Respond Accurately to the Key Experiences, Thoughts, and Behaviors in Clients’ Stories
Key experiences, thoughts, and behaviors give rise to clients’ feelings, emotions, and moods. The “because...” in the empathic-response formula is to be followed by an indication of the experiences, thoughts, and behaviors that underlie the client’s feelings. In the following example, the client, a graduate student in law school, is venting his frustration.
CLIENT (heatedly): You know why he got an A? He took my notes and disappeared. I didn’t get a chance to study them. And I never even confronted him about it.
HELPER: You feel doubly angry because not only did he steal your notes, but you let him get away with it.
The response specifies both the client’s experience (the theft) and his behavior (in this case, a failure to act) that give rise to his distress. His anger is directed not only at his classmate but also himself.
In the following example, a mugging victim has been talking to a social worker to help cope with his fears of going out. Before the mugging, he had given no thought to urban problems. Now he tends to see menace everywhere.
CLIENT: This gradual approach of getting back in the swing seems to be working. Last night I went out without a companion. First time. I have to admit that I was scared. But I think I’ve learned how to be careful. Last night was important. I feel I can begin to move around again.
HELPER: You feel comfortable with the one-step-at-a-time approach you’ve been taking. And it paid off last night when you regained a big chunk of your freedom.
CLIENT: That’s it! I know I’m going to be free again Here’s what I’ve been thinking
The client is talking about success in implementing a course of action. The helper’s response recognizes the client’s satisfaction and also how important it is for the client to feel both safe and free. The client moves on to describe the next phase of his program.
Another client, after a few sessions spread out over 6 months, says something like this about the progress she is making in rebuilding her life after a devastating car accident. She’s back at work and has been working with her husband at rebuilding their marriage.
CLIENT (talking in an animated way): I really think that things couldn’t be going better.
I’m doing very well at my new job, and my husband isn’t just putting up with it. He thinks it’s great. He and I are getting along better than ever, even sexually, and I never expected that. We’re both working at our marriage. I guess I’m just waiting for the bubble to burst.
HELPER: You feel great because things have been going better than you ever expected— and it seems almost too good to be true.
CLIENT: Well, a “bubble bursting” might be the wrong image. I think there’s a difference between being cautious and waiting for disaster to strike. I’ll always be cautious, but I’m finding out that I can make things come true instead of sitting around waiting for them to happen as I usually do. I guess I’ve got to keep making my own luck.
This client talks about her experiences, attitudes, and behaviors and expresses feelings, the flavor of which is captured in the helper’s response. The response, capturing as it does both the client’s enthusiasm and her lingering fears, is quite useful because the client makes an important distinction between reasonable caution and expecting to worst to happen. She moves on to her need to make things happen, to become more of an agent in her life.
In the following example, the client, a 45-year-old male construction worker, married, with four children between the ages of 9 and 16, has been expressing concerns about his children.
CLIENT: I don’t consider myself old-fashioned, but I think kids these days suffer from overindulgence. We keep giving them things. We let them do whatever they want.
I fall into the same trap myself. It’s just not good for them. I don’t think we’re preparing them for what the world is really like.
COUNSELOR: So you see the “do-what-you-want” and “free-lunch” messages as a lot of hogwash. It’s going to backfire and your kids could end up getting hurt.
CLIENT: Right.. But I’m not in control. My kids can get one set of messages from me and then get a flood of contradictory messages outside, and from TV, and the Internet.... I don’t want to be a tyrant. Or come across as a killjoy. That doesn’t work anyway. At work I see problems and I take care of them. But this has got me stymied.
COUNSELOR: So the whole picture seems pretty gloomy right now. You’re not exactly sure what to do about it. You handle problems at work. But it’s a lot harder to do something about societal problems that could hurt your kids. What have you tried so far? What works, even a little? And what doesn’t work?
Once the counselor communicates understanding of the client’s point of view, he (the client) moves on to share his sense of helplessness. The helper realizes, however, that the client probably has tried some approaches to managing this problem situation. It could be that he is not as helpless as he makes himself out to be.
In the next example, the client, who is hearing impaired, has been discussing ways of becoming, in her words, “a full-fledged member of my extended family.” The discussion between client and helper takes place through a combination of lip reading and signing.
CLIENT (enthusiastically): Let me tell you what I’m thinking of doing.... First of all, I’m going to stop fading into the background in family and friends’ conversation groups.
I’ll be the best listener there. And I’ll get my thoughts across even if I have to use props. That’s how I really am . inside, you know, in my mind.
HELPER: Sounds exciting. You’re thinking of getting right into the middle of things ... where you think you belong. You might even try a bit of drama.
CLIENT: And I think that, well, socially, I’m pretty smart. So I’m not talking about being melodramatic or anything. I can do all this with finesse, not just barge in.
HELPER: You’ll make it all natural.. Draw me a couple of pictures of what this would look like.
The client comes up with a proposal for a course of action that will help her take her “rightful place” in conversations with family and friends setting her agenda. The helper’s response recognizes her enthusiasm and sense of determination. They go on to have a dialogue about practical tactics.
When clients announce key decisions or express their resolve to do something, it’s important to recognize the core of what they are saying. In the following example, a client being treated for social phobia has benefited greatly from cognitive- behavioral therapy. For instance, in uncomfortable social situations he has learned to block self-defeating thoughts and to keep his attention focused externally—on the social situation itself and on the agenda of the people involved—instead of turning in on himself.
CLIENT (emphatically): I’m not going to turn back. I’ve had to fight to get where I am now. But I can see how easy it could be to slide back into my old habits. I bet a lot of people do. I see it all around me. People make resolutions and then they peter out.
HELPER: Even though it’s possible for you to give up your hard-earned gains, you’re not going to do it. You’re just not.
CLIENT: But what can I do to make sure that I won’t? I’m convinced I won’t, but. .
HELPER: You need some ratchets. They’re the things that keep roller-coaster cars from sliding back. You hear them going click, click, click on the way up.
CLIENT: Ah, right! But I need psychological ones..
HELPER: And social ones.. What’s kept you from sliding back so far?
This client is in the implementing-the-action-program stage. In a positive psychology mode, the counselor focuses on his successes. They go on to discuss the kind of “ratchets” he needs to keep him from backsliding.