“It sounds silly now but it was important then”: supporting the significance of a personal experience in psychotherapy

The article examines a previously undocumented practice whereby psychotherapy clients support the significance of their experience against the background of how it can otherwise be heard. This practice is the phrase “it sounds X, but Y” (e.g., “which sounds silly now, but was like important then”). We call this an SXB-contrast. We used conversation analysis to examine 21 instances of this phenomenon, identified in 12 audio-recorded individual psychotherapy sessions involving 10 clients and 8 therapists. Clients use SXB-contrasts to mark part of their talk as delicate, specifically by voicing an unsympathetic hearing of that talk whilst supporting its experiential significance. Evidence for our claims comes from clients’ use of SXB-contrasts in association with practices of speech delivery (e.g., laughter) and self-repair operations which also establish a part of their talk as delicate. Therapist responses provide additional supporting evidence. The study contributes to understanding how clients can use meta-talk to convey the meaning of their experiences in therapy whilst also making available their own emerging awareness of the multiple meanings of those experiences.