The Strategic Interaction Approach

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2004

The Strategic Interaction Approach

Steven Hassan, M.Ed., L.M.H.C., N.C.C.

The Strategic Interaction Approach (SIA) differs from the approach described in my first book Combatting Cult Mind Control in several important ways, the most critical of which is the introduction of the threepart phobia intervention.  In Chapter 10, you will learn how to use this stepbystep approach to help your loved one understand and overcome cultimplanted phobias.  Until this is done, I have learned, interactions with a cult member are especially difficult and sometimes even counterproductive.

The SIA also differs from exit counseling in its emphasis on the process of change, rather than pure content or information.  The exit-counseling model was premised on the fact that the exit-counselor would have information that was difficult to obtain.  All that has changed because, today, cult critics and former members of various cults are publishing information about cults and mind control on the World Wide Web.  With the advent of the Internet, anyone with a computer and a modem can network with other families, obtain assistance from experts and former members, and locate information in a way that was not possible before.

Because information about cults has become so accessible, we can spend more time developing a thorough understanding of the cult member, the group he belongs to, and the friends and family who care about him.  Additionally, in the Strategic Interaction Approach we learn how to identify factors that make people more vulnerable to mind control, such as learning disorders, unresolved sexual issues, or preexisting phobias that cults can take advantage of.  We create a model of the parts of our loved one’s authentic self that were cultivated for recruitment into the cult identity.  Understanding these subpersonalities helps us relate to the cult identity and also helps us identify, and encourage, aspects of the cult self that are worthy of keeping.

The focus of the SIA is on the growth of the entire family and support network —as well as on the cult member.  Family members and friends work together as a Strategic Interaction Team.  They are asked to participate in each step of the process, improving their communication skills and enhancing self-awareness along the way.   Team members are given the tools to take care of their own emotional needs and overcome problems such as low self-esteem, phobias, or addiction. When each family member takes responsibility for growth and change, it takes a lot of pressure off the cult member.  His perspective often changes from "I'm the victim, and everyone is here to help me," to "We're a family, and everyone is growing and learning."  In this way, families are able to model healthy behavior that will inspire the cult member to change.

We will begin modeling that change by learning to adopt positive beliefs, productive attitudes, and more effective modes of communication.

Goal-Oriented Communication

In the business world, the most effective salespeople expend a great deal of time and effort to develop rapport and trust with a client or customer.  In the normal course of our personal lives, though, we rarely take the time to learn and practice ways to develop rapport and trust with our loved ones.  This effort can bring much more than money—love, acceptance, kindness and respect.

The SIA helps family and friends shift from an emotionally based form of communication to a goal-oriented style.  We will no longer be informal and casual about what we say and do.  We will not take our relationships for granted.  Our objective is to grow, change, and develop better communication strategies that build rapport and trust.  When we get the desired result, we will move forward to the next goal.

Goal One: Build rapport and trust.

During the SIA, you build a relationship with your loved one that is supported by a foundation of trust and rapport.

Goal Two: Gather information.

Throughout the process, members of the Team gather information about the pre-cult and cult self, along with the authentic self (a term I will discuss shortly).

Goal Three: Give information and plant seeds of doubt.

Once Team members are adequately prepared, they can begin planting seeds of doubt in the cult member by imparting important information.

Goal Four: Use mini-interactions to promote reality-testing and freedom of mind.

As they continue to collect and deliver information, Team members engage the cult member in a series of mini-interactions that ensure the loved one has the motivation and ability to reality-test and reevaluate their cult involvement.

Goal-oriented communication encourages high levels of awareness as well as constant feedback and assessment from experience.  Members of the Team learn how to:

Learning to Understand Others

Team members will learn to interact with each other in a creative and resourceful fashion.  I usually recommend a two day preparation/training to get the SIA started. If one person says something hurtful to another, I encourage the individual who was hurt to suggest a more constructive response to the other person.  Each interaction among family, relatives, friends and the cult member is an opportunity to hone their skills and to assess what works and what doesn't work.  For instance, you can gain a better understanding of friends and family by role-playing, or stepping into someone else’s shoes.  In the following exchange, I asked a cult member’s mother to pretend that she was her daughter:

SH (to mother): If you heard your mother say, “You’re going out dressed like that?”  how would you feel?

Mother: I guess I would think my mother was criticizing the way I looked.

SH: That's what you would think.  How would you feel?  Would the comment make you feel good about yourself or your mother?

Mother: No, of course not!

Learning to Express Your Emotions

Process-oriented goals will move us from a rigid position to a flexible, creative state.  We will take steps to find positive, constructive ways to express your concerns more effectively:

Focus on your goals. Sometimes, it is more helpful to verbalize your feelings to someone other than the specific person. For example, there may be things that would make you feel better but would cause great pain or even harm if said directly to the person. A Strategic Interaction Therapist can help you to unburden yourself and make positive suggestions about what to do. Sometimes, it is a matter of finding the most effective way to say something. Sometimes, it is a matter of choosing the right time and place to communicate to get the best response. Over time, you will develop confidence and know how to adapt your communication style to fit the situation.

Using Feedback to Create a Strategy

The SIA creates wave after wave of feedback and analysis.  Over time, family, relatives, and friends become comfortable with and consciously adopt this goal-oriented style of communication.  After the initial preparation and training, I sometimes assign tasks to specific friends and family members:

After each action, we evaluate the impact based on the response made to the interaction.  For example, if the telephone prayer request resulted in a double prayer, we ask for specifics.  Was the prayer able to build a positive bridge with the cult member?  Depending on the report, I may recommend a longer, deeper prayer the next time they speak.  I might suggest the religious family member write a letter saying how much closer he has felt since the prayer.

What was the response when the father told his son about his childhood and the issues he had with his father?  Tears?  A hug?  A deep closeness with the cult member?  If not, what happened?  Was the father standing up, looking out of a window while he was speaking about himself, or was he sitting at eye level beside his son?  If the interaction went well, I might suggest a follow-up where the father asks his son, "What could be done now to build a more intimate relationship with you?  What words would need to be spoken?  What behavior would need to be experienced?"  The father might need to convince the son that he is a top priority in his father's life.

If the homemade cookies were gobbled up and shared with others in the group, and resulted in a thank-you telephone call, then I would suggest doing it every few weeks, or at least once a month.  Why?  Because each time the cult member receives the cookies, it makes him feel loved.  The grandmother can invite members of the group over for a home cooked meal.  We want to build bridges.

With every interaction, you should think of ways to amplify the positives and minimize the negatives.  You want to mobilize a set of positive, growth enhancing experiences for the cult member to have with family and friends.  The Strategic Interaction Team develops a repertoire of flexible and creative solutions.  Many small- and medium-sized shared experiences have a cumulative empowering effect.  We will work in the least intrusive and most effective way possible to keep family, relatives, friends, and the cult member motivated to move closer in small, realistic steps. This work carries us towards a formal Strategic Intervention, if that proves necessary.

The Strategic Interaction Approach takes time and hard work.  It also takes inspiration, motivation, creativity, improvisation, flexibility, humor, passion, and commitment.  I have file cabinets full of testimonies from family members and excult members who say that participation in the Strategic Interaction gave them a sense of control over the guilt, anxiety, fear, helplessness, and hopelessness that usually tears a family apart when their loved one is swallowed up by a destructive cult.  The SIA provides a safe environment where building rapport and trust is the greatest good.  A high level of selfesteem is one of the most important ingredients to a successful Strategic Interaction.

Frequently Asked Questions about the SIA

1. What is the goal?

The goal of the SIA is to help the loved one recover his full faculties; to restore the creative, interdependent adult, who fully understands what has happened to him, who has digested and integrated the experience and is better and stronger from the experience.

2. Who is in control?

You are!  In all ethical counseling, the locus of control remains within the client.  Strategic Interaction models a non-authoritarian, flexible, and open process.  When you engage a therapist, he is there to help as the expert on family systems.  He is not there to assume control and make all the decisions.  Likewise, a cult expert may provide information and advice, but will not give orders.  Family and friends are empowered to understand the issues clearly.  In this way, Strategic Interaction can be considered self-help.  Each person contributes as best he can, creating a synergy that ensures the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

3. Who is the client?

In the SIA, each person has issues that should be addressed. The focus is on the growth and development of healthy relationships within the family.  The safe and nurturing environment created by the SIA offers many opportunities to heal old wounds. As an integral part of the family system, the cult member is automatically included in the process.

4. When is the best time to act?

The best time to act is when the cult member is questioning his involvement, is disillusioned, or burned out—or simply wants to leave.  Mini-interactions are designed to help the cult member question his situation, reality-test, and accept help from family and friends.  The SIA is an ongoing process that makes each telephone call, letter, and visit more effective.  Every time we interact with the cult member, questions are asked and answered, and information is gathered and delivered.  Strategies are formulated, and opportunities to develop rapport and trust unfold.  Positive experiences accumulate.

If there is a need for a formal three-day intervention, it is planned when we know the cult member is ready.  The time is right when we know that we have established trust and rapport with the cult member.  Many times, mini-interactions may even make an intervention unnecessary.

5. Will our loved one be treated as an individual?

The Strategic Interaction is a customized approach that encourages everyone to develop positive, constructive patterns of communication.  Family members, relatives and friends learn techniques to remove blocks and phobias.  The goal is to restore the creative, flexible, interdependent adult.  We want the cult member to understand what happened to him by helping him fully digest and integrate the cult experience.  As the Strategic Interaction moves into the recovery phase, we want everyone to be stronger from the experience.

6. Does this approach integrate our loved one's personality?

In Combatting Cult Mind Control I described only a “dual identity” model: the cult identity and the pre-cult identity.  The Strategic Interaction Approach liberates and then integrates the parts of the pre-cult identity that were co-opted by the cult identity.  In addition, we draw out the individual's “authentic,” or higher, self and enlist its help to make new associations with the cult self.  For example, we recognize that idealism is an integral part of our loved one's authentic identity.  By pointing out discrepancies between cult doctrine and hypocritical cult policies, the idealistic component of the cult identity can be encouraged to begin the questioning process.  Eventually, the cult member becomes disillusioned with the group and feels motivated to walk out or ask for help.

The Strategic Interaction Approach provides in-depth counseling which promotes healing.  By honoring the authentic self, the pre-cult self, and the core of the cult self, we help your loved one to integrate valuable parts of his identity into a healthy post-cult self.

7. Does the method include flexible strategies?

By taking an oppositional, “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach, deprogrammers and exit-counselors often create a win-lose mentality.  Strategic Interaction encourages adaptability and creativity by widening one’s experiential base, which results in a win-win environment.  For instance, if family members have never meditated and their loved one is in a meditation cult, then I encourage them to experience meditation.

8. Is the method concerned with our loved one's spiritual life?

With both deprogramming and exit-counseling, content reigns supreme.  This approach can have hidden dangers.  The ideological or spiritual perspective of the deprogrammer or exit-counselor could be anything from atheist, to agnostic, to orthodox Christian or Jew.  I urge you to scrutinize the beliefs and affiliations of people who offer to rescue your loved one from a destructive cult.  Many of these people will seek to impose their own ideological perspective.  The ethical approach is to avoid imposing any ideological or theological viewpoint on a mind control subject.

The SIA allows for a spiritual orientation, but does not promote a rigid ideological viewpoint.   My starting point is always the individual's and family's spiritual "roots," if any. At the beginning of every Strategic Interaction, I have family members and friends fill out Background Information Forms.  Often, I find that the cult member had a strong spiritual orientation before they were recruited into a religious cult.  I encourage family and friends to support their loved one's full recovery—spiritual as well as psychological.

9. How will we learn the content issues?

The family members, relatives, and friends must understand the seriousness, scope and depth of the cult experience.  I want them to become familiar enough with the material to be capable of articulating information about mind control, their loved one's group, and other cults.  This may seem like a daunting task, but the step-by-step, goal-oriented approach we take will make the work more manageable.  After they have been adequately prepared, family members and friends can begin to attend cult lectures and read cult literature.  These activities demonstrate that they are “open-minded,” and help to encourage rapport and trust.

Before any discussions about the belief system, indoctrination, or the leader, we deal with the cult member’s phobias about leaving the group.  Otherwise, your loved one will be under a great deal of unnecessary emotional stress.

10. How does the SIA handle recovery issues?

Deprogramming is over as soon as the person is out of the group. People are often left without trained people to follow-up.  Consequently, family and friends are typically not prepared to know how to act as a support system. After an exit-counseling, former members may try to provide some support.  One might opt for a one- or two-week stay at Wellspring, a rehabilitation facility in Ohio, or a several month stay at Meadow Haven in Massachusetts.  This depends on the financial resources and the ex-member's willingness to voluntarily attend.

Cults use fear and guilt to program their members to believe that their lives are worthless outside of the group.  It is hard to imagine the pain these buried psychic land mines cause when the person manages to leave.  Cult experiences and indoctrination have to be worked through during an essential soul-searching recovery period, which usually takes months and sometimes years.

If the person participated in distasteful behavior—if they recruited people, were raped, became a prostitute, or stole money—it is helpful that they get ongoing counseling.  Otherwise, they will spend the rest of their lives traumatized by what happened to them, or feeling guilty for what they did while a member of the group.

During the recovery period, your loved one needs to learn how to use recovery techniques in order to visualize and work with his cult identity to reclaim personal history, power, and integrity.  He must acknowledge that he was doing the best he could at the time with the information that was available to him.

The SIA provides a long-term recovery process for both the cult member and members of the family. Everyone is traumatized by the cult involvement, even those who are not directly involved.  Feelings get hurt.  Belief systems are assaulted or shifted.  People lose sleep.  They get depressed.  Anger, frustration, and resentment are repressed.  Each person who has been involved in the traumatic experience of having a loved one in a destructive cult needs support on psychological and emotional levels.

The heightened sense of urgency that arises when a loved one joins a destructive cult provides the catalyst for truly remarkable growth, change, and development.  Family members, relatives, siblings and friends are willing to work hard on their own issues for the sake of their loved one.  They are willing to make commitments that seem impossible under less trying circumstances.  Their rewards are the many positive changes that take place as a result of working together to bring back a family member or friend lost to a cult.

Even in those circumstances where an individual does not immediately decide to leave the cult, there is basis for hope. Many key issues will have been communicated, especially those dealing with phobias, information control, and the broader issues of cult mind control. The gentleness of the repeated mini-interactions will help the relationship to become more honest, caring and compassionate—setting the foundation for future interactions.

11. How effective is the Strategic Interaction Approach?

The Strategic Interaction Approach has an excellent record of helping people leave destructive groups.  Each case is different and presents new challenges.  Every set of family resources is unique.  The Strategic Interaction Approach draws its strength from love, commitment, and flexibility.  It provides encouragement, momentum, and practical knowledge.

Even when your loved one participates for only three days and decides to return to the group (which rarely happens), the seeds have already been planted.  In such cases, the cult member usually walks out at a later date.  When a cult member wants to leave the group, he should know that his family and friends will open their arms with love and support.

12. What is the therapist’s role?

A Strategic Interaction Therapist, by definition, is a cult expert and mental health professional.  Over the years, I have shared my approach with several individuals, taking them with me on cases and training them in SIA. I hope to encourage more people to learn my approach and plan to offer more training seminars and subsequent supervision.  Former cult members with counseling training make ideal candidates for SIA training.  During the SIA, the role of a therapist is to facilitate communication between the cult member and the Team by encouraging growth within each person.  Although it is possible to empower a cult member to leave without the help of a formally trained counselor, I recommend that you contact a professional counselor to discuss your situation and plan an approach.  If a therapist with experience counseling cult members is not available, you should make sure that your counselor has read this book before you begin preparing for an Interaction with your loved one.

In the following chapters, we will prepare, rehearse, and then conduct mini-interactions with the cult member.   While Team members hone their knowledge and skills, they are shaping creative and flexible strategies.  Plan A, Plan B, Plan C—we keep our options open!

When the time is right, we learn how to ask the cult member to spend some time away from the group—time to conduct research and ask questions; time to reconnect with family and friends.  The levels of rapport and trust will be so high that your loved one will agree to participate in the Strategic Interaction.


This paper is excerpted from Chapter Two of Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves by Steven Hassan, FOM Press, 2000.  It is reprinted with permission of Steven Hassan:

This material used in a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.