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Three Perceptive Ways to Spot Client Incongruence

How to keep an open mind about what might be true without disbelieving your clients

Incongruence – seeming to be one thing while really being or feeling another – can blight relationships or even whole lives.

“Human beings seem to have an almost unlimited capacity to deceive themselves”.

— R.D Laing

A look of pure hatred ripped across her face like a fork of lightning tearing through the sky, just for an eyeblink then it was gone. Perhaps I had imagined it? But no, there it was again.

It happened every time she mentioned her dead husband.

Like many people fascinated by psychology, I’ve read Paul Ekman’s books on microexpressions.1 He describes and shows how we can spot signs of incongruence in other people.

For example, someone may have a full microexpression, a complete but fleeting look of, say, rage, for an instant before the mask slips back on again. Or someone may reveal a partial look of rage, or sadness, perhaps just around the eyes, again just for a moment. We can learn to spot these. But even what we don’t notice consciously we may feel intuitively. Something may seem a little off about what our client is telling us.

And most of us have been smiled at by someone who really didn’t want to smile at us. We notice indifference, fear, or anger lurking in the eyes even as the mouth takes its traditional  upward trajectory. But we don’t feel such ‘smiles’.

Incongruence – seeming to be one thing while really being or feeling another – can blight relationships (including therapeutic ones) or even whole lives.

Smiles, wiles, and denials

According to Paul Ekman, human beings can produce 19 different types of smile, only one of which is genuine – the so-called Duchenne smile. This genuine smile engages the orbicularis oculi muscles around the eyes. It lights up the whole face.

I’m not saying that some social masking isn’t necessary. I may not be pleased to see a long-lost (for good reason!) relative at Christmas, but I don’t necessarily want them to feel terrible in that moment. So I paste on a smile and welcome them in.

I know full well the cashier probably doesn’t give a monkey’s left testicle whether I “have a nice day” or not. But I am happy they wished me one anyway. Social lubrication requires a little fake interest in your kindly neighbour’s fish collection here or a manufactured little laugh  at your ailing uncle’s dud joke there. Paradoxically, a little fakery can be a kindness.

Being ‘authentic’ all the time may be little more than the continuous expression of obnoxious and entitled selfishness. But balance, of course, is needed.

When it really matters, we need to be real with people – assertive and honest. We certainly don’t want to live lives of fakery, even if, for the sake of kindness or expedience, we may need to mask our true feelings sometimes.

But there is another kind of fakery which isn’t even seen as such by those ‘faking’ it.

Hiding from the hurtful truth within

Sometimes feelings are hard to recognize within ourselves because they fly so starkly against who we believe we are or should be. I’ve previously written about denial here, so this piece is really more about spotting it.

People can sometimes be honest with you as far as they know, yet if you dig a little deeper there may be other things going on.

Sara had loved her husband at first, but came to resent him – even before he took his own life. Not that she was willing to admit that at first.

“Everyone loved my husband,” she told me uncomfortably. “He would seem to be the greatest guy on Earth!”

I thought that was an interesting way of putting it. Was Sara feeling something about her dead husband that she ‘shouldn’t’ be?

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Sara saw herself as kind, understanding, and loving. Perhaps she just couldn’t countenance feelings of anger towards her husband for leaving her and their children. He was, after all, dead. In reference to another context, Sara had told me emphatically that we should “never speak ill of the dead!”

Sara spoke only good things about her husband, but these flashes of rage – I don’t think that’s too strong a word – would continually flit across her face like shadows from fast-moving clouds.

True feelings about important things always leak out somehow.

But of course what we, the therapist, decide to do when we suspect we might have spotted incongruence is another matter. Simply confronting someone with what we think is going on for them may help, or…

  • We may have been mistaken and risk damaging our rapport with them.
  • They may not be ready for such blunt and painful truths.

Although, at the risk of sounding overly Zen, sometimes we can confront without confronting.

Talking about something without talking about it

We often work metaphorically with clients because they often communicate metaphorically with us.

Sara had come to me for help with her migraines, and I did work directly with her on those. But I also told her a story, while she was deep in hypnotic trance, about a woman who was clearing out her house but could only throw stuff out she ‘no longer needed’ once she’d actually found and recognized it.

Neither Sara nor I discussed this story after her hypnotic session, and she may not have even remembered it consciously, but I felt it had the effect of making her more open to what she might be feeling.

I also spoke Socratically about how people can sometimes have feelings they don’t want to have, and that there’s no shame in that because we don’t choose what we feel. Believe it or not, this was in context with the general flow of conversation so wasn’t as obvious as it sounds here!

More generally though, even when looking for incongruence we need to tread carefully.

Leaping to false conclusions

Cognitive dissonance/denial will tend to leak out if it is there. But we should never assume it’s there too early. We should avoid disbelieving what our clients tell us unless we have solid evidence.

Cognitive dissonance will tend to leak out if it is there. But we should never assume it's there too early. We should avoid disbelieving what our clients tell us unless we have solid evidence. Click to Tweet

We need to hold fire on assuming we know what we think we’ve observed.

An important caveat is that we observe patterns of incongruence (or lack thereof) over time. So rather than believing we’ve spotted incongruence from one observation, we need to look at whether this observation persists across different situations and contexts.

If a man tells you he loves his wife while shaking his head, for example, you could watch to determine whether he is a bit of a head shaker in general – perhaps even when telling you stuff you both know to be true?

Before you could begin to draw conclusions, you would have to see whether he usually shakes his head when he tells you something real. So spotting incongruencies is about spotting inconsistencies within whole patterns of communication. Inconsistencies that seem at odds with how the client usually communicates.

So what signs can we look out for?

Tip one: Is there a disconnect between what they say and what they do?

This first one is simple.

If people tell you they’re hardworking or sociable but then seem indolent or withdrawn, then that’s a pretty obvious incongruence. But sometimes we can get blinded by what people say at the expense of observing what they do.

One client would tell me how much she loved people, but then spend a whole session lamenting the many faults and inadequacies of the people in her life. Another told me how he felt honesty was important, but then tried to get me to sign a document stating he’d had 20 therapy sessions after only two so he could ‘claim the money back’ from his workplace!

These are rather obvious examples of words clashing with reality but they do illustrate the general rule that what people say doesn’t always match what they do – and this is something we should be vigilant for.

Next we’re back to micro-expressions.

Tip two: The eyes (and face and body) have it

We don’t want to peer at our clients like some birdwatcher gawping at a new species of pigeon, but we do need to observe them naturally. Having our head in our notes as we diligently write down everything they tell us may cause us to miss what they tell us with their eyes or posture.

Look for facial expressions when your client talks about certain issues. Do they look sad when they discuss a parent or an old job even though they’re not using sad words? Do they close their body up defensively when you ask about some topic they ostensibly seem fine about? We’re not trying to catch people out here, nor assume anything prematurely or challenge them directly.

We’re simply being open to possible patterns of incongruence.

We might, of course, be wrong about the observations we make and what they mean. But often we may be right. Once the client relaxes with us, then they may feel able to tell us their true feelings or even see themselves clearly for the first time. This is very different to suggesting the incongruence to them directly and them simply accepting what we suggest, as in: “I must be angry about my dead mother because my therapist told me I am!”

One client would close her eyes for a second every time she mentioned her grown-up son coming back to live with her and her husband. She at first said she was fine about this but later said she had not been wanting to “look at” certain aspects of his behaviour. So there was, perhaps, a certain, metaphorical message there in the closing of her eyes.

In an early workshop I was conducting, one psychiatrist had a choking fit (which interrupted my lecture). I’d been discussing ideas which perhaps flew a little in the face of her current psychological theory. Later she told me how, at first, she’d found what we taught “hard to swallow”.

If people don’t tell you… they tell you. Just in different ways sometimes. Our clients’ words are important, of course, but  people say so much without words too.

And finally, watch for emotional flare-ups that don’t seem quite… right.

Tip three: Watch for songs and dances

I remember introducing a female friend to one of my male friends at a party some years ago. He has quite a strong personality, and she seemed to take an instant dislike to him. Or did she? A strong reaction is still a strong reaction, whichever end of the spectrum it falls on.

She said she found him appalling. But I detected an attraction. When she said “appalling”, did she really mean “appealing”?

To me there seemed to be a kind of disconnect between what she said she felt about him and what she really seemed to feel. But as is wise at such times, I kept my suspicions to myself!

Still, I couldn’t help but notice how she looked whenever his name was mentioned. I began to notice a pattern. Every time I mentioned him, a tiny smile would appear on her face for just the briefest of moments, before she would reiterate – more forcibly than ever! – how much she couldn’t stand him.

She seemed to make such a song and dance about not liking him!

I didn’t argue with her, partly because I think consciously she really was unaware of her attraction to him, even as her unconscious mind somehow always seemed to conspire to drag her to the same social events as him, and at the same time.

She seemed genuinely surprised when, as she put it, she “suddenly” started to like him. But to me it was clear she’d liked him from the start – she just hadn’t twigged to it yet. And, you guessed it, they ended up married!

Now that’s not to say that people never genuinely dislike other people or that revulsion is really always attraction in disguise. But sometimes a big emotional reaction which seems out of place or proportion may be an instance of “the lady doth protest too much“.

What we rail against might be our true feelings

I’ve seen this type of strong emotional reaction in clients too. Reactions which have somehow stood out as unexpectedly pronounced and emphasized. Sometimes we describe ourselves when we describe others.

One client told me angrily how much he detested domestic abusers – how it was the lowest thing and the polar opposite of his “way of doing things”. He looked angry, and I was surprised how much he raged about it because we hadn’t really been talking about it.

When I later saw his ex-wife for therapy, she admitted that he had physically abused her sometimes. This was a real shock to me.

Another client raged about the evils of capitalism but seemed to be extremely interested in making money and acquiring properties. This links back to my first point about what people say versus what they do. But it also indicates a strong emotional masking, like the misdirection of a magician, so you don’t see what’s really going on.

After all, if I flatter myself that I am one kind of person but behave as another, it takes a lot of vehemence or passion to create an emotional smokescreen thick enough to hide or deny my hypocrisy.

So what do we make of all this?

What to remember

Sara’s migraines ameliorated and finally became infrequent and much less severe. She started to speak a little about resenting her dead husband and told me how good it felt to talk about it. But I’d never once suggested directly to her that her true feelings were anything other than what she’d explicitly told me.

People are often straightforward, and we should never assume incongruence. But at the same time we can remember that:

  • People have conscious and unconscious awareness. And sometimes there is a dichotomy between the two.
  • Powerful feelings will leak out through tonality, eyes, expressions, body language, and even in the form of unconsciously generated metaphors or ‘jokes’ that may be more than expressions of humour.
  • We shouldn’t jump to conclusions or challenge people directly with what we suspect is really going on. Certainly not prematurely, anyway.
  • Sometimes we can communicate metaphorically with our clients, enabling them to see what might really be within and accept, manage, or alter it without ever needing to be explicit.

People let you know even when they don’t let you know. We serve our clients better when we see with our intuitive minds as well as our logical brains, remembering that truth is always seeking to be known.

What to do when you spot client incongruence

As Mark mentions in the article above, pointing out your client’s incongruence when you think you’ve spotted it isn’t always the best idea. Often, a more subtle approach will produce a better yield. You can learn about all sorts of subtle communication techniques in Mark’s online course, Conversational Reframing.

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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.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

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  1. I recommend Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (2015). Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions. Malor Books.

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