Author Archives: Diane

Beginning Therapy with the First Client Contact

Client DisengagementI have been assigned to see a 47-year-old man who told the intake worker he had been depressed for over a year but isn’t willing to take medication. I was finally able to reach him by phone after trying 3 times, and he scheduled a first appointment. Since then, he has cancelled twice saying he is too depressed to come in. I don’t know what more to do and don’t know whether I can help him if he can’t even come to the office.

It is difficult and often frustrating to have multiple phone interactions and messages with a client you haven’t met who seems unwilling or unable to participate in therapy. One way to think about this situation, which is covered in Chapter 2 of my book, is that the therapy begins with your first contact with the client. Sometimes we think of our first telephone interactions as administrative or business tasks taking place before the therapy itself. However, the therapeutic relationship actually begins when you first learn about the client, and you are likely to have the best chance of engaging him when you approach these initial conversations as the beginning of the therapy.

In this case, thinking therapeutically begins with evaluating the meaning of the information you have so far. Your client is developmentally in mid life, and his depression could be related to circumstances that commonly occur in that life stage—loss of a job, ending of a relationship, onset or exacerbation of a medical condition, or death of a parent or another loved one. It can be more difficult to recover from disappointments and losses at mid life, when people begin to experience the narrowing of opportunities that seemed open in earlier in adulthood. His sense of worth and value may be at a low ebb, and asking for help is associated with admitting weakness in many cultures, especially for men.

You also know he says he isn’t willing to take medication. Although you don’t know why he has made this decision, it is meaningful that he shared this with the intake worker. I would hypothesize that he wishes to maintain a feeling of control in the course of his treatment, probably offsetting other ways in which he feels helpless, frightened, and despairing. He is most likely to engage in therapy if he is able to feel a sense of control with you, and so far he seems to be exerting this control by cancelling scheduled appointments.

Before contacting your client again, I would encourage you to think about how you could approach a conversation with him with the goal of communicating a view of him as capable, rather than weak, and an approach to therapy that is collaborative rather than hierarchical. He might respond well to you reframing his decision to cancel your appointments and to not take medication, then you can move on to putting the decision about scheduling in his hands. An example would be “It seems like you’ve been able to reach some clarity about what is most helpful for you in managing your depression. Would it work best if I wait for you to contact me about setting up another appointment?” If he says yes, you could ask if he would like you to be in touch in a week if you don’t hear from him or if he would prefer to contact you when he feels ready. If he says he wants to schedule a session, I would recommend offering him at least two different times so he can retain a sense of control. For example, you could say “I’m in the office three days a week, and right now I have openings on Mondays at 2, Wednesdays at 10, or Thursdays at 6. Are any of those times possible for you?”

It is possible that using the approach I recommend will result in him not beginning therapy, but I believe it represents your best chance of engaging him. Regardless of the outcome, I believe you always will be most effective as a therapist when you think about establishing a therapeutic relationship with your client from the first contact.

I hope you found these comments helpful in your initial interactions with clients before seeing them in person. If you’re interested in reading more about this and related issues, click here to order from Amazon or here to order from Routledge.

Motivations for Becoming a Therapist

I just finished my first semester in a practicum placement, and I have begun to doubt my decision to become a therapist. I decided to enroll in graduate school because I liked to talk to people and heard from my friends that I was a good listener. Seeing clients this semester was much harder than I expected, and I didn’t feel like I was able to help them very much. How can I dnew2ecide whether to stay in the program or leave to pursue a different career?

The experiences that lead us to enter the field of counseling or psychotherapy are varied but often include ways we have taken a helping role in our personal relationships. The topic of our motivations to become a therapist, covered in Chapter 1 of my book, is complex because it includes emotions outside of our awareness as well as thoughts and feelings that we can identify directly. I’ll discuss some ways you can identify aspects of your motivation that may be influencing your doubts, then recommend how to approach your career decision.

Your enjoyment of conversations with your friends and feedback about your listening skills are common factors in leading someone to consider the psychotherapy field. An initial step in identifying more about your motivation is to reflect on what aspect of these conversations was most enjoyable to you. Did you like the process of getting to know someone more intimately, did you like to follow their stories, were you attracted to analyzing their problems or understanding their feelings? Getting more specific about the experiences that led you to this field will give you more information about your choice to enroll in a graduate program.

Next, it is important to look at aspects of your motivation that are less obvious and may not have entered your conscious awareness. Reflect on what you didn’t do or say in your social interactions or what you avoided by being a good listener. It’s possible that you are uncomfortable with the vulnerability that comes with sharing your own thoughts and feelings. You may have adopted a caretaking role because it was expected and/or rewarded in your family and culture or you may focus on others in order to avoid facing painful memories or being alone with your struggles.

Once you have looked more deeply at your motivation, examine the benefits that have come with your interpersonal style. Being a good listener may enable you to feel effective and empowered, and it may be a source of positive self-esteem as well as praise from others. If you help your friends and family members solve their problems, you can be less worried about your own difficulties. It is natural to assume that you will feel the same rewards with your clients, but clinical work is slower and more complex than personal interactions. It can be discouraging to face the difference between your expectations and the reality of working with clients whose problems involve psychological distress, sociocultural stressors, and mental health conditions. If you decide to stay on your path to becoming a therapist, you will need to adjust your expectations and find rewards in clinical work that are different than in your personal relationships.

Having engaged in self-reflection, I recommend that you reach out to others who can assist you in addressing your career question. Discouragement and doubt is often part of the learning process, and you are likely to feel understood and reassured by talking with professors and fellow students in your academic program and with supervisors and colleagues in your practicum setting. If you’re not already seeing a psychotherapist, this is a good time to begin personal therapy to learn more about the experiences that contributed to your career choice and to explore the meaning of your disappointment as a new therapist.

I hope you found this helpful in understanding more about your motivations for becoming a therapist. If you’re interested in reading more about this and related issues, click here to order from Amazon or here to order from Routledge.

When to Engage in Client Advocacy

I have had six sessions with a client who initially presented with symptoms of depression. Since the first session, she has tohispanic young woman in therapyld me about being treated unfairly at her last job, which resulted in her being laid off and led to her depression. She has filed a complaint against her employer and has asked me to talk with her attorney. She would like me to write a letter supporting her complaint and describing the impact of her former employer’s unfair treatment. I feel strongly about advocating for clients in issues of justice so I would like to support her, but my supervisor has advised against doing this.

Like your supervisor, I generally recommend against taking a direct position in a complex legal case like this. I’ll outline some of the ways in which advocacy can be helpful and the reasons it is inadvisable to become involved in a legal or administrative dispute between your client and a third party.

Client advocacy is an important part of psychotherapy with many clients, especially those who come from minority cultural communities and other disenfranchised populations. Advocacy often has the purpose of facilitating access to needed resources such as contacting another agency or a government department to gain information about your client’s eligibility, accompanying your client to an intake appointment for social services or public assistance, or providing verbal or written support for your client’s application for services. We also provide advocacy to our clients when we encourage them to act in the service of their needs and goals, by providing information and/or support. For example, if your client wants to attend a community college course but doesn’t know how to apply, you might get the application information for your client, pass this on to her, and talk with her about the thoughts and feelings that arise as she completes the application. This information and support serves to empower your client in acting on her own behalf.

Your client’s request for advocacy goes beyond the functions of accessing resources and supporting her empowerment. There are several issues that are wise to consider when your client asks you to become involved in a legal or other type of dispute. First, it is important to keep in mind that you are hearing only your client’s side of the conflict and that the other party has a different perspective on the events. The ability to hold more than one point of view on the same situation is a skill that develops as part of professional development, and that ability is useful in this type of case. It isn’t necessary to challenge your client’s perspective or to try to arrive at an objective view, but it is important to remember that your view is based on your client’s interpretation of the events and their meaning.

Second, when your client is involved in a legal case she probably has at least two sources of motivation for treatment. One is to reduce her symptoms and improve the quality of her life, and another is to build support for her argument that she has been wronged and deserves compensation. The presence of these conflicting sources of motivation makes your therapeutic relationship complex, and being clear about your role and boundaries is especially important. You are on solid ground in your role as her therapist, working to help her improve her quality of life, and that requires you to refrain from taking an advocacy role in her complaint.

Third, providing an opinion in a legal case requires special training and expertise which is usually obtained after licensure. Individuals who work with the legal system in this way are functioning in the role of evaluator, with the goal of forming an objective opinion, rather than therapist, with the goal of understanding the client’s point of view. It is unlikely that you have sufficient information to determine a causal relationship between your client’s symptoms and her employer’s actions, and you are have entered a therapeutic rather than an evaluative relationship with your client.

I hope this expands your understanding of the complexity of client requests for advocacy. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Theoretically Based Concepts in Documentation

person-apple-laptop-notebookI’m using a psychodynamic theoretical orientation in my work with clients, and I don’t know how much explanation of these concepts to put in my client’s progress notes and assessment. If anyone else looked at my notes, they might not understand why I chose particular interventions without the theoretical background. However, I learned from my supervisor that documentation should be behavioral rather than psychodynamic.

This is an important issue to consider in creating a client record, since your record may be viewed by other professionals or by your client. The primary interest for others viewing the client’s record is less about the reason for your interventions and more about what you did and how your client responded. When a client or another professional requests a record, it is most often for the purpose of insuring continuity of care or to learn about your client’s presenting problem and progress. You can maximize the value of the record for those purposes when you use language that is easily understood by people who are unfamiliar with psychodynamic or other theories of psychopathology and psychotherapy. It is likely to be distracting rather than helpful to try to explain the theoretical basis for your interventions.

One way to create a record that others can understand and use is to translate theoretically based concepts into terms that are more descriptive and objective. An example is to describe the client as “protecting herself from painful experiences” rather than “using the defense of projection” or to describe your intervention as “assisting the client to develop insight in order to modify his habitual patterns” rather than “interpreting unconscious motivations for self-sabotage.” This approach may be contradictory to assignments in your academic courses, where you are being evaluated on your understanding of and ability to apply theoretical concepts. That is an important skill, and it is a crucial element to an effective treatment plan. However, clinical documentation serves a different purpose and is written for a different audience than academic papers or a clinically oriented theoretical formulation of a case.

Another way to focus your attention in writing clinical documents is to keep the client’s goals uppermost in your mind. This means being aware of the context of your interventions as working to help the client make the changes they want to make. This might lead you to say “declined client’s request to extend the length of the session and supported her ability to self-regulate intense emotions” rather than “set limit on client’s attempt to test boundaries when in a dysregulated state.” Your documentation will convey a more collaborative tone when you focus on the desired outcome of your interventions, which is preferable when the record is viewed by others including the client.

I hope you can use some of these suggestions in writing clinical documentation that is understandable to professionals who have a different theoretical perspective and to nonprofessionals. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Nonverbal Cues Related to Culture

nonverbalculturalcluesI recently had a first session with a client who immigrated from India last year. I’m Caucasian and haven’t lived outside the United States. My client didn’t seem as receptive to therapy as most of my other clients, and I assume this has to do with our cultural differences. What can I do to make it easier for her to benefit from therapy?

It is good for you to begin this therapeutic relationship with an awareness that you will need to make some adjustments in your usual therapeutic practices in order for this client to benefit from therapy. When we have significant cultural differences from our clients, it is our clinical responsibility to learn about the implications of these differences for establishing a therapeutic relationship.

The first step I would suggest is to get some education and consultation on your own, with supervisors, professors, and colleagues and by accessing professional publications in print or online. Since there are many cultural groups within India, it will be important to know your client’s geographic, religious, and class identifications. The easiest aspects of this education will be general information about views of health and mental health, symptoms, and treatment. Your client will also be able to tell you about her understanding of these aspects of her culture. Issues and struggles for first generation Indian clients are reflected in movies and books. The movie “Bend It Like Beckham” and the book “Life’s Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee” by Meera Syal are examples.

In general, boundaries within the Indian culture are very different from those in the West. Many generations live together, elders are expected to be cared for, and daughters in law are expected to bear the brunt of the work in traditional homes. Explore your client’s family structure and expectations, including the family members and living arrangement she left in India and whether she lives with family members or has acquaintances in the U.S. Approach these discussions with openness and keep in mind that individuation may not be the goal of therapy for your client. The structure of a family system that fosters both a sense of connection and a sense of individual wellbeing for this client may look different than for your clients who come from traditional Western culture.

The more difficult aspects of your need for education will be learning about the relational expectations of your client’s culture including nonverbal cues (i.e., eye contact and other gestures) and boundaries. It may be helpful to supplement your education about your client’s specific culture by consulting with colleagues and acquaintances who have immigrated from other cultures. They may be able to share their observations about the unspoken practices and expectations of U.S. culture which are outside of your awareness.

Regarding Indian culture specifically, clients are likely to present as cautious, anxious, or even timid with limited eye contact. These nonverbal cues are not a reflection of avoidance or resistance to therapy, but are signs of deference. The client will expect guidance and direct instruction and will feel comfortable knowing that the clinician is the expert. Therapy initially should be somewhat structured and have clear goals.

If your client immigrated in midlife or later, be aware that many older generation Indians are not psychologically educated and as a result present with somatic problems. They may be referred by a physician rather than self-referred. Consider spending time understanding how the somatic issue affects the client’s life and overall sense of wellbeing including how it affects their spiritual practice, diet, and family life.

In addition to education and consultation, your attentiveness to your client in session will give you valuable information. You mention that she didn’t seem as receptive to therapy as other clients, so I recommend giving some thought to what you observed or inferred in her behavior. Notice the nonverbal aspects of her interactions with you, and see if you can match her level of engagement in terms of expressiveness and eye contact. This may increase her comfort by reducing the interactional discrepancies between you. Be attentive to times in the session when she seems more or less comfortable and think about what may have been different in your relational style at those times. Emotions are often communicated through nonverbal gestures as much as or more than our words, so be careful about making interpretations about her emotional state based on your cultural assumptions. Note that the meaning of nonverbal cues is different across cultures; for example, a nod of the head that indicates saying “no” in western culture means “yes” for Indians.

It may also be useful to have some direct discussion with your client about some of the structural aspects of therapy that are unfamiliar to her. Interpersonal boundaries are experienced very differently in different cultures, so the meaning of professional behavior may be different for your client than you intend. Consider telling your client about the meaning of your professional boundaries and the therapeutic frame, acknowledging that these practices may be unfamiliar to her and may even seem odd. Invite your client’s comments and be open to shifting some aspects of your boundaries in minor ways if that will facilitate the development of the therapeutic relationship. For Indian clients, examples of appropriate differences in boundaries are accepting a small gift or a hug offered out of gratitude from the client, joining in the use of humor to bring warmth to the session, and using a double-handed hand shake.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in understanding the nonverbal aspects of the therapeutic relationship in a cultural context. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

My colleague, Fenella das Gupta, LMFT, Ph.D. Neuroscience, provided consultation in developing the content of this blog post.  See Fenella’s website at http://www.innermirror.com for more information about her practice.

 

 

Steps to Developing a Diagnosis

My agency requires assigning a diagnosis after the first session, and this is very hard to do.  How can I give a diagnosis to my client when I don’t have complete information about them?

This agency requirement is probably related to third party billing and the need to document the medical necessity of the services you are providing to the client. While this requirement ensures that your clients have access to the services they need, it can be frustrating as a clinician to assign a diagnosis when you haven’t had a chance to develop a comprehensive understanding of their symptoms. I will suggest a couple of strategies regarding the notation of the diagnosis itself that may alleviate your concern and then  outline a three-step process for arriving at a diagnosis after the first session or after a more thorough assessment.  My comments are based on using the DSM-5, and may need to be adapted if your agency is using the DSM-IV.

One strategy is to check with your supervisor or the billing manager about the use of diagnoses marked “Provisional” when you have incomplete information.  If this is allowed by the third party, it is a way to acknowledge that your diagnosis is tentative.  Situations in which a “provisional” diagnosis are appropriate are when you know a client meets most of the criteria but haven’t confirmed the full set of criteria required for the diagnosis or when the client reports a diagnosis given by another health care provider that you haven’t verified independently. Also ask about the use of “Other Specified” and “Unspecified” diagnoses when you have determined which category the client’s symptoms fit but don’t know whether they meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis within that category.  These diagnoses are often useful when your information is incomplete, if they are acceptable to the third party.

A second aspect of diagnosis that may alleviate some of your concern is to view diagnosis as an ongoing process rather than a decision that is made once for the duration of the client’s treatment. The diagnosis you assign after the first session may not be the diagnosis that accurately reflects the client’s history and symptoms that emerge as you complete an assessment. This will be most likely if you have used “provisional,” “other specified,” or “unspecified” in your diagnosis, but there are other times when the client’s initial presentation differs from the impression you get after four to six more sessions. I also suggest reviewing the diagnosis every six months or whenever you update the treatment plan. This allows you to update the diagnosis if appropriate, to reflect changes in the client’s symptoms or new historical information you have learned.

I have developed a three-step process to help new clinicians develop a diagnosis, and the worksheet reflecting this process is available for download in an online workbook. I find that new clinicians often have difficulty prioritizing the different pieces of information they have about clients, and this leads to confusion in identifying the most accurate diagnosis. A more detailed description of the diagnostic process is contained in Chapter 5 of my book, available through Amazon or Routledge.

My recommendation is to begin by listing the client’s current symptoms and past symptoms reported as part of the history. This ensures that you consider all of the data that is relevant to the client’s diagnosis rather than prematurely focusing on one aspect of the presentation that may lead to an inaccurate diagnosis or may neglect a secondary diagnosis that is clinically important.

Second, make note of the categories in the DSM-5 that fit your client’s symptoms, being as comprehensive as possible.  In the worksheet, I suggest that you note the categories in which symptoms are present (or are part of the history) and then note whether these symptoms are relevant to the current treatment, i.e., part of the reason for the client seeking treatment. This notation will serve as a reminder to address the relevant symptoms in your treatment goals.  Remember to include the “Other Conditions” category if your client has psychosocial stressors, relationship difficulties, or a history of trauma.

The third step is to look at the specific diagnoses within the categories you have noted to see whether your client’s symptoms meet the criteria for one or more diagnoses. If you noted the “Other Conditions” category, review these codes to determine which situational factors are important to include in your diagnosis. Often, your client’s clinical presentation may be best described by one or more diagnoses and one or more Z codes.  If this is the case, choose the diagnosis that best represents the reason for treatment as the primary diagnosis which will be reported for billing purposes. The other diagnoses will be included in your assessment to provide a comprehensive view of the client’s symptoms, history, and current psychosocial stressors.

I hope you find these comments helpful in working with DSM-5 and diagnosis. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

 

Having Difficult Conversations in Supervision

I have finished my first semester in a new practicum site, and my supervisor’s evaluation of me was less positive than I expected.  She’s been very supportive of me, and I expected her to understand why I’ve had some trouble keeping up with paperwork and applying the theoretical orientation used by my agency.  Should I talk with my supervisor about her evaluation of me?

This is the third blog in a series on difficult conversations.  Click here for the blog related to client conversations and here for the blog related to colleague conversations.  As I have mentioned in the previous blogs, growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk about issues and areas of conflict in a way that is different than our usual social conversations.  When we can expand our repertoire of skills in managing these difficult conversations, we are capable of being effective in a broader range of clinical challenges.

One of the issues raised by your question is the inherent tension that is felt by both supervisors and supervisees between two necessary aspects of supervision: 1) providing support to facilitate professional growth and 2) giving corrective and constructive feedback in areas needing further development.  Both of these aspects of supervision are required for you to gain skill and confidence in your clinical work, but most supervisors and supervisees are more comfortable with the support side than the corrective feedback side.  I will suggest a few issues for reflection before returning to the question of talking with your supervisor about her evaluation of you.

First, I would suggest that you examine the degree to which you experience support and feedback as polarized or incompatible.  Think about other relationships you have had with instructors and other authority figures and whether it has been hard for you to receive guidance or suggestions on assignments or work performance.  This may also relate to your experience with your parents, bringing up issues to discuss in your personal therapy.  You may be looking for nurturing and support from your supervisor without recognizing the need for correction and guidance.

Second, it sounds like you have some assumptions about what it means for your supervisor to be supportive.  Consider your supervisor’s position of responsibility for your clients’ care and for insuring that your clinical work meets acceptable standards in your agency as well as the mental health field.  She may or may not understand the reasons you have struggled in the particular areas you mention, but either way she has a responsibility to evaluate your performance accurately and to give you appropriate feedback.  Being supportive doesn’t mean that you’ll be held to a more lenient standard than your peers.

Third, I recommend reflecting on your own standards for yourself as you learn a new set of skills.  It is often uncomfortable to be a beginner especially when you have developed confidence in other areas of your life.  You may be looking for positive feedback from your supervisor partially in order to counter your own discomfort or self-criticism as you grow in a new profession.  You may also be unfamiliar with being rated as average or even below average, even though this is a predictable part of the clinical learning process.  Mastering clinical work is different from learning academic material, and you may have expected an evaluation from your supervisor that reflects your success in the classroom.

After reflecting on these three areas, give thought to how you might approach a conversation with your supervisor.  I would suggest focusing on the corrective feedback she gave you as an opportunity for you to establish goals for your next semester.  Make sure you understand your supervisor’s expectations and ask her for examples of the changes she wants you to make.  If you are uncertain about how to make these changes, ask for suggestions of ways you can improve.  It will probably be helpful to have a series of conversations about the areas you mention, so you can get progressive feedback on your performance.  It may be hard to focus your attention on areas of growth rather than areas of greater skill, but your clinical work will improve as you bring those weaker areas in line with your strengths.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in having difficult conversations in supervision.  Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Having Difficult Conversations with Colleagues

I’m seeing a heterosexual couple in couples therapy, and a colleague at my agency is seeing the wife individually. Last week my colleague made a critical comment about the husband and questioned how helpful couples therapy could be. She said this in front of several of our peers, and I didn’t respond because I was shocked and hurt. I think I need to say something to her, because her negative view of the couples therapy will undermine the wife’s participation. There is a lot of conflict in the relationship but they have both expressed a commitment to work it out and stay together.

This is my second blog on the topic of having difficult conversations. It may be helpful to read the prior blog about client conversations if you didn’t do so already. This situation with your colleague is an example of difficult conversations that can arise when we share cases or consult with colleagues about our work. Growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk with colleagues as well as clients about uncomfortable issues and areas of conflict. You’ve already made an important first step in deciding that you need to talk with your colleague rather than avoiding a challenging interaction. I would agree that having a disagreement between the individual and couples therapists can be harmful to the client, and I would add that it can also be informative to both the individual and the couple therapy.

I would suggest that you engage in personal reflection before you approach your colleague. It is important to identify 1) the nature of the conflict or difficulty you are experiencing with your colleague, 2) assumptions you may be making about the reasons for the conflict, and 3) the desired outcome of a conversation. During this process, it may be helpful to consult with another trusted colleague or your supervisor to sort through your feelings and hear some alternative explanations or outcomes you may not have considered.

When you reflect on the nature of the conflict, identify the content or issues of disagreement as well as the emotions associated with the conflict. In this instance, you mention shock and hurt, but you may notice other emotions that have arisen since then. If you find that the issue and associated emotions are similar to interactions that have been a struggle in your personal life, it may be helpful to take this to your own therapy as well as getting supervision and consultation.

After you feel clear about the conflict itself, reflect on the assumptions you have about why your colleague made this remark. Usually an emotionally charged interaction leads us to develop explanations for our hurt or angry feelings, and these explanations often include criticism and judgment of yourself or the other person. For example, you may wonder whether your colleague doubts your skill as a couples therapist or whether she has a bias in favor of separation for couples in conflict. Consider other explanations as well, possibly with the help of your supervisor, therapist, or colleagues. One possibility is that the wife is describing her view of and feelings about her husband and marriage differently in her individual therapy than in the couples therapy. This would mean that you and your colleague are holding two disparate parts of the wife’s experience that she hasn’t reconciled.

Third, identify the outcome you desire for your conversation. There are a number of possible outcomes when approaching a colleague about a difficult interaction: expressing your point of view, engaging your colleague in understanding your difference of opinion, and sharing your view of possible reasons for your differences in perspectives are a few. Make sure that the outcome you identify is something that is focused on your communication and is collaborative in nature. A desired outcome of changing your colleague’s point of view establishes a more adversarial tone and is likely to lead to a deterioration of your collaboration rather than strengthening it. If you have difficulty identifying your desired outcome, check with your supervisor, therapist, or another trusted colleague who can maintain neutrality.

Once you have moved through these steps in understanding the interaction with your colleague, you are ready to plan a conversation with her. I would recommend letting her know you’d like to talk and planning a specific time and plan for the conversation. You’re more likely to achieve your desired outcome if both of you have set time aside and if your colleague knows what you want to talk about. Make sure you describe the purpose of the conversation in neutral terms by saying something like “I’d like to talk further about our work with X and the questions you raised last week about the couples therapy.” Follow that statement with some suggested times and a private location where you can talk without disturbance. When you come to the designated time and place, you may benefit from having a clear opening statement about your reason for wanting to have the conversation, setting the tone as positive, curious, and collaborative. An example of an opening statement in your situation might be “I was surprised to hear what you said last week about X’s husband and the couple therapy. I’d like to compare our perspectives to see if we can make sure the two therapies are beneficial to her.” The preparation you have done will enable you to listen to your colleague’s point of view, express yours, and work to establish common ground in understanding your client.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in addressing difficult conversations with colleagues in your clinical work. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Having Difficult Conversations with Clients

Mother and daughter having an argumentI have a client who has been 10-15 minutes late to every session since we started meeting three months ago.  My supervisor says I need to talk with her about this, but I’m afraid she might stop therapy if I confront her.  Is it possible to continue seeing her in therapy without talking about why she’s late?

I sometimes say to my supervisees and people I am training that as mental health practitioners we are in the business of having difficult conversations.  Growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk about issues and areas of conflict in a way that is different than usual social conversations.  I’ll discuss first some of the steps that can help us in having these conversations, then address the specific situation you describe.

Each of us comes into the clinical role with interpersonal skills that are familiar and comfortable, and these familiar strategies involve avoiding some type of discomfort.  As we work with different kinds of clients, we find that these interpersonal skills are helpful in some of the situations we face but not in others.  We also face situations with supervisors, peers, and colleagues that may challenge our familiar strategies for coping with conflict or distress.  When we can expand our repertoire of skills in managing these difficult conversations, we are capable of being effective in a broader range of clinical challenges.

In working toward greater interpersonal flexibility, it will be helpful to take some time to reflect on the situation and your emotional responses to it.  Supervision and personal therapy are good resources to use in developing greater self-awareness.  Some steps to consider are to identify 1) the specific nature of the conflict or discomfort you feel, 2) the benefits and limitations of your familiar strategy for managing this type of conflict or discomfort, 3) the fears or worries that arise when you consider handling the situation in a different way, and 4) a small step you could take to expand your skills.  Remember that change usually happens in small steps, so think about developing your interpersonal skills incrementally rather than pressuring yourself to do something dramatically different.

Applying these steps to the specific situation you mention, we start with the nature of the conflict.  It seems your supervisor is suggesting something that you perceive as confrontational, but it isn’t clear whether you perceive the client’s lateness to be a problem and why discussing it would become adversarial.  A starting point would be to explore more of your own response to the client being late and the potential meaning it might have.  This would be something to discuss in supervision as well.  It seems that your familiar strategy with managing this type of conflict is to avoid discussing it directly, so the next step would be to consider the positive and negative results of this type of avoidance in other situations in your life.  It may be that this was the most effective way to respond in your personal relationships, but remember that your job as a clinician is to help your client face and resolve the issues that are interfering with her life.  A limitation of relying solely on avoidance of potential conflict is that your client will not have an opportunity to gain insight into a pattern that may contribute to her difficulties outside of therapy.

A third step to consider is the nature of fears and worries you have about responding differently to this situation.  You express a fear that your client will stop therapy if you discuss her lateness.  This seems to reflect an assumption that she will feel judged or criticized by you and that your therapeutic alliance isn’t strong enough for a conversation about something that affects your work together.  Consider approaching the conversation with curiosity rather than judgment.  You can talk about the issue without requiring that she begin coming on time.  A small step you could take toward handling this situation differently would be to say something like “I notice that you usually come a bit later than our scheduled time and I wonder if there is anything about that you’d like to discuss.”  The client may simply say “no” and move on to another topic, but taking this step moves you into an area that has previously been fearful for you.  You can then look at the meaning of your client’s pattern and additional ways you might discuss it with her.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in addressing difficult conversations with clients and other professionals in your clinical work.  Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Education as a Therapeutic Intervention

I’ve been seeing a client for about six months, and she recently told me about witnessing domestic violence between her parents when she was young. I used to volunteer at a DV family shelter, so I have a lot of information about how she may have been affected by this. Is it appropriate for me to share what I know as part of her therapy?counseling

This is a good question and brings up a common situation in therapy. You have information that may be useful for the client in understanding and resolving the difficulties that led her to seek therapy, and you are wise to think through the decision to take an educational role. I will share some of my thoughts about the factors to consider in deciding how and when to bring educational information into therapy.

First, I would affirm your sense that providing education can be a useful therapeutic intervention. As mental health professionals, we have knowledge about trauma, relationships, communication, human development, family dynamics, and many other topics that are relevant to our clients’ concerns. This particular client has introduced the topic of domestic violence, and it could be empowering for her to gain knowledge that she can apply to her life.

As you consider talking with your client about the impact of witnessing domestic violence as a child, pay particular attention to the timing of her decision to share this with you and to your countertransference feelings in learning this new detail of her history. She chose to wait six months before telling you about this powerful and traumatic experience, so this means she has been waiting to feel a sufficient level of trust before disclosing this to you. Think about what it means for her to have chosen this moment in the therapy to share the domestic violence and reflect on what she wants and needs from you in response. Notice how you felt when she told you and what you feel as you anticipate giving her educational information. There may be an intense emotion you are avoiding or attempting to modify by introducing psychoeducation, especially if it represents a shift from your usual therapeutic style. Consider the possibility that your client will benefit from education about the impact of domestic violence at a later time in the therapy after you and she have talked about the meaning and feelings she has about telling you now.

Another factor to consider in your decision is your client’s culture and what this means for her expectations of you and the therapy. She may view you as an expert who has knowledge that she is lacking, and it may be more therapeutic for you to work on developing a more collaborative alliance before you adopt an educational role. Alternatively, it is possible that conforming to her expectations of your role may help her to feel more safe and trusting. Reflection on the therapeutic process so far and consultation with your supervisor will help you to sort out the cross-cultural implications of sharing your knowledge about this topic. If your client comes from a different cultural community than you, also give thought to her cultural values and norms for family relationships and the presence of physical violence in the home. Providing education requires sensitivity to cultural differences and to her current relationship with the cultural values of her childhood.

Last, I would recommend thinking about your client’s general description of her relationship with her parents and how your use of education may provide a different experience for her. If she experienced her parents as unavailable and preoccupied, you will provide a different experience by being engaged and attuned to her needs and questions. If she experienced her parents as intrusive and acting on their own agenda, it will be helpful to introduce your ideas tentatively and ask for her responses and thoughts about the information you provide.

I hope you found this blog post helpful in considering the use of psychoeducation in therapy. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.