Respond Selectively to Core Client Messages

It is impossible to respond with empathy to everything a client says. Therefore, as you listen to clients, make every attempt to identify and respond to what you believe are core messages—that is, the heart of what the client is saying and expressing, especially if the client speaks at any length. Sometimes this selectivity means paying particular attention to one or two messages even though the client communicates many. For instance, a young woman, in discussing her doubts about marrying her companion, says at one time or another during a session that she is tired of his sloppy habits, is not really interested in his friends, wonders about his lack of intellectual curiosity, is dismayed at his relatively low level of career aspirations, and resents the fact that he faults her for being highly ambitious.

COUNSELOR: The picture you paint doesn’t look that promising, but the mismatch in career expectations is especially troubling.

CLIENT: You know, I’m beginning to think that Jim and I would be pretty good friends, even because we’re so different. But partners? Maybe that’s pushing it.

In this example, the counselor’s empathic response helps the client herself to identify what is core. The counselor follows her lead. In the spirit of inclusive empathy, the counselor believes that she can take the lead in exploring her relationship. After all, it is her relationship. His summary empathic response at the end allows her to question the direction in which she and her friend are headed. Of course, because clients are not always so obliging, helpers must continually ask themselves as they listen,

“What is key? What is most important here?” and then find ways of checking it out with the client. This helps clients sort out things that are not clear in their own minds.

Responding to what is key sometimes means focusing on experiences or actions or feelings rather than all three. Consider the following example of a client who is experiencing stress because of his wife’s poor health and concerns at work.

CLIENT: This week I tried to get my wife to see the doctor, but she refused, even though she fainted a couple of times. The kids had no school, so they were underfoot almost constantly. I haven’t been able to finish a report my boss expects from me next Monday.

HELPER: It’s been a lousy week all the way around.

CLIENT: As bad as they come. When things are lousy both at home and at work, there’s no place for me to relax. I just want to get the hell out of the house and find some place to forget it all Almost run away.... But I can’t.... I mean I won’t.

Here the counselor chooses to emphasize the feelings of the client, because she believes that his feelings of frustration and irritation are what is uppermost in his consciousness right now. This helps him move deeper into the problem situation— and then find a bit of resolve at the bottom of the pit.

At another time or with another client, the emphasis might be quite different. In the next example, a young woman is talking about her problems with her father.

CLIENT: My dad yelled at me all the time last year about how I dress. But just last week I heard him telling someone how nice I looked. He yells at my sister about the same things he ignores when my younger brother does them. Sometimes he’s really nice with my mother and other times, too much of the time, he’s just awful—demanding, grouchy, sarcastic.

HELPER: The inconsistency is really getting to you.

CLIENT: Absolutely! It’s hard for all of us to know where we stand. I hate coming home when I’m not sure which “dad” will be there. Sometimes I come late to avoid all this. But that makes him even madder.

In this response, the counselor emphasizes the client’s experience of her father’s inconsistency. It hits the mark and she explores the problem situation further.

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