Drawing Clients Back to Their Own Words

Mar 03, 2017

“But every man is more than just himself, he is also the unique, very special and in every case significant and remarkable point at which the world’s manifestations intersect only once in this way and never again. That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man just as long as he is in any way alive and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous and worthy of the utmost attention.”

Herman Hesse,
from Demian

Drawing Clients Back to Their Own Words

TISA Description of the Problem: It is easy for clients to become lost in their own words. It is also easy for clients to leave off critical information, often unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally. In the following tip by Jim Abelson, a simple but effective means of helping client’s to tell the full story is provided

Tip: Sometimes when a client is asked to describe “what happened” the resulting description is vague. If they have used words that are fairly striking or descriptive, it is often useful to bring their attention back to their own words, asking them, in essence, what was the meaning behind the words. In the following example the client uses the words “flipped out”. When asked in a generic sense what happened, the client provides little information. But when the clinician directs the client back to his exact words, the result is more satisfying:

Client: My boss was really trying to rip me off. The pay check was half of what it was supposed to be. So I flipped out.

Clinician: What did you do?

Client: Well, you got to understand, I spent almost 40 bucks on all of my tools. That’s a lot of money. He really needed to pay me what I deserved. That’s what should have happened.

Clinician: But when you say that you “flipped out” exactly what did you mean by that?

Client: Oh well, I got really mad at him. I started swearing and stuff. Maybe I got a little out of hand.

Clinician: How do you mean that you may have gotten “a little out of hand?”

Client: Well, I sort of got a little bit too angry. I shoved the guy up against the wall. (pause) Not hard, mind you.

By bringing the client back to the specific words or behavior that he or she is describing, I can make sure the client picks up at the exact point in time in question, in this case when he “flipped out”. This ensures that the client doesn’t skip ahead, also ensuring that specific behaviors are not left out.

TISA Follow-up: Note in the above example that the clinician wisely repeats the technique of drawing the client back to his own words. When the client states that “Maybe I got a little out of hand”, the clinician immediately asks him to clarify the phrase, “a little out of hand”. The interviewer’s gentle persistence pays off with the uncovering of an act of violence, that might easily have been unmentioned had not the clinician returned the client to his own words.

Tip provided by:

Jim Abelson, M.D., Ph.D.
Anxiety Disorders Program
University of Michigan
(800) 332-7998, Ext. 6478
Email: mmacdonald@rmcinc.com