Respond Accurately to Clients’ Feelings, Emotions, and Moods

The importance of feelings, emotions, and moods in our lives was discussed in Chapter 3. Helpers need to respond to clients’ emotions in such a way as to move the helping process forward. This means identifying key emotions the client either expresses or discusses (helper perceptiveness) and weaving them into the dialogue (helper know-how) even when they are sensitive or part of a messy situation (helper courage or assertiveness). Do you remember the last time you as a consumer got a problem resolved with a good customer service representative? She might have said something like this to you: “I know you’re angry right now because the package didn’t arrive and you have every right to be. After all, we did make you a promise. Here’s what we can do to make it right for you....” Rather than ignoring the customer’s emotions, good customer service reps face up to them as helpfully as possible. Here are some guidelines:

Use the right family of emotions and the right intensity In the basic empathy formula, “You feel.” should be followed by the correct family of emotions and the correct intensity.

Family. The statements “You feel hurt,” “You feel relieved,” and “You feel enthusiastic” specify different families of emotion.

Intensity. The statements “You feel annoyed,” “You feel angry,” and “You’re furious” specify different degrees of intensity in the same family (anger).

The words “sad,” “mad,” “bad,” and “glad” refer to four of the main families of emotion, whereas “content,” “quite happy,” and “overjoyed” refer to different intensities within the glad family.

Distinguish between expressed and discussed feelings Clients both express emotions they are feeling during the interview and talk about emotions they felt at the time of some incident. For instance, consider this interchange between a client involved in a child custody proceeding and a counselor. She is talking about her husband.

CLIENT (calmly): I get furious with him when he says things, little snide things, that suggest that I don’t take good care of the kids.

HELPER: You feel especially angry when he intimates that you’re not a good mother.

The client isn’t angry right now. Rather, she is talking about the anger. The following example—a woman is talking about one of her colleagues at work—deals with expressed rather than discussed feelings.

CLIENT (enthusiastically): I threw caution to the wind and confronted him about his sarcasm and it actually worked. He not only apologized but behaved himself the rest of the trip.

HELPER: You feel great because you took a chance and it paid off.

Clients don’t always name their feelings and emotions. However, if they express emotion, it is part of the message and needs to be identified and understood.

Read and respond to feelings and emotions embedded in clients’ nonverbal behavior Often helpers have to read clients’ emotions—both the family and the intensity—in their nonverbal behavior. In the following example, a North American student comes to you, sits down, looks at the floor, hunches over, and speaks haltingly:

CLIENT: I don’t even know where to start. (He falls silent.)

HELPER: It’s pretty clear that you’re feeling miserable. Maybe we can talk about why. CLIENT (after a pause): Well, let me tell you what happened____

You see that he is depressed and his nonverbal behavior indicates that the feelings are quite intense. His nonverbal behavior reveals the broad family (“You feel bad”) and the intensity (“You feel very bad”). Of course, you do not yet know the experiences, thoughts, and behaviors that give rise to these emotions.

Be sensitive in naming emotions Naming and discussing feelings and emotions threaten some clients. Cultural sensitivities and personal sensitivities within a culture differ widely. If this is the case, it might be better to focus on experiences, thoughts, and behaviors and proceed only gradually to a discussion of feelings. The following client, an unmarried man in his mid-30s who has come to talk about “certain dissatisfactions” in his life, has shown some reluctance to express or even to talk about feelings.

CLIENT (in a pleasant, relaxed voice): You won’t believe it! My mother is always trying to make a little kid out of me. And I’m 35! Last week, in front of a group of my friends, she brought out my rubber boots and an umbrella and gave me a little talk on how to dress for bad weather (laughs).

COUNSELOR A: It might be hard to admit it, but I get the feeling that down deep you were furious.

CLIENT: Well, I don’t know about that. Anyway, at work....

Counselor A pushes the emotion issue and is met with some resistance. The client changes the topic.

COUNSELOR B (in a somewhat lighthearted way): So she’s still playing the mother role— to the hilt, it would seem.

CLIENT (with more of a bite in his voice): And the hilt includes not wanting me to grow up. But I am grown up ... well, pretty grown up. But I don’t always act grown up around her.

Counselor B, choosing to respond to the “strong mother” issue rather than the more sensitive “being kept a kid and feeling really lousy about it” issue, gives the client more room to move. This works, for the client himself moves toward the more sensitive issue—his playing the child, at least at times, when he’s with his mother.

Some clients are hesitant to talk about certain emotions. One client might find it relatively easy to talk about his anger but not his hurt. The following client is talking about his disappointment at not being chosen for a special team at work.

CLIENT: I worked as hard as anyone else to get the project up and running. In fact, I was at the meeting where we came up with the idea in the first place.... And now they’ve dropped me.

COUNSELOR A: So you feel really hurt—left out of your own project.

CLIENT (hesitating): Hmm____I’m really ticked off. Why shouldn’t I be?.

Here is a client with lots of ego. He doesn’t like the idea that he has been “hurt.” Counselor B takes a different tack.

COUNSELOR B: So it’s more than annoying to be left out of what, in many ways, is your own project.

CLIENT: How could they do that?. It is more than annoying. It’s ... well ... humiliating!

Counselor B, factoring in the client’s ego, sticks to the anger, allowing the client himself to name the more sensitive emotion. Contextual listening—in this case listening to the client’s emotions through the context of the pride he takes in himself and his accomplishments and their relationships at work that have gone wrong—is part of social intelligence. However, being sensitive to clients’ sensitive emotions should not rob counseling of its robustness. Too much tiptoeing around clients’ “sensitivities” does not serve them well. Remember what was said earlier. Clients are not as fragile as we sometimes make them out to be.

Use variety in responding to clients’ feelings and emotions Because clients express feelings in a number of different ways, helpers can communicate an understanding of feelings in a variety of ways.

By single words. You feel good. You’re depressed. You feel abandoned. You’re delighted. You feel trapped. You’re angry.

By different kinds of phrases. You’re sitting on top of the world. You feel down in the dumps. You feel left in the lurch. Your back’s up against the wall. You’re really on a roll.

By what is implied in behavioral statements. You feel like giving up (implied emotion: despair). You feel like hugging him (implied emotion: joy). Now that you see what he’s been doing to you, you almost feel like throwing up (implied emotion: disgust).

By what is implied in experiences the client is discussing. You feel you’re being dumped on (implied feeling: victimized). You feel you’re being stereotyped (implied feeling: resentment). You feel you’re at the top of her list (implied feeling: elation). You feel you’re going to get caught (implied feeling: fear). Note that the implication of each could be spelled out: You feel angry because you’re being dumped on. You resent the fact that you’re being stereotyped. You feel great because it seems that you’re at the top of her list.

Because ultimately you must discard formulas and use your own language—words that are yours rather than words from a textbook and words that make sense to the client—it helps to develop a variety of ways of communicating your understanding of clients’ feelings and emotions. It keeps you from being wooden in your responses.

Consider this example: The client tells you that she has just been given the kind of job she has been looking for over the past 2 years. Here are some possible responses to her emotion.

Single word. You’re really happy.

A phrase. You’re on cloud nine.

Experiential statement. You feel you finally got what you deserve.

Behavioral statement. You feel like going out and celebrating.

With experience, you can extend your range of expression at the service of your clients. Providing variety will become second nature.

Neither overemphasize nor underemphasize feelings, emotions, and moods Some counselors take an overly rational approach to helping and almost ignore clients’ feelings. Others become too preoccupied with clients’ emotions and moods. They pepper clients with questions about feelings and at times extort answers. To say that feelings, emotions, and moods are important is not to say that they are everything. The best defense against either extreme is to link feelings, emotions, and moods to the experiences, thoughts, and behaviors that give rise to them.

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