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  • Writer's pictureLinda Buchanan

Common Therapist Mistakes Part 10: Underusing the Phrase "I don't know"

This is a series of posts that I’ve written where I poke a little fun at common mistakes that we therapists make. Believe me, I’ve made them all many times. For instance, I’ve always hated to admit when I don’t know something. However, being a therapist has really helped me with this. I’ve been asked so many questions in the therapy office to which I didn’t know the answer and in that process have learned that it’s often times better if I don’t.

Trying to come up with an answer or guess at an answer, or even make an astute interpretation may prevent the client from actually working as hard to find the answer that is most right for them to the question that is most important. Many times there is a more important question hiding underneath the question that a client asks directly.

I used to love the show Columbo. If you’re not familiar, Columbo was a detective who could solve any murder mystery set before him. But the way he did it was by talking about his own confusion. He would point out inconsistencies in a suspect’s story and scratch his head while saying he was confused. Then he wouldn’t try to make sense of it, he would simply wait for the person to make sense of it whereby they often tripped into confessing. He never tried to impress his audience with his brilliance even though it was there. He just asked the right questions to get the person to tell what they knew.

I often think about him when I’m working with patients. I’m tempted to impress them with my brilliance, because I often have thoughts about why they’re struggling as they are, but I’m aware that it’s much better to help them discover what they know whenever possible. And what the client comes up with is almost always a much better understanding of the issue than what I would have wanted to offer. Similarly, if I actually don’t know, it can be more powerful to say that up front.

Some of the questions that I get asked that I don’t know the answer to are things like

How long will this take?

Why is this so hard?

Why do I keep doing what I'm trying to change?

Are you going to give up on me?

Should I break up with my boyfriend?

Am I crazy?

Was I born this way?

What do you think my goal should be this week?

Do you think my partner is cheating?

Should I confront my mother?

Although I often have thoughts about possible answer to questions like these, I try to hold back. One person recently asked me if I was going to give up on her and I said “I don’t know, are feeling like giving up on yourself?” The conversation then went to an exploration of her feelings of hopelessness as well as the side of her that still had hope. It was much more important to put the focus back on her than on me and my feelings. Most people are more fascinated with talking about themselves anyway and in the therapy room this is desirable. I will add, however, that if a person repeats a question and seems to genuinely need an answer I often times will answer it but I try to wait until they’ve explored their own thoughts and feelings first.

I'd like to point out that I really wanted to say "no, I won't give up on you." This would have satisfied my need to come across as trustworthy and caring and my need to give her reassurance. Notice, though, that these are my needs. Had I done this, she would have received an immediate but short-lived reassurance that I wasn't going to give up on her but we would have missed what I think is her deeper underlying question which was more along the lines of "How can I increase faith in myself?" Another possible reaction could have been to discuss what she meant by giving up on her because it does happen occassionally that I refer people out or to a higher level of care but does that mean that I've given up on them? No, although it might feel like it. You can probably see how that would have really been going down a rabbit's trail and we would have strayed even further from the real problem of how she could learn to believe in herself.

When asked a question that you don't know the answer to (or even think you do), try to determine if there is a more important question underneath, if there is a way to put the focus back on the client, or simply say I don’t know, why don’t we combine our wisdom to figure this out.

My book A Clinician’s Guide to Pathological Ambivalence: How to Be on Your Client’s Side Without Taking a Side can teach you how to avoid this and other common therapeutic mistakes by developing skills to work directly on resolving ambivalence and rewriting old narratives. I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page (past the banner of recent posts) to leave a comment.

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