Brief Encounter

Four years ago, in a restaurant in East Palo Alto, California, three people were eating soup. One of them was Karin Schlanger, who left Argentina in her 20s to come to the U.S. Another was Thomas Madson, principal of the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, an inner-city high school he cofounded in a California community that hadn’t had a high school in almost 30 years. The third—we’ll call her Adriana—was the reason they were all there. Over the summer, she had been raped and decided she wasn’t going back to school.

 

Why would she? Her school wasn’t big—just a couple hundred students—so people would find out. Adriana had known Madson since she was in elementary school. Madson had already tried to convince her to come back for her -freshman year, but she wouldn’t. So he called -Schlanger, a brief therapist. 

 

Schlanger didn’t try to get Adriana to continue her education. “I completely understand that you don’t want to trust me,” Schlanger told Adriana as she slowly sipped her soup. “I understand that you want to leave, because this is a very embarrassing situation. You don’t want your friends to know. You’re pissed at your mother. And if you’re willing to talk about it further, you know where to find me.”

 

Adriana looked at Schlanger. “Something about this lady is different,” she thought. They met in private two days later. The next week, school started—and Adriana was there. Schlanger met with -Adriana at school once a week for the rest of the year, working on whatever came up—a fight with a friend or a new relationship that -reawakened old fears. A year after the rape, they planned a ceremony to help Adriana release the past, though Adriana called it off at the last minute. “It was okay,” says -Schlanger, “because she was in control of what she wanted to do.”
 

 What really mattered was putting Adriana back in charge of her life. Adriana joined the student council and eventually stopped meeting with Schlanger. She no longer needed to.

 

As director of the Brief Therapy Center at Palo Alto’s Mental Research Institute (MRI), Schlanger practices a type of counseling that focuses on the present and the future rather than the past and helps clients overcome immediate challenges by drawing out already-existing strengths. In lengthier forms of talk therapy, it often takes months or years to uncover and address a problem. Brief -therapists try to compress that process into a few days or weeks, though clients can -continue to meet with the therapist for as long as they wish. “It’s not necessarily about being brief,” says Schlanger. “It’s about not opening [unnecessary] doors.”

 

Brief doesn’t mean rushed. Rather, it means prioritizing what’s relevant and helpful in the here and now. If I saw a brief therapist about feeling stressed at work, for example, she wouldn’t be interested in uncovering patterns of childhood perfectionism or the roots of deeply buried complexes. She would try to help me notice moments of calm and ease already present in my life and find ways to enhance them. Brief therapists recognize that the client is the expert on his or her own life.

 

 Read the rest of this article on why brief therapy is increasingly popular, and is changing the lives of many young students. Click here and get your free digital November/December issue of the Intelligent Optimist.

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Brief Encounter

Four years ago, in a restaurant in East Palo Alto, California, three people were eating soup. One of them was Karin Schlanger, who left Argentina in her 20s to come to the U.S. Another was Thomas Madson, principal of the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, an inner-city high school he cofounded in a California community that hadn’t had a high school in almost 30 years. The third—we’ll call her Adriana—was the reason they were all there. Over the summer, she had been raped and decided she wasn’t going back to school.

 

Why would she? Her school wasn’t big—just a couple hundred students—so people would find out. Adriana had known Madson since she was in elementary school. Madson had already tried to convince her to come back for her -freshman year, but she wouldn’t. So he called -Schlanger, a brief therapist. 

 

Schlanger didn’t try to get Adriana to continue her education. “I completely understand that you don’t want to trust me,” Schlanger told Adriana as she slowly sipped her soup. “I understand that you want to leave, because this is a very embarrassing situation. You don’t want your friends to know. You’re pissed at your mother. And if you’re willing to talk about it further, you know where to find me.”

 

Adriana looked at Schlanger. “Something about this lady is different,” she thought. They met in private two days later. The next week, school started—and Adriana was there. Schlanger met with -Adriana at school once a week for the rest of the year, working on whatever came up—a fight with a friend or a new relationship that -reawakened old fears. A year after the rape, they planned a ceremony to help Adriana release the past, though Adriana called it off at the last minute. “It was okay,” says -Schlanger, “because she was in control of what she wanted to do.”
 

 What really mattered was putting Adriana back in charge of her life. Adriana joined the student council and eventually stopped meeting with Schlanger. She no longer needed to.

 

As director of the Brief Therapy Center at Palo Alto’s Mental Research Institute (MRI), Schlanger practices a type of counseling that focuses on the present and the future rather than the past and helps clients overcome immediate challenges by drawing out already-existing strengths. In lengthier forms of talk therapy, it often takes months or years to uncover and address a problem. Brief -therapists try to compress that process into a few days or weeks, though clients can -continue to meet with the therapist for as long as they wish. “It’s not necessarily about being brief,” says Schlanger. “It’s about not opening [unnecessary] doors.”

 

Brief doesn’t mean rushed. Rather, it means prioritizing what’s relevant and helpful in the here and now. If I saw a brief therapist about feeling stressed at work, for example, she wouldn’t be interested in uncovering patterns of childhood perfectionism or the roots of deeply buried complexes. She would try to help me notice moments of calm and ease already present in my life and find ways to enhance them. Brief therapists recognize that the client is the expert on his or her own life.

 

 Read the rest of this article on why brief therapy is increasingly popular, and is changing the lives of many young students. Click here and get your free digital November/December issue of the Intelligent Optimist.

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