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The beauty of client and supervisee resistance

By Michelle Backlund and Veronica Johnson August 8, 2018

In the counseling profession, resistance is essentially considered a four-letter word. Actually, many counselors probably feel more comfortable using a four-letter word than they do talking about a client’s or supervisee’s resistance. There are good reasons for this aversion.

Traditionally, resistance shown by clients or during supervision was considered a type of pathology. It was akin to victim blaming. As a profession, we have come to understand that resistance to change or to feedback is often a normal reaction to anxiety, stress, evaluation, trauma or even the learning process. Counselors have substituted many names, including ambivalence and self-protection, in place of resistance to avoid pathologizing normal behavior. As counselors and supervisors, we must choose our words wisely, understanding that every word has unspoken meaning.

History is full of negative references to resistance. Most of these denote the effect of some form of rejection — an idea is discarded, a form of government is found offensive, love has bloomed unrequited in someone’s heart, advice is unwanted, and on and on. However, resistance also has a beautiful aspect: the formation of diamonds as they respond to the pressure of the earth, muscles gaining tone and strength under the resistance of weight, the violinist’s fingers sturdily pressing the strings of her instrument as she then presses her bow to produce the sound.

Taking it a step further, here is an object lesson: I (Michelle Backlund) was visiting with a colleague who previously taught ballroom dance for 30 years, and he recognized how physical resistance could create connection, spontaneity and fun within a dance partnership. I was sharing with this colleague the many negative effects of resistance on relationships.

He asked me, “Did you know that resistance is really a great tool to make relationships strong?”

I said, “How?”

He said, “Put your hand up, with your palm facing me.”

I did, and he placed his hand against mine, then gently pressed. I automatically pressed back. He showed me how the pressure in the form of resistance connected our hands and held us together. The resistance allowed him to move his hand from place to place; it allowed me to feel that movement and follow him. Then he said, “With no resistance, there is no connection — you cannot move together.”

This simple object lesson created a paradigm shift for me as a counselor and as a supervisor. I began wondering how to harness client and supervisee resistance to create stronger, more collaborative, nonpathologizing relationships. This is the beauty of resistance.

Most humans use resistance to assure their physical and emotional safety. The reality is that the world can be truly threatening, and resistance is a means of reducing that threat. Whether we are discussing resistance as it relates to a client who has taken the risk to attend counseling or a supervisee who understands that supervisors serve as gatekeepers to the counseling profession, their anxiety and protection of identity should be regarded as normal reactions to a perceived threat.

An obvious question then arises: How do we recognize resistance that is showing up in our counseling or supervision sessions? You might laugh at this question, feeling that you know all too well how to recognize resistance. Resistance can be difficult to identify, however, especially for new counselors and new supervisors. Responding to the many threatening experiences that humans face from childhood through adulthood, people may unknowingly develop very artful and socially acceptable methods of manifesting their resistance. Of course, some methods are less artful.

Recognizing forms of resistance

Some forms of resistance are easier to detect than others. My interest in this subject came from my experiences as a counselor and as a supervisor. I noticed that sometimes I would come out of a session feeling what I called “yucky,” but I didn’t really know why. Things seemed fine, but for some obscure reason, I did not feel good about the session.

Then I came across some old literature about how resistance manifests in supervision, written by Cheryl Glickauf-Hughes, that changed my world. First, I started saying things like, “I do that to my supervisor,” and “I feel like that.” Then, when I was counseling or supervising others, I suddenly heard what I had not been able to hear previously: resistance. In my new exuberance, however, I quickly picked up on an attitude from other professionals of “We don’t use that word.”

The conclusion I finally reached after an extensive literature review on the different linguistic substitutes for the word resistance is that no word stands alone without using resistance to help define it. To me, this says that turning away from use of the word resistance is not really feasible. However, it is feasible to harness the constructive power of resistance by using it to create relationship. But to use this tool, we need to be able to identify resistance in its various forms.

Game playing

Game playing may be used as a form of resistance either consciously or unconsciously. Either way, it is deployed as an attempt to maintain control. I think of it as a type of shell game in which attention is drawn elsewhere to get the player (i.e., the counselor or supervisor) to lose his or her place. Esteemed social worker Alfred Kadushin wrote about game playing; what follows in this section is a synthesis of some of his ideas combined with some of my own.

One game-playing technique is flattery, which is used to deflect counselors or supervisors either from confrontation or their evaluative agenda. Flatterers are the clients or supervisees who can talk for 20 minutes about the counselor’s or supervisor’s outfit, the office décor or even the “game” the other night, secretly hoping that the counselor will run out of time to address some important aspect of the prior session or the supervisor will run out of time to look at their session recording.

Other types of game playing may include:

  • Redefining the relationship, in which the client or supervisee creates ambiguity.
  • Self-disclosure, in which the client or supervisee talks about himself or herself through telling stories. Clients might do this by skipping from one story to another, giving no time for reflection or comment. Supervisees might use storytelling about self or clients, engaging the supervisor so there is no time for skill correction.
  • Trying to reduce the counselor’s or supervisor’s power, in which clients or supervisees attempt to show that they are more intelligent than the counselor or supervisor.
  • Working to control the situation with the direct use of questions that can steer conversation away from the client’s or supervisee’s areas of anxiety.
  • Focusing on failure and seeking reassurance.
  • Allowing helplessness to feed into dependency by working to implement every single word that the counselor or supervisor shares in session.
  • Practicing self-protection by externalizing blame for their lack of growth on the counselor or supervisor.

It is important to remember that playing games is designed to create safety and protect the self.

One simple way to work with game playing is role induction. Clients and supervisees have constructed coping strategies (resistance) that have served them well. Typically, these strategies have evolved in an organic way and are outside of the client’s or supervisee’s awareness. We can help these individuals understand that counseling or supervision can be stressful and that clients or supervisees may develop certain behaviors as a way of dealing with their anxiety or stress. In normalizing this process, it becomes less threatening.

You could provide your clients or supervisees with a list of behaviors, thoughts and feelings that they might experience during your work together, then invite them to freely point out these behaviors, thoughts and feelings to you as they notice them. This broaching process becomes a step toward creating a collaborative relationship. As they point out their own resistance, you can be appropriately curious about it and then thank them for bringing it to your attention. Often, clients and supervisees will not call attention to their own resistance. However, as they grow more aware of it, they may choose to lay these behaviors down in an effort to use their time more wisely.

Developmental causes of resistance

Another way to look at resistance is through a developmental lens. It has been proposed that manifestations of resistance can have roots in the unsuccessful completion of Erik Erikson’s developmental stages. What would we listen for if we used this framework in our counseling or supervision sessions?

Trust versus mistrust: When clients or supervisees have not fully learned to trust others, the anxiety produced in an ambiguous setting such as counseling or supervision may create enormous tension. In many instances, those who have not successfully navigated this stage have experienced parents, guardians or other authority figures as harsh, critical or unaccepting of them. Often, they expect to be rejected by their counselor or supervisor.

This lack of trust can be recognized by clients’ or supervisees’ maintenance of distance in the relationship; they may seem closed, guarded, defensive and extremely self-sufficient. Identifying these traits is essential to using this information to strengthen the relationship and create collaboration. Glickauf-Hughes suggests that when working with those who are distrustful, taking a person-centered, nondirective approach can help them to feel safe and may provide a corrective experience. Consider letting them know that you can tell they are a bit guarded; ask them whether they have been hurt in the past and whether they are concerned that you might also hurt them.

Autonomy versus shame and doubt: Clients or supervisees who struggle with issues surrounding the need for autonomy can be confusing for counselors and supervisors. Erikson warned that controlling others helps those without a sense of autonomy to feel in control of their own lives.

Often, those who struggle with autonomy cannot quite put a name to what they want, but they can clearly identify what they do not want. They often vacillate between seeking direction and then dismissing the very information they sought. An exchange with someone who struggles with autonomy might sound something like this:

Counselor: “Mary, I hear you saying that this situation is irritating you.”

Mary: “I’m not irritated, I’m frustrated.” 

To protect their personal freedom, these individuals may mince words or say things like “yes, but …” — anything not to accept influence from others.

Glickauf-Hughes and Linda Campbell suggested three ideas for working with those who struggle with autonomy: Socratic questioning, homework, and healing stories or puzzles. These strategies put power directly into the hands of clients or supervisees, allowing them to arrive at the answers they seek without things being laid out for them explicitly. Interestingly, this is helpful even when resistance is not present. Most people enjoy finding their own answers; it increases their self-efficacy and helps them to feel autonomous. This is exactly why it works so well for those with issues of autonomy.

Those who have not successfully navigated the aspect of shame versus doubt are particularly sensitive to any confrontation or feedback, even when it is done with extreme care and sensitivity. Issues of shame originate within relationships and indicate to the individuals being shamed that, somehow, they themselves are unworthy or defective. Unfortunately, shame can be so internalized that it becomes self-activated and no longer attached to an interpersonal event. This may present as clients or supervisees being so hard on themselves that it preempts any possible feedback from others.

This ultra-vulnerable type of person is, in some ways, reminiscent of a sensitive child. This makes sand tray therapy or sand tray supervision an excellent tool for working with clients or supervisees who have internalized shame. For those who believe intrinsically that they are somehow unworthy or defective, the sand tray is a wonderful avenue for them to look at issues and dynamics in a nonthreatening way. The figures become a buffer between these individuals and the counselor or supervisor, protecting the ego from further damage. This is less threatening for supervisees because they can work out the dynamics they are witnessing with their clients. Sand tray therapy or sand tray supervision can also create self-awareness. When incorporated with Carl Rogers’ core conditions, this can cause confidence to grow and doubts to recede among clients and supervisees.

The use of positive reframes can also be used to reduce anxiety and increase receptivity to change. Mark A. Masters suggests that positive reframes should be designed to emphasize the client’s or supervisee’s experience of personal power and self-esteem. The use of positive reframes is most useful when three different components are present.

First, the reframe empowers clients and supervisees by improving their self-reliance and motivation. Second, most behaviors can be asserted in a positive connotation. This can increase clients’ and supervisees’ sense of safety within the counseling or supervisory relationship, thereby promoting reflectivity and growth. Finally, the positive reframe is most useful when it models more effective ways of dealing with the person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. When all three of these components are applied together, they can create a powerful alliance that furthers clinical development. Glickauf-Hughes emphasizes that when reframing, the counselor’s or supervisor’s word choice needs to be mild and should evoke curiosity in the client or supervisee.

Identity versus role confusion: What about the client or supervisee whose fundamental issues with others involves the developmental stage of identity versus role confusion? This fragile sense of self can come into play as clients and supervisees strive to find their confidence or shift their already-fragile identity. In this case, learning from the counselor or supervisor would mean merging with him or her, so clients and supervisees in this developmental stage steadfastly hold to their current identity. Signs of this resistance can come through expressions of contempt (such as eye rolling and other demeaning behaviors and statements), often appearing argumentative or expressing directly or indirectly that all other modes of being (for the client) or all other theories (for the supervisee), other than their own, are without value.

Metaphors can provide a means to use what a person already knows and relate it to even more complicated information in a way that transfers the learner’s original understanding to the new situation. The use of metaphors, or the process of transferring information from the known to the unknown, can enhance the learning process and create an atmosphere in which resistance improves emotional connection. For those who feel their identity threatened, the use of metaphors, jokes or Socratic questioning can help them find their own answers. This maintains their identity and prevents them from rejecting the information.

Externalizing issues can also reduce stress in the client or supervisee, again allowing both learning and a better relationship. For example, let’s say your client with a talent for writing music has a goal to develop relationship skills to create a more satisfying social life. Relating the client’s goal to something with which the client is familiar may transfer his or her understanding of one skill to another. In this case, you might first create a theme for the type of song or type of social life the client wants. Let’s imagine it will be a ballad because the client is looking for an intimate relationship. Next, a basic melody is plotted out (what type of person is the client looking for?). Then the lyrics are sketched in (does the client believe this type of person already exists in the client’s current social circle?). Add some harmonies (how can the client enlarge his or her social group?). Once the basic song is set, the addition of instrumentation, percussion and orchestration develops the song into a masterpiece, with all of the different pieces adding to the complexity and beauty of the finished product (how might the client expand the types of activities that he or she enjoys — sports, theater, reading, dancing, outdoor recreation and so on?).

Metaphors, in the form of stories or drawing activities, allow clients and supervisees to depict themes, issues and relationships in their lives or their clients’ lives. At the same time, the use of metaphors leaves the identity or newly emerging identity of the client or supervisee intact.

Motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing can broaden our view of resistance in a way that can be applied to the supervisory relationship. William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick, the primary developers of motivational interviewing, explore using resistance to increase connection. Rolling with resistance — which simply means being curious about it — can strengthen relationships and depathologize resistance as normal. Supervisors can easily detect resistance in supervision and can choose to employ some basic motivational interviewing responses to join with the supervisee and open the door to exploration.

Developing the discrepancy: Imagine a supervisee who presents as needing assistance and guidance in working with a difficult client, but when provided with that guidance, responds with, “I don’t think that will work because I already tried ________” or “I don’t think the client will respond well to that because of ________.” 

Developing the discrepancy involves acknowledging what the supervisee wants and then also acknowledging the difficulty the supervisee has in accepting this help or guidance when it is offered. The supervisor’s response might be along these lines: “This sounds like a really challenging client. I hear that you really want help moving forward with the client, and I notice that it’s hard to hear some of the suggestions that I have.”

The specific use of and instead of but in this example is important. And creates the possibility that the supervisee can exist in both worlds — one of wanting help and another of rejecting it. Embracing the ambivalence that a supervisee might feel in supervision can open the possibility for the supervisee to explore what it feels like to be needing connection and resisting it at the same time. And it’s also possible that the supervisee’s client feels the same way — an example of parallel process.

Agreeing with a twist: Being a supervisee is hard work. The courage it takes to present clinical work that is mediocre and the vulnerability required to sit with a supervisor and watch the “magic” unfold can be unnerving. “Agreeing with a twist” refers to reflecting on the risk that a supervisee takes when sharing difficult sessions with a supervisor (especially when the supervisee is not yet in a place to be vulnerable and courageous) and then providing a reframe that opens discussion.

Imagine a supervisee who seems to select sessions or cases to discuss in supervision that aren’t of substance or that don’t allow many opportunities for constructive feedback. This behavior could indicate that the supervisee is protecting his or her already-fragile ego from potentially critical or damaging feedback. Addressing this in supervision is tricky. Agreeing with a twist might sound something like, “It can be so hard to watch sessions that you don’t think are great. I remember what that felt like when I was in training. What are some of your concerns about showing me your not-so-great sessions?”

This example is a three-part equation:

1) Acknowledging and validating the supervisee’s experience.

2) Offering a simple self-disclosure that deepens the reflection.

3) Asking an open-ended question that gets at the heart of what is happening, apart from the actual case the supervisee has brought to discuss.

This method of “caring confrontation” serves to invite the supervisee to share his or her fears of negative evaluation. It also allows the supervisor to assuage those fears and build the kind of relationship in which a supervisee can share “not so great” work without sacrificing a piece of his or her ego.

Using OARS as a basic model for resistance-free supervision: At its core, motivational interviewing is person-centered. Simple strategies for supporting, inviting and engaging supervisees early in the supervisory relationship are often overlooked. OARS is an acronym that can serve as a reminder to supervisors (and counselors) that the basic skills of open-ended questions, affirmation (support, appreciation and understanding), reflective listening and summarizing are absolutely essential and can foster connection, openness and curiosity in both supervisees and supervisors (and clients and counselors).

 

Conclusion

The usefulness of any tool involves its accessibility and effectiveness. The beautiful aspect of resistance as a tool is that it is consistently present in some form. It is always available to strengthen the counseling or supervisory relationship. Try using the tools we have suggested in this article and working to identify strategies that can reframe resistance in positive, collaborative and nonpathologizing ways. Resistance provides opportunities to connect, engage, be curious and, ultimately, foster the kind of counseling and supervisory relationships that create growth and change.

 

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Special thanks to Ray Backlund, coordinator of the New Mexico State University dance program, who holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision, for sharing his connection between ballroom dance and positive uses of resistance with supervisees.

 

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Michelle Backlund is an assistant professor and clinical director of the master’s program in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department at New Mexico State University. Identifying positive uses of resistance to enhance all types of relationships is a major part of her research agenda. Contact her at micback@nmsu.edu.

Veronica Johnson is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana. Her research interests are intimate relationship development and maintenance, forgiveness in intimate relationships and clinical supervision. Contact her at veronica.johnson@mso.umt.edu.

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Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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