January 1st, 2013

Psychologist carves a niche with renovation expertise

There is nothing like a major renovation project to test the limits of a family’s patience. Eating microwaved food on paper plates, showering at the gym, sleeping in the living room – disruptions piled on top of what’s probably already a hectic schedule can cause some serious stress to relationships.

Into this quagmire steps Debi Warner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Littleton, N.H., who specializes in family counseling. Warner went from using renovation projects as an example for how a family needs to work together to focusing on helping families and couples while they were involved in actual projects. Her “Renovation Psychology” practice, a trademarked name, started more than 12 years ago when clients suggested she write a book about her unique way of looking at familial relationships. It evolved into a newspaper column, a syndicated radio show, a television pilot and a side business consulting with people undergoing their own projects. She has even completed a research project showing a link between childhood sand castle building and the likelihood of attempting home decorating and renovation projects as an adult.

New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Warner about this unique niche, how she puts her psychological skills to practice and the future of the area.

Q: How did this all start?

A:  It broke forth in 1999, really. I had been in practice for a long time, working with families and couples. We would work on communication issues, decision making, the structure of the family. I would explain it in clinical terms and they would look at me like the RCA Victor dog, as people do with clinical terms. Then I said, ‘okay, if you were building a deck, how does that work, who does what?’ All of a sudden people were able to talk about their relationship and decision-making and task division and helping each other. All of those communication issues were suddenly realizable.

A lot of people said ‘you’ve got something here, you ought to write a book.’ So, I delved into that (“Renovation Psychology, Putting the Home Team to Work). And people said ‘you need a radio show’ so I got a radio show (Renovation Psychology with Dr. Debi, WMET-AM, Washington and WSTJ-AM, St. Johnsbury, Vt.). And then people said ‘you should be on television’ so I started working on developing a television show for a few years. I didn’t happen to get a show but had a lot of very good attention at the national level and international level.

Q: The book basically outlines your approach. Tell us about it.

A: It is very hands-on, with graphics and upbeat practical advice for how relationship issues can be dealt with during renovation projects. It talks about communication, decision-making, teamwork, handling issues, failures on the project, how to prepare and organize, how to match project tasks to abilities.

There are the precursors for building, how to get a common vision for your project, how to deal with the reasons people have for making projects. For instance, most people want to build a project to improve family life but you need to look at why. Do we want to be closer to our children, is our family growing, do we want more space, do we want hobby space or a business space? How do those things impact the rest of the family?

There is a section of the book on developing teamwork. Asses your team, see what kinds of skills there are. Who has organization skills or the hammer skills? Each of those types of skills has a niche in the team. Not everyone has to swing a hammer.

We address how to communicate about issues that come up and how to make decisions on the fly. There is a section on how to stay on an even keel dealing with schedules and the work load and making sure you still have family life. The budget chapter is very interesting because it also uses desensitization exercises to help people sit down and talk about money together.

Q: Do you find that big projects tend to exacerbate issues that were already there with people?

A: There are many ways to look at this. Sure you can have deep-seated issues come up but you have to see that they have been acceptable so far so why is it suddenly a bigger deal and you are now ready to reject your partner?

The corollary to that observation is that not only does a project make problems more manifest but they also provide an opportunity to work it out in a concrete fashion. It can be a non-threatening way to make some big changes because you realize that it’s just a door or a foundation that you’re working on. I have seen people make very huge changes in this regard, even characterological things.

If I were to point to an overarching issue, I would point at the first chapter of the book – which is called Loving is an Action Verb. Your relationship is not a static entity. It is moving all the time. It is taking action and these actions need to be loving. As you face adversity, and home projects are what I call a “chosen adversity,” how you adapt and deal with that needs to be loving.

Q: Are you mainly dealing with people in the Littleton, N.H., area?

A: Actually, I work around the world in English speaking countries, over the phone and by Skype. The nice thing is to visit a project but plenty of people get something out of this by phone discussions and pictures and all of that. I am astounded at how quickly people catch on to it and use it as a perspective in their home life very easily.

 Q: You also still work with families in your clinical practice. How much of your business/practice is renovation?

A: I do three days a week in my regular practices with couches and Kleenex. The other two days I am out and about doing things with hammers and nails. I make calls, work on writing, visit sites occasionally.

The renovation side is not considered therapy – I call it edification. There is a disclaimer on my Web site that it is not intended to “replace medically necessary psychological care and does not constitute a doctor-patient relationship…” I had this disclaimer put on there instead of having a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

 Q: Is there a future profession in this line of work?

A: It might not be as profitable [as a traditional practice] because it is so effective. They may catch on in an initial consultation and then you don’t have a follow up.

Maybe someone else could figure out a real profitable way of doing it if you could charge for workshops that are attached to a home center. And maybe make money that way. If you want to call it “renovation psychology” you’d have to ask me since the name is trademarked and we could work out what that would mean.

It can also be a nice, publicly-engaging method of practice. There are plenty of people who know that I do this in the area and come to me for clinical work instead. It does not preclude the other side of the practice.

Q: You’ve done research, a book, radio show and television pilot. What’s next?

A: Well, I am not sure. Doors have opened up for me all over the place. Those things just came to me and at this point I’d like to see what happens next.

I do love to engage in it and it is such fun. I am still working on my own house too. You never really finish when you build it yourself…well, maybe right before you sell it.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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