It was more than 30 years ago, but I remember the following experience with great clarity. I was relating to my supervisor an interaction with one of my clients — a tiny 10-year-old boy who probably didn’t weigh 50 pounds — simply giving her a quick summary of the beginning of our session before we got into more important things regarding my work with him.
Nonchalantly, I said, “When I asked him what he did for the weekend, he said he ‘went to the moon.’ Obviously, he was making that up.” I was about to continue, but my supervisor interrupted me — as she should have. More on that in a minute.
I was in my first year of supervision, but I was feeling confident in my work with children. This was 1987, seemingly a very long time ago, a time when almost nobody specialized with children. While some theorists such as Anna Freud and Clark Moustakas invested in children close to a century ago, it had not become a common specialty when I was a graduate student. From the outset, I knew I wanted to work with children, but there wasn’t a single class available in my graduate program that focused specifically on that client population.
As I scoured academic catalogs, I found very few resources available that focused on therapeutic work with children. Therefore, much of what I learned back in those days, I learned the hard way — either by guessing the correct action or, equally often, incorrectly guessing the right thing to do. This interaction with my client, as small as it might seem, was one of those times I made a serious mistake. So, let’s get back to my supervisor.
I sat in silence for a moment in front of her wondering why she had stopped me at such a seemingly trivial point in my summary. “Why would he lie?” she asked me. It was such a sincere question that it took me aback. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that my young client had actually traveled to the moon over the weekend.
“You are assuming your client is lying,” she continued. “What do you think that says to him about you?”
Ah! That was a great question, and I was embarrassed that I had not considered it. I had automatically discounted his story when I should have at least acknowledged and respected it.
What if my client had needed to tell me about some scary secret he carried? My attitude showed him that I would decide whether to believe him based on my own feelings of the story’s worthiness. What a disrespectful way to approach my client.
It would be easy to think that this situation applies only to children, but it doesn’t. We are all trained to respect diversity, and a foundational tenet of nearly all diversity theories proposes that our inner biases will show if we haven’t dealt with them. For example, if I harbor negative feelings about my transgender clients, they will eventually see through my smokescreen regardless of how I try to convince them that I value all people.
In my interaction with this little boy, I had assumed he wasn’t trustworthy by disrespecting his story. But if he couldn’t trust me with something like this, I could never expect him to trust me with experiences that might seem equally unbelievable. I shouldn’t have needed to be reminded that the fear of not being believed is one of the scariest things our clients face.
I have written before that all of our clients deceive us at one time or another. They might diminish or alter their behaviors, omit information or just flat out lie. There are many reasons why our clients deceive us, but a common one is because they are testing our trustworthiness. How easy it is to test us with one story when there is a much more important story they really need to tell.
Since this experience with my supervisor, almost no matter what a client tells me, I accept it as truth. If nothing else, it is their truth at the time. I won’t risk my biases interfering with what they need to tell me. Of course, there are times when we might need to confront or challenge our clients, but I rarely do that in the rapport-building stage.
If I could revisit that moment with that little boy again, I’d do what I have done thousands of times since then and respond, “You did? Wow! Tell me about that.” I have learned to be much more worthy of my clients’ trust.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
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