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A question of tone

I love listening to stories, always have.

As a biodynamic craniosacral therapist I so appreciate that initial contact when clients tell me about what led them to reach out for my help.

They're opening a doorway to a 'once upon a time' and a 'now' that is often quite harrowing to step into.

It takes great skill and practice to stay compassionately present to some of the ‘normalised’ trauma clients have lived with, without sounding affected by it in such a way that may trigger anxiety, shame and/or a fight/flight response.

The tone of the voice (not just the contents of our language), as Stephen Porges’polyvagal theory reminds us, is a powerful trigger of the autonomous nervous system.

I have noticed that my tone reflects how grounded and embodied I am. When it is calmly, effortlessly present, clients respond more easily to personal questions.

But I have also remarked that at times, I can pick up on my client’s fear of opening up, their self censorship as it were and, in an effort not to overwhelm them and contain it, I refrain and restrain my questioning. I concentrate on ensuring they feel safe enough to let the body do the talking instead.

It is quite an interesting dance to which I am continually attuning and learning from.

As a child I remember my grandfather telling me stories, and cradling me to sleep with his beautiful tobacco-smoked tone. His voice was a rich paradox of bass roughness and softly fluid delivery. It flowed from deep within his being and drew me to my own intimacy. I felt safely contained to the tunes of this familiar melody.

The tale invariably was Alphonse Daudet’s The goat of Mr Seguin: it spoke of the most beautiful, white as snow, fierce goat, who spent her days tied to a stake "with a long rope" for fear she should escape to the mountains. Mr Seguin’s six previous goats had done so and were eaten by the wolf, so he treated his seventh, Blanquette, like royalty in the hope she would not grow bored and run off to the wild.

But she too tires of the same grass and the same fenced in field and longs to explore the wilderness beyond. She stops eating and loses weight and energy. Mr Seguin notices her mood change and asks her what is happening, if he can make things better for her in any way. He then warns her of the tragic fate of the other goats and that she will surely suffer the same ending. In vein, she has made up her mind. Mr Seguin then decides to lock her up in the stable and, as he forgets to close a window, Blanquette escapes.

This is the best part of the tale: Blanquette’s thrill and enjoyment of her new found freedom. She explores nature and savours every wild moment, until twilight comes, and as Mr Seguin is blowing his horn in the distance, the wolf is howling nearby. She knows her fate is sealed. The brave goat fights all night against the wolf but surrenders to her death at sunrise.

My grandfather was a great story teller. I remember enjoying jumping across torrents, smelling and feasting on every succulent plant, and relishing my time in the wild mountains with Blanquette. I was also with her— or was I ‘her’?— when the wolf howled, when they fought all night and when she died.

I can still remember how my throat contracted and my gut tightened.

Despite its sad ending and confusing undertones, feeding or instilling manipulative attachment patterns, I actually thrillingly nestled into the cosiness of my bed when my grandfather announced he was narrating that tale. I often requested it in fact.

I know it is because of who he was and how I loved him but it is also because of how he said it. His voice slowly articulated each syllable and had a granular velvety texture that I held onto like a tender hook. I felt safe in its vibes.

Ever since I have resonated to similarly soft and grainy vocal textures, like talismans of safety, harbingers of trust and joy.

He was particularly fond of wolf stories come to think of it and the other tale I remember him narrating was Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood. I was terrified but I loved listening to it too.

As Stephen Porges tells us through his polyvagal theory, our ventral vagus nerve switches on to the peculiar tone of voices, and to particular sounds and music that stimulate our middle ear, engaging the social engagement side of our parasympathetic system.

So although the contents of the story triggered fight or flight type sympathetic responses like shortness of breath and contraction of muscles, it also stimulated my parasympathetic system bypassing the freeze response so that I also felt safe. This is what Porges calls the ideal combination of a socially engaged “immobilisation”.

This is what we as therapists need to nurture in ourselves and in our clients.

But what really motivates us to refrain from asking the harder, more prodding questions sometimes?

The tale of the white goat is a case in point here as the farmer acts out of fear of losing his goat and no matter how much precaution he takes, no matter how kind he is and how many warnings he give, she nevertheless decides to flee.

Sometimes our fear of losing a client may get in the way and confuse us. We may dress up this fear with some great therapeutic reasons but it can be very helpful to ask oneself this question: is my fear of triggering really going to serve my client?

I have had such an experience with a patient. I could perceive how overwhelming this patient’s story was, so much so that it was never really spoken about in detail.

I respected the relational space and the boundaries of this spoken exchange trusting that the body would reveal more and that an inherent treatment plan would naturally emerge.

There were forces of coherence towards wholeness expressing, there were stillpoints, there was change happening even though this client rarely felt much.

One week, the personal circumstances of this client took a more difficult turn and I was asked to stop my craniosacral treatments after seven sessions.

To this day I do not know the exact trauma story of this client and I wonder whether I should have asked more questions and why I did not.

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