Podcasting as Therapy 04

Improvising a Podcast Recording in Kohn Kaen, Thailand

In a world dominated by celebrity, hyper-individualism and look-at-me models of political and business success, it’s no surprise that those who find it most easy to engage in personality projection and extraversion find it easier to engage in the winner-takes-all mentality of politics and business.

The advice that is given to our young people, when we encourage them to learn about the personality traits that led to success in the business or political realm, is to find a prominent, heroic figure that we admire, and then to model themselves on their most forthcoming traits.

The problem with this approach is that the most extroverted traits that these role-models exhibit and project across mass-media networks, are not necessarily those that define success or capability. They define a public presence, certainly, but they do not necessarily account for what actually makes something work in practice.

Indeed, once you strip away the veneer of public personality, ego and persona-projection, a much more complex and complicated personality is uncovered. Full of doubts, anxiety, misjudgements, or in more extreme cases, narcotism or delusion.

If there is nothing below the surface of public projection of personality, if there is a lack of humility or authenticity, then often the defining trait of a prominent individual is focussed on guile and the ability of the so-called successful individual to manipulate and co-opt more capable individuals to do their bidding.

So I’m weary of using networking and role-modelling as long-term approach to personal or social development in my work. What we need, instead, is a more critical and reflexive outlook that questions and challenges the prominence of certain archetypal ‘strong’ personalities, and diminishes the value of other, more ‘collaborative’ personality traits.

I once did an experiment with some students who volunteered to record and share a short, reflective video blog about a topic that they were interested in. With the help of an online personality test  the students had previously self-identified if they understood themselves to be extrovert or introvert.

Two participants stood out for their responses. The first to record a vlog was a very outward-looking young guy who was captain of the student football team, liked to go to the student union social nights, and was bright and alert when he interacted with people, both casually and when working in a group.

The second participant seemed typically introverted, quiet and reserved. He never instigated a conversation, generally kept himself to himself, and was most often sat by himself rather than throwing himself into a group discussion and interaction.

Each agreed to record a short presentation as a vlog about something that they cared about and liked to do. The aim was to explain what that topic was and how they understood it, and what others might get from learning about it.

Playing the videos back to the class – with the permission of the participants – was illuminating. The first, more extrovert student made a great start. He made a direct appeal to the viewer and was confident in what he had to say. The only problem was that this lasted about thirty seconds before he lost his train of thought and finished the recording.

The second student, in contrast, while not brimming with personality, was able to talk continuously for over two minutes, and would have gone on for longer if the time limit had not been strictly imposed. He described a detailed and rich set of thoughts and ideas and was able to follow a narrative thread without deflecting into other topics. None of which he related through his own sense of self-importance.

What was instructive for me, moreover, was when we discussed this as a group, and we noted the difference between the two vlogs. According to the other students, one appeared trustworthy and the other did not. One was interesting because he had something to say about a topic, while the other was revealed as being somewhat over-self-regarding.

What happened next was fascinating. The first student suddenly flushed red, before recovering his composure. I caught this in a glance, and it made me realise that this was potentially an important learning opportunity for both students.

Firstly, because it suggested a level of self-reflection happening as a live process there and then; and secondly, because perhaps for the first time, the first student realised that social success is not simply determined by how capable we are of projecting our personalities, but is instead defined by what we contribute over the longer term.

In our discussion, the second student didn’t exhibit any concern about social validation for what he had recorded in the vlog. There was a quiet confidence that had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. But it would be your loss if you overlooked his potential talents and insights.

The reason I’ve related this story is because it illustrates a divide that exists in our understanding of social communication and the fact that we are biased towards extroverted expression as a default virtue and norm of social and media communication.

It’s my regard, however, that we are in danger of excluding and missing out on the contribution that more introverted colleagues can and do make, and that if we don’t explore and understand the role of the introverted personality in more practical terms, then we aren’t going to be able to move on from the sterile and narrow mass media environment that dominates at the present.

I like what Carl Jung says:

“A man must needs have a very clouded vision or must regard human society from a very misty distance, to cherish the view that a uniform distribution of happiness can be won through the uniform regulation of life. Such a man must already be somewhat deluded if he can really cling to the notion, for instance, that the same amount of income, or the same amount of external opportunities of life, must posses approximately the same significance for all. But what would such a legislator do with all those for whom life’s greatest possibility lies not without, but within?”

My concern, then, is to try to map out how podcasting can be used and practiced as a form of social communication that allows for reflection, learning and introspection goes against the grain of our extroverted culture. Indeed, I’d suggest that extroverts would do well to listen to and understand the introverted functions, because the world of social media, smartphones, gaming, and so on, is a symbolically constructed world of ideas and imaginings, not an external world of senses and actions.

While advances in pharmacology and neuroscience are continually challenging and changing the way that we think about the function of our brains, it is notable that some of the inherited and basic techniques of psychotherapy are still the most effective form of engagement for many people. Psychotherapy before it became a codified and technically defined practice was more commonly called the Talking Cure.

Getting people talking about their inner-experiences, how they feel, what dreams they have, what concepts dominate their mental frameworks are all common practice, both in medicalised psychotherapy and in self-help personal management.

We aren’t computers. Our brains are neither ‘wired’ or ‘programmed.’ We are, instead, the product of evolution, of environmental conditioning, of socialisation, of nurturing, of conflict, of pain, of joy and of hope. We are both the product of our biological evolution and the product of our shared experience. We are social animals to whom our perceived individuality is a profound strength, but also one of our most obvious weaknesses.

One technique that is worth exploring to see how this works in practice is the talkaoke. A talkaoke consists, simple, of pass-the-mic. Get a group of people together and discuss a topic. Each person gets an opportunity to record a thought and to make an observation. Sitting in a circle, the one rule, as in many group therapy sessions, is that everyone listens while the person with the microphone is speaking.

The difference between a talkaoke and a group discussion session is that it is recorded, and that participants will have the opportunity to listen back to the recording. Indeed, the listening back, firstly as individuals, then as a group, is the most important part, as this is where externalised reflection starts to take place.

In a therapy session the therapist is the guide to reflection, encouraging the participant to listen to themselves and to understand how they are approaching issues. By recording a talkaoke or podcast, the addition of a recording be taken by the participants to and listened to again for their own personal reflection.

This implies that people have three primary capabilities. Firstly, to speak, secondly to listen, and thirdly to reflect. William James called thinking a ‘gesture’ of enunciation. He recognised that each part of this process is undertaken in thinking.

To think we have to distil conscious and sub-conscious processes and urges, but to recognise this as thinking we have to be able to put it into a symbolic form – i.e. language. Language is borne from symbolic social interaction in which we try to define and communicate potential lines of action, and to work with others in a social environment to achieve those lines of action.

Enunciation is vital, then, to how we interact meaningfully with others, but also how we interact meaningfully with ourselves. As Carl Jung says,

“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”

My starting point in producing my own podcasts, then, is to:

  • Reflect on my own experiences, even though others might not find this immediately relevant.
  • Sit participants in a circle around a set of microphones.
  • Make sure, where possible, that everyone wears headphones. I use a headphone amplifier/splitter with plenty of outputs.
  • Usually I act as a host to get topics underway, but as the host I have to recognise that I can’t police what people talk about and want to express – except to avoid slander and defamation, or to avoid contempt of court.
  • One of the advantages of wearing headphones, is that it ensures that participants in the discussion don’t talk over one another or engage in side-conversations.
  • Headphones if used properly focus the participants attention as a listener, though it takes time to learn this skill.

Generally, I try not to worry about time because what is more important is that the podcast recording processes, which is different from other radio techniques, allows people time to develop their points and ideas, and to explore them in more detail from their respective experiential positions.

The crucial emphasis on hearing other voices through the headphones is supported with the experience of hearing one’s own voice as well. For many participants who are new to this process, this takes time to get used to hearing oneself, but I’ve seen people who had been adamant that they can’t listen in this way slowly begin to hear themselves, perhaps for the first time.

The conversations generally take about one hour, as I find that is the natural time that we can maintain focussed thinking, listening and speaking, but there are no limits, so I’d allow the conversation to go on as long as necessary if it is engaging for all participants.

The advantage of podcasting is that it is relatively simple to post and share feeds to the recordings, update them and share them publicly or in a group. Encouraging participants to listen back to the discussion, and to reflect on the conversation helps to externalise our perceptions of how competent we are as individuals with something to say.

I know from my own experience that I used to be much less confident about the ideas and thoughts I would put forward in a discussion, but hearing and listening to a recording has helped me to feel less insecure about what I was trying to convey and the way that I was putting it across.

Usually people have not heard their own voices before, and many people are shy about expressing their views in public. The advantage about a podcast is that while it can be heard by many people, most likely it will only be listened to by a few dedicated people who are interested in the topics of discussion.

This is not mass media, it is social media. If I am asked how many people listen to my podcasts I always say I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know, and I don’t care. To paraphrase John Ruskin, it’s not what we get in producing podcasts, but what we become in producing podcasts that we should be attentive to.

So, my tips for hosting a conversational podcast are:

  • Think about how your participants. Have they participated in a structured conversation before, with turn-taking and respect for all views?
  • Allow people to speak as little, but not as much, as they wish.
  • If participants take-over the interaction, and are asking questions about one another’s views, then the social exchange has entered a spontaneous phase, be careful not to shut it down prematurely.
  • This is about facilitating discussion, not controlling it.
  • Sometimes, difficult or contentious views will be articulated. These should not go unacknowledged or unchallenged, but should be supportively encouraged to explain and retrace the origin of these views and the terms that they are expressed in.
  • Don’t do any editing of the audio file unless absolutely necessary. Before a podcast is recorded remind participants that they will need to self-edit to avoid slandering others, or leaving themselves exposed by revealing personal information that they want to keep confidential.
  • Most important, ask participants to listen back to the recording once it is posted online. Find out of they are able to follow the thread of the conversation and the expression of thoughts as they occur and are verbalised?
  • What is thinking? According to William James it is a gesture, and that we haven’t really thought about something until we have spoken it, i.e. articulated it.

To sum up, my interest in exploring this process further is because podcasting strips away the spectacle of images, which are encumbered with a myriad of preconceived assumptions that go with them. Podcasting, as an outgrowth of radio practice, focusses on the voice in isolation, which in turn challenges us to use more traditional, aural skills of social engagement from the long-established oral traditions.

However, we need to do more work to understand the emergent and participative process of producing podcasts, and think about how reflection can encouraged not only in the process of podcast recording, but also in the process of social interaction that it represents. We need to understand what the process of review and reflection does/addresses when people listen to their contributions and the contributions of others. We need to understand what non-participant listeners get from listening to a conversation style podcast, as well as those who take part in the process itself.

Rather than presenting the function of podcasting as a sub-category of media forms, industrial practices, or technological change, we need examined podcasting within a framework of reflection and mindfulness, and meaning-making, in other words, as a therapeutic process with healing potential.