The Role of Rhetoric in Adventure Therapy

(This is the edited transcript of a presentation Fritz gave to the Fort Lewis College Adventure Therapy class).

As an adventure therapist, the most important tool that you have for making a difference in your client’s life is rhetoric.

By rhetoric, I mean your ability to persuade people to participate in a challenge activity for the sake of their personal growth. According to Aristotle, there are three ways that this happens.

Taking the next step

First, logos: facts, proof, hard skills. In an adventure setting, this means you know it and you show it.  Nobody trusts a belayer who has to fiddle with their rewoven bowline for five minutes on the edge of a cliff. (Ask me  sometime about my staff member who had trouble dressing her knots.) To gain a kid’s trust and persuade them to take the first step toward growth, you need to have your hard skills beyond-dialed so that they know that you know your stuff.

Second, pathos: emotional appeals. In the world of rhetoric, this refers to persuasion that relies on emotion instead of logic. Please note that this does not entail manipulation — no true therapist will cajole or shame their client into accepting a challenge. Instead, I view pathos in a broader sense: interpersonal soft-skills. You need to have a positive personal relationship with your clients, one that is marked by compassion, tolerance and ultimately a self-sacrificial love.

Third, ethos: your integrity. Are you working wilderness therapy for the pro-deals? To facilitate your dirtbag lifestyle? To meet that special someone who will  warm up a portaledge with you at Zion? These aren’t necessarily bad things, but if that’s your primary motivation, kids will see right through you. And they won’t trust you.  Remember, the Greek verb for “therapy” means “to serve” as well as “to heal.”

Waiting out the daily monsoon on Rappel Rock

Understanding these three components of rhetoric will allow you to be a more effective practitioner of wilderness therapy. Simply put, the kids won’t grow if they’re not challenged, and they won’t be challenged if they don’t do the activity. When you’re working with vulnerable populations, many of them need persuasion to take that first step, and that’s where rhetoric comes in. Know your stuff, connect with the kids, and do it for the right reason. You may not get a “thank you” at the time, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped them take the next step toward mental wellness.

Backpacking in an undisclosed alpine location.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Rhetoric in Adventure Therapy”

  1. Wonderful reflection on the process intellectually as well as emotionally. I also learned the derivation of the word “therapy” means “to wait”
    That definition of the process gives an intererting layer to the word.
    We look forward to those podcasts

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