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How to Help Your Clients Achieve Their Therapy Goals

5 tips for goal presentation to enhance client compliance (with video demonstration)

Goals can seem impossible - but they don't have to be

Have you ever set a therapeutic goal for a client, had them agree to it, and then… find they’ve done nothing at all about it at their next session?

To escape from a problem (whether a burning building or a state of mind) a strategy is needed. Clear goal setting is vital when helping people in therapy. The mind needs a clear orientation (especially when it’s all emotional) and a compelling ‘blueprint’ fixed within consciousness of how things can be better in the future. But if the client doesn’t try to reach those goals, or if they don’t know where to begin, it all gets a little trickier.

Here’s my quick and easy guide on how to set therapy goals your client feels motivated to achieve.

1. State the goal in positive terms

I never take goals for granted. Even when treating, say, a spider phobia, where you’d assume the goal was pretty self-evident, we’ll still spend time clarifying their goal in positive terms:

“What do you want from this session?”

“I don’t want to feel terrified and sick when I see spiders!”

What kind of a blueprint is that? Imagine getting in a cab and telling the driver all the places you don’t want to go.

Prefer to watch instead?

People who lead fearful lives tend to waste time focusing on what they don’t want to have happen in the future; successful, fulfilled people focus on positive possibilities and work toward them.

So instead you could say; “Okay, so what do you imagine it will be like to feel relaxed around spiders?” Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, we’re beginning to gently steer our client away not just from what they don’t want, but towards their therapeutic destination.

For more technique demonstration videos, see Uncommon Practitioners TV

2. Therapy sculpture

Help your clients shape their goals.

Someone who has been negatively focused for a long time may find it quite difficult to suddenly start thinking about what they do want. For example, if someone’s been depressed they may be so mired in misery that any ‘solution talk’ feels utterly alien. Here you might gently suggest desired outcomes:

“Wouldn’t it be good to start to feel a little more energetic in the mornings?”

If they concur, then you can start to mould this idea into a more specific goal, but…

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3. Don’t leap the staircase

I might ask someone to imagine a staircase with ten steps and suggest they wouldn’t expect to leap up all ten steps at once, but we can get going by starting to climb one step at a time.

Break the goal down into manageable chunks. If someone tells you they want to ‘be happy’ we need to ‘unwrap’ this word and discover what this might equate to in practice; for example:

  • feel more energetic
  • enjoy sex again
  • socialize more
  • start to play the piano again
  • re-join the gym and do regular exercise
  • sleep well.

And so on. So now we’ve broken down the vague and indistinct goal of ‘being happier’ (perhaps itself sculpted from ‘not wanting to feel depressed’) into specific concrete components that we can actually start to work toward.

4. Sell the sizzle

The power of expectation is immense: use it. Your words, your demeanor, your facial expressions all create expectation.

And you can do this by artfully implying positive outcomes, rather than bluntly stating them.

Tell people what to expect, how things will improve. Build future pictures using all their senses of how things will be better and happier:

“As depression starts to lift it’s common for dreaming to decrease and therefore day time energy to start increasing… so that it’s possible to do more again…”

“When these fearful feelings calm down and recede, people often find themselves experiencing a marvellous sense of lightness and freedom…”

5. Can’t wait to know!

Curiosity is a huge motivator: Can therapists use curiosity to enhance their therapy…?

Find out next week!

But seriously – of course we can. Dr Milton Erickson would use curiosity as a motivator all the time; he’d get people fixated on the possible course of their own potential.

“And I really don’t know… and you can be very curious… just how these new good changes… are going to begin to show up in your life… in rather surprising and delightful ways…”

So, to sum up

Your goal setting needs to be:

  • positively orientated
  • specific (and if necessary broken down into manageable steps)
  • compelling (remember the sizzle!)
  • made more compelling through maximising curiosity.

Because, in the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

“One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails And not the gales,
That tells the way we go”.

For extra help with goal-setting with clients, have a look at the script I co-wrote called Stick to Your Goals.

Photo courtesy of Matt Denton

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Download my book on reframing, "New Ways of Seeing", when you subscribe for free email updates

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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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