Perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face as counselors is to sort through a lot of “stuff” (theoretical orientation, preferred treatment strategies, transference, counter-transference, what the client is saying, what the client is really saying, etc.) to determine the intervention point, and then to choose a reasonable intervention to assist our clients. I admit that I am often tempted to do what many of my students struggle with as neophyte counselors – the temptation to prematurely push up my sleeves and jump in to fix “it”. Now, experience helps quell that temptation most of the time, but I’d be lying if I told you that after almost 20 years it no longer exists.
The bottom line is that we are helpers. We want to help; we are motivated to help. But under the bottom line lies the reality that being helped is a subjective experience (belonging to the client) and although we must utilize our expertise and clinical judgment, the client needs to be our source of inspiration. What are they saying? What aren’t they saying? What do we think they need? What do they really need?
All of this can be overwhelming, especially in complex cases, or when our clients are really hurting. You know –when clients are all over the place, or when they are giving you a laundry list of things that are causing them distress. These are times when we are not sure if they want comfort, catharsis, or problem solving skills.
One question that has saved me (and my work) in those scenarios is simply: How can I best help you at this time? It often helps them to focus and determine what they do need right now, and it helps me to address those immediate needs as part of our process. Moreover, their responses are grist for the mill.
Another challenge that you might also experience often is when clients come to you with BIG stories to tell; when they tell you that someone just died, that they just left their partner, or they just lost their job. I don’t know about you, but I know that after hearing those types of things my mind whirls with a multitude of potential responses; responses that range from silence to a variety of follow-up questions that will surely lead the client into my direction of interest at risk of detouring them away from their focus or need.
The saving grace question I’ve found works best for me in those scenarios is: What happened? Clients often are visibly relieved that I’ve opened the door for them to let it pour out their own way.
The older I get, the more I learn, and the more experience I get under my belt the more I appreciate the simplicity inherent in what we do. A non-verbal encourager, a pause, silence, or a simple question can really keep the focus on
the client, and increase my chances for meeting the client where they are in the moment.
What do you think?
Deborah Legge is a counselor in private practice and an assistant professor at Medaille College. She is a Private Practice Mentor and is the founder of InfluentialTherapist.com .