The skills of confrontation, and it’s cousin, logical consequences are important counseling skills to have. But, as with other counseling skills, there is a right way and a wrong way to do them.
Clients present stories to us that often have contradictions. Contradictions between stated thought and feeling, contradictions between feeling and behavior…the combinations are almost endless. To complicate things further, clients often have ambiguous feelings, that is, they can feel two polar opposite feelings simultaneously. Usually, clients are unaware that they are doing this. In order to help clients address mental and emotional distress, it is essential that these inconsistencies be brought to their attention and addressed. Otherwise, they can serve to keep the client stuck in their problem.
But how? It is very easy to make a client defensive. After all, counselors need to remember that they are in the “one-up” position, meaning that they are viewed as the expert, and therefore hold most of the power in the counseling relationship. If counselors aren’t very careful about how they confront clients, clients may feel negatively judged and put down. In another words, worse than they felt before they came in. This, of course, is not the goal of counseling.
A good confrontation is gentle, supportive and accurately reflects what the client has shared with you. The idea is to help the client explore their own conflict more deeply, with the goal being the formulation of a new idea or plan that will benefit the client.
To reduce possible defensiveness, it is recommended that the counselor adapt an “unknowing” stance. Meaning, the counselor expresses genuine confusion to the client in a quest to fully understand the client. Framed in this way, the client will feel cared about, not judged. Here’s an example:
Client: “I just don’t have time to exercise, and I don’t have the money to join a gym anyway. But I really want to lose weight and feel better.”
Bad Therapist: “You are just making excuses, then. You know what’s good for you and you refuse to do it.” (accurate, but not properly framed).
Good Therapist: “Hmmm…on one hand you know exercise is good for you, but yet, on the other hand you don’t want to do it. How do you feel about this conflict?” (still accurate, but framed in a way that draws the client’s attention to their own internal conflict, since it’s not necessary for client defend him or herself against the therapist’s attack).
As a beginning therapist, you may fear confrontation. The last thing you want to do is to upset the client. But, remember that this isn’t a friendship, and sometimes when counseling clients you need to take the risk that you may upset them. After all, if total agreement with no challenges are what the client really needed, they wouldn’t be coming in to see you since they are already getting that from their friends. It isn’t working. It is your job to do what is in the client’s best interest, even if it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. The more you practice it, the easier it will become.
Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,