Protecting against black magic: ‘people always respond’

People always respond

Michael White already mentioned this when he talked about having helping conversations with people who have gone through a traumatic experience.

I am often reminded of this.

Also in conversations about issues that are simply difficult to deal with for people, or painful, or have been so.

Worries that overshadow your life. Despair. Fear. Fights. Feelings of failure. A threat. Memories that haunt you. A coghost-bottle2ntext in which you are continuously being evaluated.

When people talk about their painful or hard experiences, they put themselves at risk: Memories which are far too painful may be awoken, as well as: painful conclusions about one’s identity (in terms of failure, weakness …), about the world, about the future.

Talking is more than just communicating. Did they teach you this as well: that ‘communication’ is about a ‘transmitter’ sending ‘information’ to a ‘receiver’? Well, this might hold true for a weather report, but is it also true when we are talking about the things that really matter to us? What happens then might be more like magic. White magic, or black magic.

Talking awakens. Genies come out of their bottles. And when you speak about painful stuff, the genie that comes out of the bottle may hurt us.

People always respond.

This is what Michael White meant:

  • People always react. People will always do something to respond to the things that are coming at them.
  • People will always do something, in response to
    • what is threatening to happen to them (i.e. to try and avoid it);
    • what is happening to them (to try and exert some kind of influence on it);
    • what has happened to them, to limit the damage sustained or to get back on their feet.


No matter how much impact the difficult situation might have,

No matter how significant the feeling of powerlessness might be,

No matter how serious the consequences might be,

No matter how young the victim might be,

assume that people will always try to exert some kind of influence in order to avoid bad stuff, to limit the damage, to pick up on one’s life.


Muster all the courage you can find to ask about it, and to keep on asking about it.

So, People always respond.

This motto invites us to

  • not only zoom in on the sense of powerlessness experienced by your conversation partner;
  • not only create a space in which to express one’s experiences about being helpless;
  • not only offer acknowledgement for this (important) dimension of their experience.


This motto invites us to also be curious about the initiatives – no matter how small – that people have taken (or are taking):

  • ‘So, what did you do then?’;
  • ‘What have you tried to …?’;
  • ‘So, what did you think?’;
  • ‘What have you done or tried to do in the hope that it might make a difference (even if only slightly)?’;
  • What have you considered doing (even though you finally did not do it, because it did not seem a good idea in the end)?;
  • ‘Do you think that you are doing things, at this point in your life, to reduce the influence of what happened to you then? And to lead a life which is in line with what you think is important, or like to do or enjoy?;


Show curiosity about the slightest initiative or idea or consideration or inclination in an attempt to try

  • to avoid it, or
  • to limit the impact during and after.


Also when this initiative or idea or inclination has not had the desired effect.

Also when the person spontaneously assigns no meaning to this.

I was visiting some people again. I paid them a visit once a month. They were concerned about one of their children (as well as her children), as there was some domestic violence going on.

During the visit, the grandchildren happened to be there as well. They were watching TV while we were talking. Then, one granddaughter walks in. She is of primary school age. Grandmother says: ‘It’s no fun when daddy and mommy fight, eh, Babette?’

Babette: ‘No.’

Johan (‘People always respond’): ‘Babette, when your daddy and mommy fight, what do you do?’

Babette: ‘I turn up the TV. Or I go to my room and put on music. And I dance.’

Johan: ‘Who taught you that?’

Babette: ‘I got this from my friends at school. They have parents that are divorced.’

Johan: ‘You guys talk about this?’

Babette: ‘We give each other tips.’

Johan: ‘Do you sometimes think about how you would like to do things when you’re all grown up and living together with someone?’

Babette: ‘I would talk more … Oh yes, we also play with the kids from next door. They’re here every two weeks because their parents are divorced.’

Instead of zooming in on the experience of powerlessness, we can consciously zigzag between experiences of being powerless and experiences of trying to exert some influence.

Doing so provides your conversation partner with some solid ground. A specific kind of ground, a kind of identity ground, different from the watery, slippery identity ground where we end up when we start talking about painful circumstances without protection.swamp

Miriam and I explore the effects of the ‘feelings of depression’ on her life. During the course of the conversation, I note down the effects on the whiteboard. A column of all the effects that the ‘feelings of depression’ are having on her life, her body, her relationships, her thinking …

Johan: ‘When people have to deal with these kinds of circumstances, in their desperation they sometimes go out and try things, in the hope that something might get better, even by a little. Can you tell me if there is something that you have tried during the past few months, in the hope that you might be able to leave this behind you? Whether it has made a difference or not, it doesn’t matter: I am interested in everything you may have tried or thought of.’ I draw a line on the whiteboard for a new column, entitled: ‘things done or tried.’

Miriam: Well … all kinds of stuff. Nothing worked.

Johan: Like what?

Miriam: Flower remedies. Pills. Sleeping. I even went to the tanning salon a couple of times because my sister-in-law said that I needed some sunlight. But absolutely nothing helped.

Johan: Can I ask you about the flower remedies?

Miriam: (nods)

Johan: How did you arrive at the idea: ‘maybe flower remedies might help?’

Miriam: It had been helpful before, when I went through my burnout from my job.

Johan: Can you tell me more about that? How did you arrive at the idea to try that? And what did you experience, or discover that it did with you? Or what did it enable you to do?

Miriam: A friend had recommended it to me, back then.

Johan: Your friend recommended it to you … So, how did you take that first step to try it out? Was it easy for you?

Miriam: I was willing to try anything. I just wanted to be myself again, the real Miriam.

Johan: So that was your goal. Can I ask you something about that, about the real Miriam? What kind of person is she?

Our curiosity about the responding will help to identify a number of those responses.good ground

And that creates a starting point for a bit of white magic, for a form of talking that might awaken some other things: other memories and other conclusions about yourself; some solid ground to stand on.

Then it pays off to have some conversation tools available which allow you to help the other person give meaning to that particular ‘little’ initiative or attempt. Then we might discover that, instead, it actually was meaningful. Then some conclusions about one’s self that are nice and dignified and exciting and hopeful might be drawn.

On its own, this has value, but it also gives people further opportunity to put into words some of the misery that exists in their lives, without it bringing them further down.

Those conversation tools, that is fodder for another article altogether.

People always respond.


In a conversation about challenging situations or dilemmas, let us talk about

  • the difficult circumstances and;
  • what people have done or thought, in order to respond, to safeguard themselves, to protect something that is important to them, to try and exert some kind of influence in the face of counterforces, to (try to) recover from some major impact, to reshape their lives according to their own preferences.


When we get an opportunity to talk about  our responding, the following elements may be awakened:

  • An experience of being at the steering wheel;
  • An experience of trying to exert influence;
  • An experience of what the person gives value to, treasures, i.e. wants, hopes, desires, personal preferences, ethical principles, intentions …
  • A sense of trying to intervene in one’s life for the greater glory of what one considers vitally important.


How valuable is this: an experience of being able to step in or intervene in your own life, based on what you think is important and your intentions …?

People always respond.


Johan Van de Putte




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Johan Van de Putte

Johan Van de Putte is a psychologist with 25 years of experience in holding helping conversations. His focus goes out to molding conversations that are identity-friendly, that explore what sparkles in the life and the person of your conversation partner, and that maintain an awareness of the unequal distribution of power in the therapeutic relationship.

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