Adapt the Constructive-Change Process to the Style of the Client

Setting goals, devising strategies, and making and implementing plans can be done formally or informally. Kirschenbaum (1985) challenged the notion that planning should always provide an exact blueprint for specific actions, their sequencing, and the time frame. He suggested that helpers consider these three questions:

  • * How specific do the activities have to be?
  • * How rigid does the order have to be?
  • * How soon does each activity have to be carried out?

Kirschenbaum (p. 492) suggested that, at least in some cases, being less specific and rigid about actions, sequencing, and deadlines can “encourage people to pursue their goals by continually and flexibly choosing their activities.” That is, flexibility in planning can help clients become more self-reliant and proactive. There is a continuum. Some clients actually like the detailed work of devising plans; it fits their style. Consider the following two cases.

Gitta sought counseling as she entered the “empty nest” period of her life. Although there were no specific problems, she saw too much emptiness as she looked into the future. The counselor helped her see this period of life as a normal experience rather than a psychological problem. It was a developmental opportunity and challenge (see Raup & Myers, 1989). It was an opportunity to reset her life. After spending a bit of time discussing some of the maladaptive responses to this transitional phase of life, they embarked on a review of possible scenarios. Gitta loved brainstorming, getting into the details of the scenarios, weighing choices, setting strategies, and making formal plans. She had been running her household this way for years. So the process was familiar even though the content was new.

Gitta readily embraced the detailed work needed to come up with a good plan. But she might be the exception. The distribution is skewed toward the “I hate all this detail and won’t do it” end of the continuum. Rigid planning strategies can lead to frequent failure to achieve short-term goals. Consider the case of Yousef.

Yousef was a single parent with a mentally retarded son. He was challenged one day by a colleague at work. “You’ve let your son become a ball and chain and that’s not good for you or him!” his friend said. Yousef smarted from the remark, but eventually—and reluctantly—sought counseling. He never discussed any kind of extensive change program with his helper, but with a little stimulation from her he began doing little things differently at home. When he came home from work especially tired and frustrated, he had a friend in the apartment building stop by. This helped him to refrain from taking his frustrations out on his son. Then, instead of staying cooped up over the weekend, he found simple things to do that eased tensions, such as going to the zoo and to the art museum with a woman friend and his son. He discovered that his son enjoyed these pastimes immensely despite his limitations. In short, he discovered little ways of blending caring for his son with a better social life. His counselor had a constructive-change mentality right from the beginning but did not try to engage Yousef in overly formal planning activities.

Of course, a slipshod approach to planning—“I will have to pull myself together one of these days”—is also self-defeating. We need only look at our own experience to see that such an approach can be fatal.

Overall, counselors should help clients embrace the kind of rigor in planning that make sense for them in their situations. There are no formulas; there are only client needs, planning skills, and common sense. Some things need to be done now, some later. Some clients need more slack than others. Sometimes it helps to spell out the actions that need to be done in quite specific terms; at other times it is necessary only to help clients outline them in broad terms and leave the rest to their own sound judgment. If therapy is to be brief, help clients start doing things that lead to their goals. Then, in a later session, help them review what they have been doing, drop what is not working, continue what is working, add more effective strategies, and put more organization in their programs. If you have a limited number of sessions with a client, you can’t engage in extensive goal setting and planning. “What can I do that will add most value?” is the ongoing challenge in brief therapy.

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