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3 Ways to Communicate Client Responsibility in Therapy

What you can say to ensure your client joins the therapeutic endeavour


Therapy works best when practitioner and client work together

There you are, struggling to keep your head above water in a tempestuous sea. Drowning is imminent.

With moments to spare, a rescuer arrives and throws you an inflatable life jacket. They have, for the time being, fulfilled their responsibility as rescuer.

But now you have a responsibility. You have to put the jacket on.

Therapists help those who help themselves

You may have noticed that some clients can adopt a deep passivity about their lives, expecting and waiting for things to be done to and done for them.

But therapy and counselling don’t work like that. As practitioners, we work with, not on, our clients. And we need to make sure they know this.

Now some of the popular ideas as to what therapy should be may come from the past when therapy was seen as endless analysis in which the idea was an intellectual exploration rather than a practical improvement in the patient’s life. All the client had to do was talk, the therapist might do little and somehow change would occur.

Then again some clients’ very problems may be caused by the passivity resulting from learned helplessness. Past genuine disempowerment may have led them to over apply the sense of passivity and helplessness so that any sense of “can do” has been temporarily lost.

We might need to help them deal with that before they become too actively engaged in their own progress.

As practitioners, we work with, not on, our clients. And we need to make sure they know this.

But to be successful, therapy and counselling require the client to take ownership of their share of the therapeutic work. Any kind of ‘magical thinking’, particularly in relation to the role of therapy interventions or techniques can become an obstacle to the real work of change.

Magical thinking happens when we (or our clients) assume that change and progress will happen just as a result of them turning up for therapy. You will work your magic and they will miraculously be cured and leave happy and fulfilled in all ways.

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Here are 3 ways we can powerfully convey the importance of client responsibility in therapy:

1. Say it straight

No need to be vague here. It’s absolutely fine to say something straightforward like:

You know, the real change happens inside you and we need to work together. We can work as a team, if you do your part.

2. Use analogy

I’ll often use the above life jacket analogy or I might say something along the lines of:

You know, I’m learning to play the guitar. I have a wonderful guitar teacher, but I’m the one who has to bring my guitar to the lessons, pay attention to what I’m being taught, and practise regularly as best I can.

Now, there is a lot I can help you with. But, of course, you need to let me help you.

3. Talk about their capabilities

No matter what interventions and techniques you use in your work, the point is, it is their own psychotherapeutic or hypnotic potential that is pivotal.

So you might very permissively suggest:

You know, I’m very curious as to just how much of your potential you can explore and develop today. And perhaps you can really enjoy that sense of curiosity, too, and wonder where it will take you…

Talking like this is pretty hypnotic in itself, as it encourages greater openness to ideas and expectation of change.

Talking in terms of what they can do encourages a sense of capability and also subtly communicates their personal role in their therapeutic progress.

As Dr Milton Erickson once said: “What your patient does and what he learns must be learned from within himself. There is not anything you can force into the patient.”

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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