, in any well-defined sense, more ‘encoded’ than these mental representations.
  3. Even if the ‘derivatives’ were in some sense more ‘encoded’ than the putative prior mental representations, such obfuscation might be merely epiphenomenal.

Above I recast the central claim of Communicative psychoanalytic theory in the following terms: without patients’ awareness, social domains delineated by their narrative/behavioural material tend to be linked by analogy to their current therapeutic situation. I proposed that the concept of analogy implicit in examples adduced by Communicative analysts corresponds closely to everyday deliberate analogy. In cognitive science, mainstream approaches to modelling what is meant when people say that there is an analogy between situations (Gentner 1983, 1989; Holyoak & Thagard 1989) are along the following lines. A source domain, S, and a target domain, T, are posited together with a set of propositional functions, P , common to both these domains. An analogy is then a mapping f: SÕ T from the source domain to the target domain which approximates to being an isomorphism, i.e. predominantly the mapping is one-to-one, and predominantly for each propositional function P belonging to P , if P{o1, o2, ... on}, then P{f(o1), f(o2), ... f(on)}. What happens when we transfer this model to the field of Communicative psychoanalysis?

Here both the target and source are social domains. The target domain is the therapeutic situation and the source domain is that described by a narrative from the patient, or enacted through the patient’s behaviour. The propositional functions that apply to them are called themes (Smith 1991b). For instance, in the first of Langs’s examples cited above, ‘x lacks (in)sight’ is a theme. Figure 1 shows how the second of Langs’s examples above could be formalised along the lines of this model.

The leeway built in to the model of analogy above, in the requirement for only an approximation to isomorphism, reflects the leeway people allow themselves when they make a deliberate analogy. To counterbalance this, such models of analogy include a way in which the quality of the analogies can be assessed or compared based on the extent to which the analogical mapping highlights structures in the two domains that are actually isomorphic. For example Gentner did this by putting forward a systematicity principle: ‘Part of our understanding about analogy is that it conveys a system of connected knowledge, not a mere assortment of independent facts. Such a system can be represented by an interconnected predicate structure in which higher-order predicates enforce connections among lower order predicates’ (Gentner 1983: 162). In other words, an analogy will be more salient if the set of propositional functions, P , is itself connected by higher order propositional functions such as ‘causes’ or ‘implies’. Langs’s tape recording example carries extra conviction in view of the higher order propositional function that connects other themes:
Where, in the source domain:
x = patient, y = girlfriend, z = Rodger  
and, in the target domain:
x = therapist, y = patient, z = recording  
Conversely it would be a less convincing analogy if Bill, the patient, had invited Rodger to join a business venture, had separately left his girlfriend, and had mistakenly intruded on an intimate moment between two other lovers. Another way of looking at this is that in any experimental test of Communicative theory, apparent ‘derivatives’ satisfying the systematicity principle to a degree are less likely to arise by coincidence, and will be statistically more significant, than those that do not satisfy the principle.

It seems to me worthwhile to identify categories of theme that are prevalent in the analogical correspondences adduced by Communicative psychoanalysts. After all, many possible analogies could be drawn between social domains, for example with themes based on the physical features or gender of participants in the social domains, or based around conversation syntax or topic, or based on the movement of participants relative to one another. None of these possibilities make much of an appearance in the Communicative literature. Conversely some categories of theme do seem to be particularly prevalent. Themes of the analogies frequently involve:

  1. The pattern of participation, i.e. the sequence of involvement, instigation and action. In Figure 1, ‘BRING IN (x, y)’ would come in this category.
  2. The basic sociophysical structure of interactions. These themes are similar to what the philosopher Mark Johnson (1987, 1988) describes as ‘image schemata’, metaphorical pre-verbal structures which order our experience. Their ‘sociophysical’ (Johnson 1987) nature, that they carry both social and physical meaning, plays a role in many of Langs’s examples. For instance Langs (1992b), in an extension of his work into the arena of student-teacher relationships, described how a woman teacher’s self-revelations (i.e. social exposure) resulted in a student’s account of a dream of ‘a woman exposing her naked body at her apartment window’ (ibid.: 129) (i.e. physical exposure). Some themes which can be included in this category are:
  3. • Bias • Equity • Connection • Disconnection • Intrusion • Expulsion • Plenty • Insufficiency • Support • Lack of support • Containment • Seeing/Understanding • Exposure • Ending/Death • Disruption/Alteration • Maintenance/Continuation • Giving  • Taking • Compulsion • Domination • Obstruction

    In Figure 1, ‘BROKEN INTIMACY (x, y, z)’ would involve this category (as well as implicitly the first category), combining themes of ‘intrusion’ and ‘disruption’ from the above list.

  4. The implications of social values. Langs (1975b, 1978, 1988) became convinced that the central focus for patients’ ‘derivatives’ was therapist adherence to an appropriate therapeutic ‘frame’. The frame is usually thought of as a set of ‘ground rules’ for therapy. This is a description informed by therapists’ professional responsibilities. When, on the other hand, we regard on-going therapy as a particular type of social domain these ground rules can equally be thought of as a special case of values, social principles or standards of action, a concept with application to social settings in general. Communicative psychoanalysts commonly draw analogies between the implications of ground rules/values for psychotherapeutic situations, and the implications of values in social domains delineated by patients’ ‘derivative’ narratives or behaviour. This has been crucial for the development of the clinical technique of Communicative psychotherapy because it forms a basis for regarding patients’ material as critical or instructive (Smith 1991a). In Figure 1, ‘BETRAYS (x, y)’ would fall under this third category of theme.

In the next section of this article I examine in some detail Communicative assertions about frames and, in particular, the Communicative concept of ‘the secure frame’. In the present section, having begun to rework Communicative theory in terms of narrative/behavioural sets skewed towards analogical correspondence with the therapeutic situation, and having looked at the kinds of analogy that are involved in practice, we can start to address the $64,000 question for a theory aspiring to an evidence base. This is: "could it possibly be tested?" The answer may be a (very) qualified "yes". This section also examines work in cognitive psychology that has startling similarities to Communicative theory.

In the first place, can an objective assessment be made of the extent of analogical correspondence between social/therapeutic domains involving themes in the above categories? This is debatable though arguable with regard to themes in the first two categories above. But, with regard to the third category, it is clear that the analogical correspondences characterising ‘derivative’ material are dependent on which frame is ascribed to the therapeutic setting. When a patient’s therapeutic situation is viewed in terms of one set of ground rules/values there may be evident analogical correspondences with their narratives/behaviour that involve a value-implication theme; when the same scenario is viewed in terms of another set of values, there may be no such correspondence.

For instance, in the example above, the assertion that betrayal is an implication of prevailing values is straightforwardly arguable in the source domain, a domain of sexual intimacy set within a culture which values monogamy (although this could only be beyond question when the ‘derivative’ was a narrative, itself imbued with values, rather than a behavioural interaction). That it is equally evident in the target, therapeutic domain is dubious. When viewed from the perspective of certain value systems (i.e. beliefs about what is right/good/appropriate in therapy) the theme of betrayal is indeed applicable to a therapist recording a session. From the perspective of other value systems it might not seem at all applicable, at least – as in this case – if the patient’s permission had been received.

That said, beginning to clarify the phenomenology of Communicative theory does lay the groundwork for setting out the kind of experiments that would be needed to test its assertions, as well as the potential difficulties involved. The kind of task to be undertaken would be firstly to gather a large sample of paired accounts D 1, each pair consisting of:
  • A description, the therapist’s or an observer’s, of a therapeutic situation
  • The first narrative related by the patient subsequent to this situation, or the patient’s account of their behaviour subsequently
(E.g. descriptions of the referral process could be paired with the first narrative of the initial session; or descriptions of the first ¼ hour of, say, the sixth session with the patient’s first narrative thereafter; or descriptions of, say, the eleventh session could be paired with the patient’s account of their behaviour directly afterwards.)
Secondly to obtain a further ‘control’ sample of paired accounts, D 2, by randomly rematching the D 1 pairs. Thirdly to assess the pairs in both D 1 and D 2 for analogical correspondence and to compare the results.

Now, as noted above, the descriptions of therapy would vary enormously, depending on the values subscribed to by their author(s). But the outcome could indicate:

  1. Whether, whatever values inform the descriptions of sessions, there is a tendency to analogical correspondence between patient’s narratives/behaviour and these descriptions (when compared with the results of the control).
  2. Whether analogical correspondences found do tend to be similar to those adduced by Communicative psychoanalysts, themes in the three above categories predominating, or whether fresh, previously unnoticed analogies tend to emerge (a possibility indicated by Robert Haskell’s work described below).
  3. Whether ascribing certain values/ground rules to the therapeutic arena maximises value-implication analogical correspondence with patients’ narratives/behaviour. As I explain in the next section of this article, Communicative theorists postulate a ‘secure’ frame that is privileged in this way.
Of course such an experiment would not be straightforward. Consideration could be given to using panels of independent assessors to judge analogical correspondence. A difficulty here would be how to eliminate the possibility of panel members subtly identifying, and being influenced by, whether therapy descriptions and narratives/behavioural interactions were or were not associated with the same patient (i.e. whether the pairs belonged to D 1 or D 2). As an alternative, there are now several computer programmes (Holyoak & Thagard 1989, Keane et al. 1994) set up to discover and assess analogies between situations along the lines suggested by cognitive science. Here there is the difficulty that narratives, session descriptions, and accounts of behaviour would have to be converted into formal predicate calculus before the data could be input. Overall, although there are many obstacles to a successful research effort in this direction, ethical and practical issues as well as those outlined above, these may not be insurmountable.

Encouragement for such research can be taken from completely independent parallel work undertaken over the past twenty years by cognitive psychologists. There are many similarities and also illuminating differences, particularly of interpretation, between Communicative psychoanalysis and the hypotheses made by these cognitive psychologists. However I would caution that many of the difficulties around establishing an evidence base are common ground between the two related fields.

Both Ferenczi and Langs adumbrated the possibility that analogical representations are prevalent in some non-analytic social situations. Ferenczi (1933) referred in particular to the ‘veiled speech’ of pupils with their teachers and of children with their parents. Langs (1992b) provided some examples of students’ ‘derivative’ representations of their teachers’ conduct. That said, Smith (1992) pointed to a lack of research into ‘derivative communication’ in everyday discourse, despite the fact that ‘derivative communication’ could not possibly be primarily operative, nor have evolved, in the therapeutic context. He was unaware of the research already undertaken in the field of small group psychology and metaphor research.

Cognitive psychologists Morocco (1979), Farell (1979), and particularly Haskell (1978, 1982, 1984, 1989) had for some time understood topics of conversation in small groups as nonconscious analogical representations of the situation and concerns of group members (therapeutic dyads are themselves of course an instance of small groups, albeit an unusual one). These researchers referred to the analogical correspondences they observed by a number of related terms. For instance: ‘group metaphor’ or ‘collective metaphor’ (Morocco 1979); ‘analogic talk’ (Haskell 1978, 1982); ‘subliteral productions’ (Haskell 1984); ‘nonconscious metaphors’ or ‘subliteral discourse’ (Haskell 1989). Taken as a whole, this work together with that in Communicative psychoanalysis can be seen as one aspect of the study of unconscious perception and processing discussed by Dixon (1981). What sets it apart is the focus on the nonconscious perception, and unconscious symbolic representation, of social contexts – small groups and therapeutic dyads – rather than inanimate contexts.

Here, for reasons of brevity, I will only discuss Haskell’s work (by far the most extensive) in any detail. One of his many examples is of a group discussion of journalism with two primary foci. The first was that journalists write about people without their consent. The second was that they do not know if what they are writing is true if they do not check with the people concerned. Haskell (1982) took these topics to be linked to the two trainers involved who were making notes on the group. He continued:

During this discussion, a group member excitedly interjected to tell about a "well known" reporter by the name of Harry Harris. Following contiguously, the group discussed two newspapers. The first was H.I.P. (for Harrisburg Independent Press), the second was the Harrisburg Patriot News... It was said that H.I.P. was radical and biased, whereas the latter newspaper was neutral and objective. (Ibid.: 170) Haskell wrote that the initials of the journalist mentioned, H.H., linked to the initials of the trainers, Haskell and Heapes. In addition, the name Harry Harris linked phonetically to Hairy/Hairless corresponding to the appearance and status-order of the bearded senior trainer and the clean-shaven junior trainer. Likewise the status order and attitudes of the trainers were reflected in the two newspapers mentioned: In terms of semantic associativity, the newspaper H.I.P. is analogic for the senior trainer because of the association of the "liberal" political perception of H.I.P. and the associative linkage of the term "hip" (avant-garde) with the senior bearded trainer, whereas the clean shaven junior trainer was perceived as more conservative and therefore more of a "patriot." (Ibid.: 175) This example serves to illustrate some of the multiple levels of analogy that characterise many of Haskell's examples. As with the examples from the therapeutic arena adduced by Communicative psychoanalysts, the narrative preoccupations of group participants, and sometimes their behaviours (Haskell 1989), appeared to define social domains analogous to the group situation itself. But Haskell contended that they also defined phonetic, syntactical and numeric (Haskell 1990, 1991) domains that again exhibit analogies with the group situation. Haskell (1978, 1982, 1991) proposed that coherence of these analogies within and across domains provides a method of verifying data. In the example above, a sequential analogy from the syntax of the group narrative complemented and cohered with analogical correspondences emerging from phonetic and social levels of analysis:
BEFORE Harris Syntax in the source (group narrative) domain
Harrisburg Independent Press
BEFORE Harrisburg Patriot News
Hairy liberal (trainer)
BEFORE Hairless conservative (trainer) Status order in the target (group context) domain
Like Gentner’s systematicity principle, such coherence is one indicator of correspondence between isomorphic structures in the domain of the group narrative and the domain of the group situation.

As with Communicative theory, there is a lack of the substantial amount of data that would be needed to support or to falsify such findings. In the one quantitative experiment I know of, Farell (1979) introduced specific alterations into group situations and examined subsequent guided (rather than free) associations for specific changes, comparing these with those of control groups. Again, the work since that time on computer discovery and assessment of analogy may have increased the possibility of effectively investigating these phenomena.
‘The Secure Frame’

I want to turn now to the notion of ‘the secure frame’, a notion that has become a hallmark of Communicative theory and practice. It is curiously similar in substance, but not in justification, to the parameters of classical psychoanalysis. First there is some confusion to clear up regarding the meaning of the term ‘frame’. Authors of Communicative texts sometimes write of ‘frame deviations’ or conversely of ‘securing the frame’. This can give the impression that a frame can be an attribute of a particular therapeutic relationship, or for that matter a particular moment in a therapeutic relationship. For the purpose of consistency, in this article, a frame is a set of values/ground rules. A frame gives rise to value-laden descriptions of any particular therapeutic relationship, but frames are not themselves descriptors of such a relationship.

In Communicative terminology, the ‘secure frame’ (Langs 1982, 1988; Smith 1991a) is a specific frame including: the provision of a consistent and totally private setting for therapy; a set, unchanging fee; sessions at set time(s) in the week and with an unvarying duration; advice to the patient to use the couch in all but the initial session of therapy; the therapist sitting out of sight behind the patient; advice to the patient to say ‘whatever comes to mind’; the absolute maintenance of confidentiality and the absence of any other third-party involvement in the therapeutic relationship; the total absence of physical contact between therapist and patient; the therapist’s avoidance of self-revelation and of any extra-therapeutic contact with the patient; and the therapist’s ‘neutrality’, in the sense of respect for the patient’s autonomy (a concept refined much further in some Communicative literature, specifying and delimiting acceptable therapist interventions). Communicative theory makes two claims for the secure frame: that it is unconsciously validated, and that it is maximally beneficent. Both claims require explication and clarification. As we see below, when this is done it becomes apparent that the first claim might be testable although, contrary to the impression given by Communicative practitioners, it certainly has not been tested yet. Considerable misapprehensions have been propagated by Communicative psychoanalysts regarding what might constitute evidence for the second claim. At present there appears to be no credible evidence for it. More important, there is little to suggest that this second claim could be convincingly put to the test.

Unconscious validation is a putative analytic process which Communicative psychoanalysis holds to allow assessment of both the objective accuracy of therapists’ interpretations and the therapeutic ‘appropriateness’ of therapists’ interventions in general. It involves listening to the patient’s subsequent narratives.

Each time the communicative therapist offers an interpretation or secures the frame, he or she listens carefully to the subsequent derivatives to determine whether or not the intervention has been validated. A validated intervention is followed by highly constructive derivative themes, which indicate that the patient unconsciously regards the intervention as truly therapeutic. A communicative intervention is considered appropriate only if it is followed by constructive derivative imagery. If the patient responds with negative imagery after the intervention, the communicative therapist concludes that his efforts were seriously flawed. (Smith 1991a: 214) The claim is made that via this process therapist adherence to secure frame ground rules/values is consistently validated, and lack of adherence is consistently contraindicated.

The patient narratives that Communicative theorists understand as commentaries on therapist adherence to the secure frame are those that exhibit particular analogical correspondence to the therapeutic situation, including to the implications of secure frame values. For instance Smith (1991a) described how a therapist agreed, at her patient’s request, to reschedule their therapeutic hour from a Monday to a Thursday.

[This intervention] was not validated... The patient arrived for her next session and began it with the following words: …My lecturer at college has messed us about. He’s cancelled classes again. This time he wants to swap the time around. That guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. He gets me so angry. He should set something up and stick to it! (Ibid.: 171-2) The claim that the secure frame is unconsciously validated amounts to the claim that ascribing secure frame values to therapy maximises value-implication analogical correspondence with patients’ narratives. Some Communicative psychoanalysts (Smith 1992) acknowledge that little objective research has been undertaken into unconscious validation of the secure frame. As reformulated here it may be open to investigation by the kind of experiment I have already outlined in the previous section of this article (see page * above). That said, let me be clear: even if experimental evidence emerged, it would be evidence for a property of the secure frame that Communicative practitioners refer to as ‘unconscious validation’ by patients – it would in no other sense necessarily be validation for the secure frame. This will be reinforced as we turn to the second claim made for the secure frame.

In Communicative psychoanalysis, claims for the unconscious validation of the secure frame were the precursor to claims (Langs 1982) that it is maximally beneficent, i.e. that adhering to the values/ground rules of the secure frame is the most beneficial or curative approach to therapy (at least for all but a small minority of ‘frame-sensitive’ individuals). Paris (1982) drew attention to the vast amount of research that would be needed to gather convincing evidence for this point by point. It is my understanding that subsequent claims of ‘overwhelming clinical evidence’ (Langs 1993 – emphasis added: 127) are based on ‘unconscious validation’ of the accuracy of Communicative ‘interactional interpretations’.

In brief, Communicative interactional interpretations consist in:

  1. Analogies being put to the patient between (a) their ‘derivative’ stories of harm resulting from failures to abide by social values, and (b) the averred harmful effects of ‘triggers’, proposed or actual failures to abide by ‘secure’ frame values in the therapy.
  2. The suggestion that the analogies indicate the patient’s own non-conscious perception of these harmful effects.
  3. The suggestion that this perception has contributed to their current symptoms.
It appears to be assumed by Langs that evidence for the ‘unconscious validation’ of these interactional interpretations would be clinical evidence for the maximal beneficence of the secure frame. This is unwarranted. Even if Communicative ‘unconscious validation’ of these interactional interpretations was established as a consistent, replicable phenomenon then it could only be concluded that there was a consistent trend in the themes that interactional interpretations evoke in therapy patients. This would be an interesting finding, but it would not in itself attest to the truth of those interpretations and hence not even to the comparative beneficence of secure frame values. Claims for the maximal beneficence of therapist adherence to the secure frame, or indeed to any one particular frame for psychotherapy, would remain speculative.

In any case, is there consistent evidence for what Communicative psychoanalysts refer to as ‘unconscious validation’ in relation to these interactional interpretations? Again, no systematic research appears to have been undertaken. Communicative theory holds that not only are interactional interpretations consistently validated, they are the only interpretations that are so validated. Langs (1988) expressed this by extending the definition of the secure frame to include, as a ground rule, the proffering of these and only these interpretations. This means that the claim of consistent validation for interactional interpretations is itself, in a sense, an extension of the general claim of ‘unconscious validation’ for secure frame values/ground rules. Investigation of this special case could in principle proceed along the lines already outlined. In practice particular difficulties attach to it: interactional interpretations of this kind are peculiar to Communicative psychotherapists whose commitment to Communicative theory would make them both (a) unavoidably partial observers and (b) particularly unwilling to divulge the content of sessions or to have researchers involved in their work.

In a forthcoming paper I will critically examine some of the illustrations of the ‘validation’ of interactional interpretations that have been made available by Communicative psychotherapists. However, as already indicated, such validation – real or illusory, consistent or sporadic – simply does not serve as evidence that the ‘secure’ frame is particularly or maximally beneficent.

The above analysis of Communicative claims that the secure frame is privileged sheds light on a potentially serious area of difference between the work of Langs and that of Haskell. This is around the extent to which patients’/group participants’ material can be said to analogically correspond to real, external event-sequences. Langs and his Communicative colleagues have often been at pains to emphasise the essential truthfulness and reality of ‘derivative’ material.

In contrast Haskell and Morocco (1979) frequently expressed their findings in terms of analogical correspondence between group narratives and the concerns of group members. For example, Haskell wrote of the group narratives centred on reporters and newspapers that were described earlier in this article: ‘the group is nonconsciously using a literal topic as a metaphorical or analogic vehicle to discuss avoided affective concerns about the two trainers’ (Haskell 1982: 171). In this instance it is clear that he regarded these concerns as rooted in actualities: the trainers were taking notes without consent; they did not check with the group members that what they were writing was true; Haskell did have a higher status and more facial hair than Heapes; etc.

Nevertheless, Haskell (1984) distinguished between the actual group situation and group members’ concerns as sources for ‘subliteral’ group narrative: ‘Subliteral topics… are either isomorphic to the discourse situation or… covertly express affective concerns’ (Haskell 1984: 31 – emphasis added). In the following excerpt from a list of instances of ‘subliteral’ discourse, he took the view that analogical correspondences reflected participants’ misplaced feeling of being attacked or abused.

After a researcher’s neutral intervention into the discourse, it is often felt affectively as a reprimand. For example, in discussing a police raid on a bar it was repeatedly said: 6. "They will be hit again…" The talk was further permuted into the following statements about teachers, children, and God: 7. "There is fear that teachers will hit the kids…"

8. "You can put little children down without knowing it…"

9. "What kind of God is it that lets child abuse happen…" (Haskell 1989: 265-66)

Attributing certain analogical correspondences to the actual group context but others to affective, misplaced concerns can appear arbitrary (this has been one of the criticisms Communicative theorists have made of the classical psychoanalytic treatment of transference). Indeed, Haskell did not specify the nature of the researcher’s ‘neutral intervention’, nor the specific value(s) that lent neutrality to it. In a similar therapeutic context, such statements from a patient would lead Communicative theorists to look at whether the therapist’s intervention(s) could be construed ‘realistically’ as attacking and abusive, albeit without the therapist’s recognition (‘You can put little children down without knowing it…’).

There are equal difficulties with the Communicative stance that ‘derivative’ material analogically corresponds to objective realities in the therapeutic environment. This stance parallels findings in inanimate settings where studies do suggest that symbolic/analogical representation of objectively accurate conclusions about the environment is ubiquitous in communication (Dixon 1981). Such nonconscious perception has been shown to exhibit a refined sensitivity to the unobserved and the subtle, including for example the interpretation of rebuses (ibid.). In practice, in order to assert that there are similar value-implication analogies between patients’ narratives/behavioural interactions and the reality of their therapeutic situation, Communicative psychoanalysts appeal to a ‘reality’ based on the values of the secure frame. For instance, their position would be that it objectively is a betrayal if a therapy session is tape-recorded.

Now, in fact, value judgements/implications in social settings – the social realities flowing from values – are in themselves neither veridical nor misplaced, but socially constructed (Berger & Luckmann 1966). In order to address the difference in Langs’s and Haskell’s viewpoints, and the lack of substance in claims that the secure frame has been shown to have a privileged status, Communicative theory might do well to take this observation fully on board. The implications of values do not have a truth status in themselves. However, if certain values are held in common by group members, then their implications are objectively present in the group culture as socially constructed meanings. This applies even if such implications are dissonant with alternate values – and perhaps disavowed by individuals.

For instance, in the case of the therapist-patient group (a dyad) many ‘secure frame’ values can be encapsulated in deep-rooted principles such as keeping to agreements, keeping to the confines of social role, and non-intrusiveness. It would be unsurprising if their implications were part of the shared therapist-patient culture, albeit moderated and flatly contradicted by other therapist or patient values. If there were a tendency for patients’ material to analogically correspond with the therapeutic environment, part of that environment would be the culture of the therapist-patient dyad – including perhaps these ‘secure frame’ implications.


The burden of this article is that lack of clarity in the central claims of Communicative psychoanalysis has served to obscure the challenges faced by its proponents. There has been a failure to set out what these claims mean in terms of observable data, and this runs counter to its advocates’ espousal of a ‘scientific’ approach (Langs 1992; Smith 1991a). Addressing this is vital, both in order to avoid circular argumentation and rhetoric, and to embark on sound experimentation.

The article outlines a way in which in which such a project might be taken forward. In particular, it is suggested that the notion of ‘derivatives’ can be recast in terms of the skewing of sets of narratives and behavioural interactions towards analogical correspondence with the therapeutic situation. I have shown how this allows (a) consideration of how claims that such phenomena are prevalent might be investigated, and (b) clarification and assessment of claims for ‘the secure frame’. In addition, I have clarified some of the logical links and disjunctions between various theoretical constructions of Communicative psychoanalysis, so that unjustified presumptions and assumptions can in future be avoided.

I have also indicated some of the common ground between Langs’s work and that in small group psychology. The similarities between independent findings, however tentative, in Communicative psychoanalysis and in the study of analogical correspondences in small group discourse, lend weight to the case for further research in both fields. In addition the differences between the findings in these disparate fields could prove a further spur to examining their theoretical and evidential foundations.



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