Salter’s Emotional Exercises
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2008-2010. All rights reserved.
In 1949, the hypnotherapist and early behaviour therapist Andrew Salter published Conditioned Reflex Therapy, essentially the first book on assertiveness training, although he did not use that term himself at this stage. These are Salter’s six “emotional exercises” or techniques of “conditioning excitatory responses.” He says, “they are so interdependent and commingled, that by practising any one of them, the subject, in effect, is learning all of the others.” (Salter, 1949: 57). Time magazine, reviewing his book, conveniently summarised Salter’s exercises as follows,
Let Yourself Go.
For an “inhibited” patient, Salter prescribes “excitatory” exercises.
 First & foremost is “feeling-talk.” The sentence, “Today is Friday” is dry, inhibited “fact-talk.” Salter would rather hear his patient getting some emotional outlet by saying, “Thank heavens, today is Friday and the weekend is here.”
 There is also “facial talk“: if a cat purrs when it is happy and a dog howls when its paw is stepped on, so should a man—or at any rate, scowl.
 From this it is a mere step to another Salter prescription: “Contradict and attack. When you differ with someone, do not simulate agreeability.”
 Salter insists on deliberate use of the word / as much as possible [“I talk”] (his book is full of it).
 Mock modesty is all nonsense: “Express agreement when you are praised.” [Agree with praise.]
 Finally, “Don’t plan. Live for the next minute… and tomorrow will take care of itself.” [Improvise.]
(Time Magazine, Oct. 10, 1949, formatting added.)
1) Feeling Talk: Verbalise your feelings more directly.
Firstly, and most importantly, express your feelings directly through words and action at all times. Be emotionally honest. Salter advises us simply to remove the “roadblocks between the heart and the tongue.”
Our golden rule is emotional truth, even if it means risking expediency. There is no harm in honouring social amenities and ethical conventions when they do not oppose our feelings. But we most forego premeditated utterances, and say what we feel, when we feel it. (Salter, 1949: 58)
This is the essence of Salter’s whole ideal of emotional health and well-being. “In a sense, feeling-talk means only to be emotionally outspoken.” (Salter, 1949: 57). The hypnotist Gil Boyne said, in a similar vein, “Revelation breeds intimacy.”
Most people try to deal with awkward feelings by suppressing them. Salter thought that, on the contrary, it was better to express our feelings honestly and deal with the consequences. He refers to this as healthy, emotional “small talk”, because we need to learn that our feelings are never trivial,
I want you to be emotional about facts, and let your emotions run your mind as nature intended. Let everybody know everything, because everything is important. All small talk is big talk to us. (Salter, 1949: 117)
It is important to note that there is a difference between the deliberate, though spontaneous, expression of emotion, and the compulsive and involuntary expression of it. It could be argued that this technique resembles that of “symptom prescription,” insofar as the voluntary and deliberate expression of emotion may bring about an increasing sense of control over the way the emotions are discharged, i.e., increasing emotional maturity and intelligence. By inhibiting emotion we lose control over them, but by exhibiting them we gain mastery of them.
To be blindly outspoken is not sufficient. What matters is what we are outspoken about. The psychological liberation accomplished by the political and intellectual analyticism in our better circles is precisely zero. The world of the intellect cannot bite back emotionally, and it is usually a futile exercise in rationalisation. It is emotional small talk that is of the greatest psychological importance. What I am advising is not so much being honest, as being emotionally basic. It is our original primitive reactions that count. (Salter, 1949: 145)
People who try to inhibit their emotions and maintain a cool exterior, by contrast, may retard the development of emotional intelligence and the social skills required to express emotion in a healthy manner.
2) Facial Talk: Talk with your face more.
The “poker face” isn’t just found in poker. The face is perhaps the most natural vehicle for the expression of emotion. Hence, the philosopher Wittgenstein said that the human face is the best picture we have of the human soul.
More of the brain’s motor cortex is devoted to facial movement than any other part of the body. The first consequence of emotional inhibition, however, is the “freezing” of emotion out of the facial muscles, or the habit of wearing an emotional mask. Salter, by contrast, called facial talk: “being emotionally Gallic.” He encouraged his clients to let their emotions play freely over their face. Not just to tell people how they feel but also to show them by the look in their eyes.
Actors know how important facial expressions are; the facial movements influence the expressive tone of the voice and add richness to our experience of another person. Children and animals do not hesitate to express emotion in their faces. Salter recommended recapturing this naïveté of natural facial expression.
3) Contradict & Attack: Confront people emotionally over disagreements.
This part of Salter’s prescription is closest to what most people would mean by “assertiveness.” The proverb goes that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Salter argued, on the contrary, that both “vinegar” and “honey”, in your speech, can be attractive when used authentically. Salter believed that fundamentally, though honeyed words might win fair-weather friends, at the end of the day people respect honesty and are attracted to integrity. The dichotomy between reasoned debate and emotional expression is a false one, they are not mutually exclusive.
When you differ with someone, do not simulate agreeability. Instead, externalise feeling, and contradict on an unprovable emotional basis. At first blush, this would seem to obstruct intelligent controversy. Actually, it only means interspersing emotional content among bare facts. (Ibid.: 58-59)
Let people know when you object to something, because silence is collusion. To keep quiet when you disagree with something is nothing less than a lie of omission. To know how and when to be silent is itself a form of rhetoric, a communication skill; therefore to misuse silence is a form of active miscommunication.
4) I Talk: Use the word “I” more often to express your feelings and views.
I like this idea! Frequent use of the first-person subjective pronoun (“I”) allows you to express your own thoughts and feelings more directly and actively. People often distance themselves from their emotions by speaking in impersonal language. We also deaden language when we use circumlocutions, such as avoiding “I”.
The inhibitory are well liked by those who are not close to them. […] They are often colourless, dull, and boring. They avoid the word “I” as being in bad taste. Instead, they say, “shouldn’t one”, and “oughtn’t one.” They mean, “should I”, and “ought I.” (Salter, 1949: 20)
Salter introduced this idea, which was later assimilated into both the Gestalt psychotherapy of Fritz Perls, as discussed in his Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, and the REBT of Albert Ellis.
5) Agree with Praise: Verbally and explicitly accept deserved praise.
This complements Salter’s third exercise: “Contradict and Attack.” Honeyed words have their place, when they are sincerely meant. However, for the inhibited, Salter argues that charity must begin at home, and healthy self-praise should be cultivated before attempting to praise others. When someone congratulates you, don’t ignore, dismiss, belittle, or reject their words, have the decency to agree with them in plain language and sincerely.
When you reflect praise like a mirror, the giver of the compliment will not deny it. The recipient, finding his self-praise accepted by the environment, develops increased emotional freedom. This is an excellent self-conditioning. Praise of self should also be volunteered, and with straightforward naïveté. (Ibid.: 59)
Note that Salter is not talking about arrogant self-indulgence. He means, “Praise where praise is due.” His advice is based on the astute observation that inhibited people tend to shrink when praised or to dismiss it with a flippant remark. The uninhibited person, by contrast, should be able to openly accept well-founded compliments and take a healthy pride in their own merits. From this basis, they will be better able to praise other people and genuinely mean it.
6) Improvise: Think on your feet more in conversation.
This means decisiveness and the courage to make (non-catastrophic) mistakes. The neurotic is caught on the “see-saw of indecision.” He over-analyses things in the most unhelpful way possible. He tries to solve his problems by thinking about them, but his obsessive “thinking”, analysing, and worrying is actually at the root of his problem.
The happy person does not waste time thinking. Self-control comes from no control at all. The excitatory act, without thinking. The inhibitory think, without acting […] The ability to absorb shocks comes from not being rigid. The excitatory person is relaxed and spontaneous, and takes things as they come. His snap judgements and his whims and improvisations, are not manufactured from thin air. They are the expression of the full individual. (Salter, 1949: 14)
The uninhibited person is not rash, but he is comfortable making quick decisions when it is appropriate to do so. As most people suffer from procrastination, he inevitably finds himself thinking on his feet more and more the less inhibited he becomes.