“Actually, no I don’t understand. Help me to understand what you mean.”
Does this sound familiar? How often does vital information pass by as a missed opportunity for clarification and potential deepening of the client’s issues? As the therapist, do we help a client by nodding ‘Yes, that makes sense,’ or ‘Yes I know what you mean?’ Isn’t it more helpful to ask for clarification, for them to help you understand? Or better yet, even if you think you get it, asking can help your client to restate the issue so they can gain more confidence in what they state and the explanation give. Allow them the opportunity to analyze and truly define what they are trying to share.
The above question, ‘Does that make sense?’ can come in many forms; ‘do you know what I mean?’ ‘You know?’ We all use this technique of affirmation, but as therapists we need to consider what the client is really trying to convey? Unless we probe a little, we allow the client to not challenge themselves to better define and articulate what they mean. This serves no one.
So why not gently challenge your client to help you understand with a very clear, concise and personal explanation of their world? I used to just agree that I understood what the client was meaning and move on. In hindsight, I usually ended up circling back for a more clear explanation. In supervision, I was challenged to ask myself “Do I really understand, or am I just trying to bond with the client and maintain forward momentum?” It was a fair question. Now when a client asks - usually with a pensive, head tilted posture - ‘does that make sense?’ I respond with something like, ‘I know what your explanation means to me, but help me to understand more about what sense you make of it.’ In some cases I have been brave enough to actually respond a very truthful, ‘No. It does not make sense to me,’ followed up with a smile. It is a wonderful way to connect because when I counter that something does not make sense and I ask the client to better explain I push the client a little. This gentle nudge lets them know that I want to know them, I want to know exactly what they mean and it sets the momentum moving forward. Often the client appears to try harder to be clear with what they say, and answers they give.
This apparently simple reflection has opened up a many helpful tidbits from clients. My request for clarity seems to help clients believe what they are saying. Through pushing for a more understandable explanation, the client finds clarification of what they were trying to share and what it really means to them. It’s a potent tool if used with care and real genuine desire to be there with the client and empathize with their experience.
I want to offer some musings about why I hear this type of question from clients, just for some food for thought. Is it because they are doubting what they are saying and really themselves and you, as the therapist to believe it? Is it because they truly do not know what they are sharing or have not truly defined their explanation for themselves in their own terms? Are they insecure, uncomfortable and full of doubt? Maybe they are genuine questions just checking if they are making a point clearly.
I challenge myself to actually respond to the client when they ask ‘if it makes sense’ or if they just brushed over something that I did not comprehend. Consider how many times you simply agreed when in hindsight you realize the assertion made little sense at all. Or perhaps it made sense to you in your own way, but not necessarily in the way the client thinks? It is difficult to ask for more explanation, but I encourage you to challenge yourself to require your client to be as concise as possible. If you find yourself asking the client to ‘tell you more’ or ‘help me to understand from your perspective’ keep going with a genuine curiosity and it will enhance not only your relationship but your listening skills as a therapist. Additionally, it allows the therapist to take a genuine, deep, invested interest in the clients’ world and that moves a long way towards building the all important therapeutic relationship.
So the only question I have left is ‘Does this make sense?’ If so, will you stay with your clients and see what happens?
Christian Billington is a counselor in training. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, trauma and the development of training to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field.