On being interested in the client


27 Jan 2017 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory


A famous therapist, Milton Erickson, was once being interviewed by a researcher about one of his clients who had a washing compulsion.

    Erickson: ... I asked her … “When you get in the shower to scrub yourself for hours, tell me, do you start at the top of your head, or the soles of your feet, or in the middle? Do you wash from the neck down or do you start with your feet and wash up? Or do you start with your head and wash down?”

    Researcher: Why did you do that?

    Erickson: So that she knew that I was really interested …

    Researcher: So that you could join her in this?

    Erickson: So that she knew that I was really interested.

The researcher tried to reinterpret Erickson’s reply in terms of theory, but Erickson gently reminded him that when working in a therapeutic role, we start from the perspective of having a genuine interest in the person in front of us.

When we are working with clients, we can find ourselves being caught up in thinking how we should work with them, or what we ought to say next. But this can take our focus away from what’s going on for the client in that moment.

Congruence and acceptance are ways of being with the client. Empathic understanding, on the other hand needs to be developed with each new client – there is no short cut to knowing how they feel, of knowing what it’s like to be in their shoes, of seeing the world through their eyes.

As a trainee counsellor worrying about lack of progress with a client, I realised that I was thinking so much about finding the “right” intervention, that it was taking my attention away from focussing on the client. I remembered Erickson’s words and brought my focus back to understanding the client’s world, simply paying attention to what the client was saying and trying my best to develop a deep empathic understand of the client’s world and of her situation, feelings and beliefs.

After several sessions, at the end of our work together, the client said “You know, I’ve been in counselling before, and had other help, but with those I always had the feeling that the other person wasn’t really listening to me. But with you, when we worked together, I felt like you were really interested in me.”

If in doubt, keep your attention on what the client has just said, not what to say next.

Client details may be altered to preserve confidentiality.


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