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  • Writer's pictureLinda Buchanan

From One Therapist to Another: Accessing Your Client's Wisdom for Change

"If you tell people where to go but not how to get there, you'll be amazed at the results." George S. Patton

"The best teachers are those who show you where to look but not what to see." Alexandra K. Trenfor

Clients often come to us seeking our wisdom and feeling anything but wise themselves. Although I like to be perceived as wise, I know it’s best to help them find their own wisdom. Working from a SFBT perspective, Elliott Connie, suggests that we focus on solutions instead of problems and uses the metaphor of a broken leg. Instead of talking about the broken leg, talk about how you’ll walk again. He suggests that you start by asking someone what is your game plan and states that he is identifying the hero within.

When our clients come to us, they have often lost sight of their own wisdom. Therefore, they naturally might attempt to get us to provide it for them. They may ask questions or make statements that put the responsibility for their answers in our court. I call this tossing us the hot potato. As caring therapists, we see that the hot potato is uncomfortable for our clients and we are often all too willing to catch it and hold it for them. But its hot in our hands too. It is best for them to learn to manage it until it cools.

The following are a few examples of common hot potato tosses and ways you can respond that help the client access their own wisdom:

All-or-nothing statements:

"I'm not good at anything." The natural pull for the therapist is to contradict this statement as not true by saying something like “Of course you’re good at some things.” Although there is momentary comfort, it usually won’t stick for long. An alternative response would be “Right now you’re feeling very inadequate. Is there any part of you that believes that statement isn’t 100% correct? What would that part say?”

"No one will ever love me." This is the kind of statement that we always want to contradict but again it isn’t likely to be believed for long just because we say it. An alternative statement could be “That’s a sad statement. Is there any small part of you that believes you are lovable?”

"It was all my fault." This statement can be followed by “Things usually aren’t black and white. What percentage of this do you think was your fault?”

Dependent statements:

When our clients are overly dependent on us, we tend to overly validate to them the positives we see in them. But as I've said before, this usually doesn't stick. Dependent statements are best met with strategies that combine wisdom from both the therapist and the client.

"What do you think I should do?" Although I usually have a pretty good idea of what would be wise to do when my clients ask this, there's usually a lot I don't know. Try following this question with "I could tell you what I think you should do but I wouldn’t really know how hard it might be for you to do it. I think I can help you figure out what your wise self thinks you should do. What options come to mind? Maybe we can combine our wisdom.

"I think you are mad at me." When client's ask how I'm feeling, I am happy to disclose in most situations but I would prefer doing it after exploring the question. Rather than jump to denying that I feel a certain way, I will say "Before I answer that, could I ask you a couple of questions first? What would it be like for you if I were mad at you? What would you need from me if I were? What would you need from yourself ? Who would it remind you of if I were mad at you?" Sometimes, the conversation never comes back to the original question because my feeling about them truly isn't the most important thing.

"Do you think what I did was wrong?" Before I answer that, because it’s really not up to me, can I ask you a couple of questions first? Is there a small part of you that thinks what you did was okay? Is there a part of you that thinks it was a mistake? We could talk about both.

Oppositional Statements

Oppositional statements can make even the most confident therapist feel defensive. We can find ourselves in power struggles which feel like we're playing tug of war with our clients.

"This might help others, but it isn’t helping me." In response to this kind of statement, we might want to point out evidence that suggests that what we’re doing can help. The problem with this is that we probably wouldn’t be addressing the fear embodied in the statement. An alternative response could be “That sounds very discouraging. What do you think would help?”

"You can’t possibly help me, you’ve never been through this." To this I always want to say that cancer doctors can help their patients even if they haven’t had cancer because they know what steps to take for the patient. But that again, is slightly defensive. Instead I might say “Yes, I don’t know exactly what it’s like and I don’t even know that if I were in your shoes, that I could do this. What do you most wish I understood?”

"You have to say that; you’re a therapist." That one gets me every time. At face value, it is a down right accusation that I wouldn’t be caring if I weren’t being paid. But these statements actually point to the person’s feeling that they aren’t worthy of our caring. By the way, these statements often come after we’ve tried to contradict a negative belief that they’ve just made such as those listed above. With this type statement, we’re often tempted to continue to do more of the same and contradict it. An alternative and much more powerful statement would be to reflect the fear by saying something like “It’s hard for you to believe that someone would see you in this positive light. Have you felt like this often?”

Following up potato tosses in this way can take a lot of pressure off the therapist as well as empower the client. Of course, psychotherapy is a blending of the therapist's wisdom with the clients' but I hope they leave with the sense that it was mostly their own wisdom that got them to a better place.

If you found this blog helpful, you might enjoy 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 work directly on resolving ambivalence. 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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