Tag Archives: therapeutic alliance

Counselor considerations for disclosing LGBTQ+ identity

By Benjamin Hearn June 2, 2020

The question of what is appropriate to disclose about ourselves to clients is one that all counselors face, whether it be about an upcoming vacation, an emotional reaction to a client or how our own past struggles may parallel those of a client. Beyond these more common self-disclosures, we also may choose to disclose aspects of our identity that are not inherently visible, such as our sexual orientation, gender identity or even religious beliefs.

These invisible aspects of the self differ from others such as race in that there may be incongruence between how these identities are perceived by the client and experienced by the counselor. At times, disclosure of such identities may be beneficial for clients, but we must proceed both with caution and intentionality prior to taking that step. Although I will be discussing LGBTQ+ identity disclosure for the remainder of this article, it is my hope that all counselors will benefit from engaging in the process of deciding when and what is ethical to disclose to our clients.

I first became aware of the utility of disclosing my sexual orientation in practicum, during which time I needed to obtain group hours. The only active group at my site was a women’s anxiety group facilitated by my supervisor, who was also a woman. My supervisor was intent on my gaining group experience and asked the women whether they would be comfortable having a male co-facilitate sessions. Most of the group was hesitant until one of the members spoke up and said, “That’s fine, but only if he’s gay.” Her statement was met with concurrence by the rest of the group, and I was allowed to co-facilitate after sharing that I was indeed gay. My supervisor thought this was a strange contingency, but I was not surprised. I have a long history of seeing people interact differently with me once they learn I am gay.

My initial experiences self-disclosing LGBTQ+ identities demonstrated that it could be used to enhance client trust and perhaps provided greater autonomy to clients by allowing them to find a counselor with whom they “fit.” However, after reflecting, obtaining supervision and exploring the literature on self-disclosure, the concept of appropriately disclosing LGBTQ+ identities became much murkier for me. Compounding the issue was the fact that the literature also described risks to the concealment of an LGBTQ+ identity.

Overall, the consensus from these sources was that disclosure is a choice rather than a rule and needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Factors that influence the choice span a wide range and may include characteristics of the client, the counselor and treatment settings. The remainder of this article explores these issues within the context of the counseling profession’s values and ethical principles, professional literature, and theories that my colleague Kelli Hess and I developed and presented at an American Counseling Association Conference.

Professional values and ethical principles

Whenever considering whether a course of action is ethical, counselors should turn first to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics and the Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making, a white paper developed by Holly Forester-Miller and Thomas Davis in collaboration with ACA. While neither of these documents provides concrete answers to the question “Is it ethical to disclose my LGBTQ+ identity to my clients?” they do offer a good starting point to assess the question. So, let’s begin by outlining applicable ethics standards and professional values and principles so that they can be kept in mind and later applied.

The preamble to the ACA Code of Ethics states that the promotion of social justice is one of the core professional values of the counseling profession. In the glossary of terms for the ACA Code of Ethics, social justice is defined as “the promotion of equity for all people and groups for the purpose of ending oppression and injustice affecting clients [and] counselors …”

The preamble also outlines a number of important principles that inform our topic, including:

  • Beneficence: “Working for the good of the individual and society by promoting mental health and well-being.”
  • Veracity: “Dealing truthfully with individuals with whom counselors come into professional contact.”
  • Autonomy: “Fostering the right to control the direction of one’s life.”

It is worth noting that the ethical decision-making model developed by Forester-Miller and Davis elaborates on these definitions and describes these principles in action in ways that may not be intuitive. For example, helping a client understand how their actions and values are likely to be received in the context of society promotes client autonomy.

The ACA Code of Ethics also provides several standards that are relevant to our discussion:

  • A.4.b. Personal Values: “Counselors are aware of — and avoid imposing — their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.”
  • I.1.b. Ethical Decision Making: “When counselors are faced with an ethical dilemma, they use and document, as appropriate, an ethical decision-making model that may include, but is not limited to, consultation; consideration of relevant ethical standards, principles, and laws; generation of potential courses of action; deliberation of risks and benefits; and selection of an objective decision based on the circumstances and welfare of all involved.”
  • I.2.c. Consultation: “When uncertain about whether a particular situation or course of action may be in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, counselors consult with other counselors who are knowledgeable about ethics and the ACA Code of Ethics, with colleagues, or with appropriate authorities, such as the ACA Ethics and Professional Standards Department.”

Types of disclosure

Now that we have an understanding of the relevant professional values, principles and ethical standards, we can begin considering how they inform self-disclosure. We typically think of self-disclosure in terms of information that we share verbally with our clients during session. This can be broken up into “intra-” and “extra-” therapy disclosures, with the former being disclosures about the counselor’s own thoughts or feelings in session and the latter being disclosures about the counselor’s life outside of session.

Self-disclosure also takes place through nonverbal means, such as our body language, office layout and dress. The information that we disclose nonverbally is either intentionally or unintentionally shared and can also suggest or confirm an LGBTQ+ identity.

Nonverbal suggestions and confirmations

To understand how nonverbal information may suggest an LGBTQ+ identity, we must first acknowledge that human beings use stereotyping to make sense of and navigate the world. Sexual orientation and gender identity are often spontaneously assumed about an individual based on the nonverbal information they present. Some nonverbal information, such as the counselor’s mannerisms and voice inflection, are not intentionally disclosed but still may inform a client’s assumption of the counselor’s LGBTQ+ identity. A counselor may also intentionally display information, such as choice in dress or a pride flag in their office, that suggests to clients that the counselor is LGBTQ+.

Counselors may also nonverbally share information that confirms their LGBTQ+ identity to clients. This type of disclosure can take several forms and may also be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional nonverbal disclosure of this type occurs through things such as disclosing an LGBTQ+ identity on a professional biography or displaying a picture of a same-gender partner in the office. Unintentional confirmation may take place if the counselor is seen in public with a same-gender partner or if a client discovers the information through social media platforms that are not professionally oriented.

Verbal disclosure with and without prompting

In addition to nonverbal means of disclosure, we can begin to consider how and when counselors may choose to broach the topic verbally in session. In some instances, the client may ask or express something that prompts the counselor to disclose, while at other times, the counselor may disclose without prompting.

Perhaps the two most common instances that could be considered “prompts” are when a client expresses an incorrect assumption about the counselor’s sexual orientation or gender identity or when a client asks about either of these directly. Counselors may be more prone to being questioned directly or to have incorrect assumptions expressed based on the degree to which they “fall into” common LGBTQ+ stereotypes. For instance, I believe that I present few nonverbal suggestions that I am gay, and I wear a wedding ring at work. As a result, clients often ask questions about my “wife.” Another prompt to consider is the unintentional confirmation of an LGBTQ+ identity, such as the counselor being seen in public with a same-gender partner.

When it comes to responding to these questions or assertions, a counselor can always redirect the topic back to the client by asking why this information is important to them or how it would affect their treatment. The counselor may choose to disclose an LGBTQ+ identify when asked directly by a client or when correcting a client’s expressed assumption, provided that a counselor perceives minimal risk to the client and is comfortable with disclosing when prompted.

In these situations, unethical responses would be those that conflict with the principle of veracity. They would include lying about one’s LGBTQ+ identity or providing a response that affirms a client’s incorrect assumption. Such responses might damage the therapeutic relationship in the future should the client discover through other means such as social media or public encounters that the counselor identifies as LGBTQ+.

Counselors who wish for a middle ground between redirection and coming out may choose to use gender-neutral words to answer appropriate questions about themselves or their relationships. For example, “My partner and I have been married three years.”

Counselors may also wish to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity without prompting from the client for a variety of reasons, including:

1) To promote perceived similarity or relatability between counselor and client: Similarity between counselor and client identities, particularly with aspects of identity such as race, has been found to be helpful in developing rapport and with client retainment and engagement. While disclosing similarities may build rapport, counselors should be cautious of using disclosure as a shortcut for rapport or as a stand-in for mastery of LGBTQ+ competencies and expertise.

2) To increase client autonomy or comfort: Disclosure of LGBTQ+ identity may also serve to promote client autonomy. Many clients “shop” for their counselor, and early disclosure, such as on a professional biography, may aid clients in making their selection. In addition, as I described earlier regarding my experience with a women’s group, disclosure of LGBTQ+ identity may serve to promote client comfort. While the situation I described was prompted, counselors may also find that disclosure promotes comfort when clients are reluctant to broach certain issues that may be related to the counselor’s gender identity.

3) To assist in resolution of a client’s internal values struggles.

4) To model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity.

To understand how disclosure might assist a client’s internal values struggles, we’ll return to the professional value of autonomy. Forester-Miller and Davis suggest that disclosure might serve to help clients understand how their actions and values are likely to be received in the context of society. An illustration of this could be a client who is experiencing distress at work due to difficulties with a new LGBTQ+ employee and is unaware that their counselor has an LGBTQ+ identity. The counselor may choose to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity in such an instance should the client not be at risk for self-harm or in crisis and should the therapeutic relationship be strong enough to withstand the disclosure. A counselor taking this approach should consider how they will maintain their focus on the client and manage any significant ruptures to the relationship.

Disclosure of the counselor’s own LGBTQ+ identity may also work to model a healthy identity to clients who have less-developed identities. Models of LGBTQ+ identity development suggest that comfort in disclosing LGBTQ+ identity is indicative of a healthy identity. Given this, counselors may use self-disclosure as a means to explore the reasons behind clients’ own discomfort with disclosure, such as internalized homophobia.

Additionally, instances in which cisgender, heterosexual counselors feel at ease to disclose may also work to model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity and may be viewed as an act promoting social justice. To illustrate this point, consider a community counseling clinic in which some cisgender, heterosexual clinicians display family pictures. An LGBTQ+ counselor who chooses to display similar pictures that illustrate nontraditional family structures promotes equality and raises awareness about such families.

Such seemingly small acts are important to help LGBTQ+ counselors feel comfortable in their work settings because these counselors may also experience fear of client, peer or supervisor judgment and thereby be less effective in their roles. Peer or supervisor judgment may seem unlikely, but I have met many LGBTQ+ counselors who have felt ostracized within their agencies, been told to lie to clients about their sexual orientation or gender identity, or even been fired for their disclosure to clients. Concerns such as these may be indicative of issues related to multiculturalism and diversity within the agency or wider culture but also may be related to the counselor’s unresolved issues regarding internalized homophobia. In such instances, LGBTQ+ counselors may seek their own counseling services.

To illustrate these concepts, consider this vignette: Thomas is a counselor working at a group practice in a moderate-sized city with an established client, Jared. Jared has been voicing increased complaints about his work, particularly concerning a new co-worker who is openly gay and inappropriately discusses his sexual relationships in the workplace. Jared exasperatedly states, “I just can’t stand gay people. They’re all like this. Why can’t they just keep that stuff to themselves?”

As a counselor who displays few nonverbal suggestions about his own sexual orientation, Thomas assumes that Jared believes he is heterosexual. Thomas believes disclosing that he is gay might help Jared, but he first considers the strength of his therapeutic alliance with Jared and what other services would be available to Jared were disclosure to cause irreparable damage.

Thomas decides that Jared would likely be able to process this information in a healthy way and chooses to disclose his sexual orientation in the next session when Jared once again complains about people who are gay. Jared is surprised by Thomas’ disclosure. Jared discusses stereotypes he has about gay people and why he didn’t suspect that Thomas was gay. This process allows Thomas to model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity to Jared while also dismantling unhelpful stereotypes. Jared is now able to see his co-worker’s behavior originating from poor interpersonal boundaries rather than from his sexual orientation.

Choosing not to disclose

Although it appears there may be benefits for clients, counselors and the larger LGBTQ+ population when counselors choose verbally to disclose their LGBTQ+ status, there are also times when counselors should refrain from doing so. In arriving at this decision, counselors should carefully consider:

  • Whether their disclosure is relevant to the client’s issue
  • The purpose of and motivation for disclosure
  • The client’s immediate needs
  • The strength of the therapeutic relationship

In many, if not most, cases, the counselor’s LGBTQ+ identity is irrelevant to the client’s presenting issue, and prompts for disclosing may not arise. Should the counselor still feel an urge to disclose, the counselor should consider their purpose and motivation in disclosing to ensure that disclosure is not used to meet personal needs such as client approval.

Counselors may also refrain from disclosure in instances in which the client has poor interpersonal boundaries, the client is in crisis, or there is a real risk that the therapeutic relationship may not withstand disclosure. Building on this last point, counselors should also consider what additional resources are available to the client should the client refuse to work with an LGBTQ+ counselor. This is particularly important in underserved areas or in agencies that assign counselors to clients or that have long waiting lists.

Here is a vignette to illustrate an instance in which a counselor may choose not to disclose: Janine is a heterosexual trans woman who consistently “passes” in social settings. She is providing mental health counseling services in a rural school-based setting to high school students and receives a referral for a new client, Jamil. Jamil is a junior who has recently been withdrawing from his friends. He has also been experiencing increased conflict with his family after beginning to wear his older sisters’ clothing to dinner and disclosing to them that he often wishes he were a girl.

Jamil presents in the initial session with his mother, who expresses prejudice and disdain toward the LGBTQ+ community. She states, “I was shocked. I’ve seen them in the news, and I won’t have my son being one of them.”

Janine keeps her composure throughout the intake and processes her thoughts and feelings later in supervision. She expresses that the mother’s comments did upset her and caused her to be distracted because of her own family history. She believes that Jamil would benefit from knowing someone else in the LGBTQ+ community. Janine considers this possibility with her supervisor but decides disclosure of her identity as a trans woman to Jamil at this point is too risky. She reasons that Jamil’s mother might pull Jamil from services with Janine, and there are no other readily available providers in the surrounding rural setting.

Janine collaborates with her supervisor to develop ways to bracket her discomfort with respect to the mother’s comments and Janine’s desire to build rapport with Jamil through disclosure. During the treatment planning session, Janine works with the family to develop rapport. She uses her training and education, rather than her personal experience, to explain the myriad difficulties faced by gender-nonconforming individuals and the importance of family support. Janine, Jamil and Jamil’s mother develop a plan aimed at increasing family cohesion by using small, incremental steps that will allow Jamil greater ability to express his gender identity.

Wrapping up

Counselors who identify as LGBTQ+ are faced with the unique challenge of determining whether to disclose this identity to clients and how. Myriad factors influence this decision, making it not unlike many other decisions related to self-disclosure. Counselors can begin considering the issue using an ethical decision-making model and taking into account the professional principles of beneficence, autonomy and veracity alongside relevant ethical standards.

Counselors may find themselves in a position of disclosing more or less often based on their own nonverbal attributes and behaviors, which clients may consider as suggestions that the counselor is LGBTQ+. Clients may use these attributes or behaviors in creating a prompt for the counselor to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity, or counselors may broach the topic themselves when appropriate. 

Counselors should consider verbal disclosure on a case-by-case basis, taking into account knowledge of the client’s presenting issue and needs, the strength of the therapeutic relationship, and other available resources. Counselors should refrain from disclosing when disclosure would pose an immediate risk to clients. LGBTQ+ counselors may look to their heterosexual or cisgender peers for more immediate norms on self-disclosure.

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Benjamin Hearn is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is developing approaches for the counseling profession to use psychedelic-assisted therapies for mental health and substance use disorders. He is also interested in the integration of spirituality to counseling and is an active member of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling. He has practiced in a variety of settings, including school-based mental health, private practice and wilderness therapy. Contact him at hearnbg@mail.uc.edu.

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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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.

Engaging avoidant teens

By David Flack May 4, 2020

Ben** is a 16-year-old high school sophomore. He completed a mental health assessment about four months ago, following a referral from his school due to behavioral concerns, poor attendance and “possible issues with marijuana and other substances.” He previously attended school-based mental health counseling in seventh grade and has been meeting periodically with a school counselor for about a year.

(** Ben is a former client who gave permission to use his story. His name and some identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

At the time of assessment, Ben was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, moderate. He also completed screening questionnaires for trauma, anxiety and various other issues. All scores came back well below clinical levels. Despite the school’s concerns regarding substances, a formal drug assessment didn’t occur.

Todd and Julie, Ben’s parents, have been divorced since Ben was 3. Ben lived with his mother until about a year ago. Todd now has full custody but frequently travels for work. Both parents have been fairly disengaged in the counseling process. In fact, Doris, Ben’s fraternal grandmother, was the only family member to attend the assessment.

At the assessment, Doris appeared overly enmeshed with both Ben and Todd. She also reported that Julie “has bipolar but won’t take any meds” and “drinks too much, at least if you ask me.” Doris also stated that Ben “probably was abused” by Julie’s ex-boyfriend but refused to provide further details. “I don’t think I should have said anything.”

Following the assessment, Ben entered services reluctantly, meeting with his original counselor for almost two months. At that time, he was referred to me because the original counselor decided, “I can’t be effective with such a resistant kid.” The counselor said Ben’s attendance was poor and that he displayed an unwillingness to engage when present, did not complete treatment homework, and “showed up high at least a few times.”

During our first meeting, Ben reported, “All that other therapist did was keep saying how her office was a safe space to talk about feelings and crap like that. You know, the bullshit therapists always say. The bullshit I bet you’ll say too.”

Numerous studies show that an effective therapeutic alliance is essential for engagement, retention and positive treatment outcomes. However, many teenage clients simply aren’t interested in counseling, let alone creating connection or building rapport with some strange adult. This is especially true when it comes to avoidantly attached teens such as Ben.

Building effective therapeutic alliances with these youth can seem daunting to even the most seasoned counselor. In this article, we’ll explore practical, field-tested strategies for cultivating rapport with avoidantly attached teens. First, though, let’s briefly review some core attachment ideas.

We aren’t sea turtles

When a mother sea turtle is ready to lay eggs, she heads to a beach and digs a hole in the sand with her rear fins. She lays her eggs in this rudimentary nest, covers them, and quickly returns to the ocean. At this point, the mother sea turtle has completed all her parenting tasks and has nothing more to do with the eggs. Male sea turtles have nothing at all to do with their offspring.

When the eggs hatch, the newborn sea turtles awkwardly scamper to the ocean, using fins meant for swimming, not avoiding predators on land. If they survive this mad dash, they’re fully ready to live on their own. No caregiver ever provides nurturing, teaches them life skills or protects them in any other way.

Humans aren’t sea turtles. In our early years, we need caregivers just to survive. If these caregivers are attentive, protective and nurturing, human babies quickly learn that the world is a safe place, their needs will be met and people are glad they’re here. These children will be securely attached. However, if their primary caregiver isn’t dependable, then this healthy attachment process can be disrupted, resulting in an insecure attachment and possibly lifelong challenges with relationships, self-esteem and personality development.

There are three styles of insecure attachment: avoidant, anxious and disorganized. Avoidant attachment is the most common style of insecure attachment, with studies indicating that up to 1 in 4 Americans fall into this category. Undoubtedly, this percentage is higher in clinical settings.

Young children who develop an avoidant attachment style predictably have caregivers who are emotionally unavailable and ignore the child’s needs. These caregivers may reject the child when hurt or sick, typically encourage premature independence, and sometimes are overtly neglectful. As a result, the child learns, “I’m on my own.”

Attachment styles are continuums, so avoidantly attached teens don’t all act the same. That said, these youth often appear defiant, defensive or dismissive. They’re likely to present as highly independent, oppositional and unwilling to change. They’re also likely to be suspicious of any empathetic gesture.

A little more about empathy

Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. As counselors, we’re taught that empathy is an essential component of all effective therapeutic relationships. I certainly don’t disagree with this. However, it seems to me that empathetic gestures are far from one-size-fits-all.

With reluctant clients of all ages, many counselors demonstrate empathy by saying things such as, “Seeking support is a courageous step” or “My office is a safe space to explore your feelings.” It’s like turning the volume up on some secret empathy knob. With anxiously attached clients, this could be quite effective. For avoidantly attached teens though, this is often overwhelming. Life has taught these youth to be cautious of such statements. So, when they hear such statements, they retreat.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we turn our empathy off as counselors. However, in the early stages of building therapeutic alliances with avoidantly attached teens, we need to turn the volume down. With this in mind, don’t congratulate avoidantly attached teens for starting counseling, especially if doing so is simply their least bad choice, and don’t declare your office a safe space. They know better.

I believe this more nuanced perspective of empathy is an essential foundation for engaging in the attachment-informed strategies that follow.

Starting out right

With avoidantly attached teens, first impressions are essential for starting out right. Here are four tips to help ensure that first meetings are therapeutically productive:

Emphasize rapport building. First meetings often involve stacks of paperwork, required screening tools and initial treatment planning. I encourage you to put that stuff aside and spend time getting to know the teen sitting across from you. You’ll have to finish all those forms eventually, but if this new client never returns, tidy paperwork and a well-crafted diagnosis won’t matter much. Besides, you’ll get better answers from teens such as Ben once you’ve developed some rapport.

Get parents out of the room. Unlike Todd and Julie, parents or caregivers almost always attend first meetings. When they do, I meet with everyone to cover the basics, such as presenting concerns, my background, and confidentiality issues. I then ask parents what they think I should know. After I get their perspective, I have them leave. That way, most of the first meeting can be focused on learning what the teen wants from services and cultivating rapport.

Focus on what they’re willing to do. Therapists love to focus on internal motivators and lofty treatment goals, but this isn’t useful with avoidantly attached teens, who want one thing — to leave and never come back. You’ll get further by helping them identify external motivators, such as fulfilling probation requirements or keeping parents happy. Helping avoidantly attached teens move toward these concrete goals proves that you’ve actually listened to what they’ve said, makes you an ally, and keeps them coming back.

Don’t hard sell therapy. When confronted with resistant clients, it’s easy to overstate the advantages of engagement. After all, if we didn’t believe in therapy, we wouldn’t be therapists, right? However, our enthusiasm may be exactly what an avoidantly attached teen needs to justify a quick retreat. Instead, objectively present your treatment recommendations, then explore the pros and cons of engaging. In my experience, most avoidantly attached teens agree to services when they don’t feel coerced.

With the first meeting successfully concluded, our next task is to cultivate an effective therapeutic alliance. Edward Bordin (1979) wrote that the therapeutic alliance is composed of
1) a positive bond between the therapist and client, 2) a collaborative approach to the tasks of counseling and 3) mutual agreement regarding treatment goals. When we strive to fully integrate these elements and genuinely embrace a teen’s motivators, we stop being an adversary and become an ally. For avoidantly attached teens, we also become a much-needed secure base — maybe their only one.

Building a strong therapeutic alliance with avoidantly attached teens requires us to focus on being trustworthy and creating connectedness.

Trustworthiness

Avoidantly attached teens have learned to continuously question the honesty of others. As a result, it is essential for us to be absolutely impeccable in our trustworthiness as counselors. It isn’t enough simply to be trustworthy though; we must demonstrate it — and not just once or twice but during every single interaction.

Brené Brown (2015) likened trust to a jar of marbles. Every time that we demonstrate our trustworthiness, we put a metaphorical marble in the jar. As the jar fills, trust grows. When it comes to building therapeutic alliance with avoidantly attached teens, there are five especially important marbles:

Authenticity. In the context of therapeutic alliance, authenticity means being our true, genuine selves during interactions with clients. In other words, we set aside therapeutic personas and canned responses. Instead, we show up as who we really are. This should be our goal with all clients but especially so with avoidantly attached teens, who are often quite sensitive to insincere behaviors or actions — a skill they learned to help them navigate difficult relationships with the adults in their lives.

Consistency. Being consistent means acting in ways that are predictable and reliable, something avoidantly attached teens probably haven’t experienced much. When we are consistent in our interactions with these teens, we are not only demonstrating trustworthiness but also modeling a new way of being in relationships. A few ways to demonstrate consistency include always starting and ending sessions on time, scheduling appointments at the same time every week, and following through on any promises we make.

Nonjudgment. Avoidantly attached teens have often learned to notice seemingly minor cues, such as a slight change in facial expression. This is a useful skill to have in situations in which care is unpredictable. With that in mind, it is important for us to avoid comments, gestures or facial expressions that could be interpreted as judgmental. This seems obvious but can be harder than it sounds, especially when a client is frustrating, evasive or baiting us — you know, like teens do sometimes.

Usefulness. Another way to demonstrate trustworthiness is to provide something useful at every session. This doesn’t mean achieving a major clinical breakthrough every week. That wouldn’t be realistic. However, there should be a tangible takeaway of some sort each time that we meet with an avoidantly attached teen. Possibilities include a helpful skill, a solved problem, an opportunity to vent or a meaningful insight — as long as it adds value to the youth’s life.

Transparency. This means being completely open about the therapy process, including our intentions as a helper and what clients should expect from services. Truly transparent therapists spend time exploring the pros and cons of counseling, reasons for discussing certain topics, and the theoretical underpinnings of proposed treatment approaches. In other words, transparent therapists strive to eliminate the mystery from the process. Like a good magic trick, knowing how it works should make it more engaging.

Connectedness

According to Edward Hallowell (1993), connectedness is “a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone.” I often describe this deep connectedness as feeling felt. In order for any of us to truly feel felt, we must believe that we are understood, respected and welcomed. We must feel as though we’re interacting with another person who has purposefully chosen to join us in this exact place and moment.

Avoidantly attached teens haven’t had this lived experience of connectedness. When working with these teens, we should always strive to model connectedness in ways that honor their implicit suspicion of empathy, while simultaneously helping them move toward more secure attachment styles.

Allan Schore (2019) refers to these as “right brain to right brain” connections. We can intentionally create such connections by using approaches that focus on emotion, creativity and attunement. It seems to me that teen therapy typically focuses on problem-solving, decision-making, psychoeducation and similar left-brain approaches, ignoring the importance of helping clients become more comfortable using their whole brain.

Here are five simple yet effective strategies for intentionally fostering right-brain connections:

Validate and normalize. Viewed in the context of his lived experiences, Ben’s distrust, oppositional behavior and even substance use were functional. In other words, Ben found value in these behaviors. In fact, he once said, “I guess what I really want is to push people away, and I’m good at it. Really good!” We can validate intentions without endorsing problematic behaviors. With avoidantly attached teens, this is often an essential step to building therapeutic alliances.

Use first-person plural language. The words we use matter. Here’s one example: Instead of using the pronouns “you” and “your,” shift to “we” and “our.” This shift results in a subtle, yet tangible, change in our interactions with avoidantly attached teens. It also helps reinforce that we’re together in the process and that the teen’s experiences are understandable. I’m not sure that clients overtly notice this word usage, but I definitely believe there is value in making the shift.

Use more reflections, ask fewer questions. Most therapists ask way too many questions. To an avoidantly attached teen, questions can seem intrusive, annoying and disingenuous. It may seem counterintuitive, but fewer questions from you will actually result in more talking by the client. Instead of all those questions, use reflections. While you’re at it, avoid cautiously worded reflections. Instead, commit to what you’re saying, with statements of fact such as, “That was tough for you.” Such statements demonstrate connection, not interrogation.

Talk less, do more. From a developmental perspective, full-on talk therapy isn’t the best fit for teens, especially for avoidantly attached ones who don’t want to engage in the first place. I suggest incorporating some no-talk approaches for building rapport and addressing therapeutic goals. The card games Exploding Kittens and Fluxx are excellent choices for building rapport. They are teen-friendly, easy to learn and filled with opportunities for making metaphors. Favorite therapeutically focused activities include collages, creative journaling and walk/talk sessions.

Be fully present. Being present means having your focus, attention, thoughts and feelings all fixed on the here and now — in this case, the current session with the current client. From my perspective, this requires more than a basic attentiveness. It requires being fully engaged, human to human, with no judgment or agenda. This level of presence can feel risky at times, for counselors and for avoidantly attached teens. However, the connectedness it brings makes the risk well worth taking.

Relationships are reciprocal

Imagine your response if a client reported being in a relationship in which the other person refuses to share personal information and frequently makes statements such as “I’m curious why you want to know that,” even when the question is fairly innocuous. Perhaps you’d amend this client’s treatment plan to include working on healthy relationships or building appropriate boundaries. I sure would. Yet, this is what we do all the time as counselors, based perhaps on an assumption that self-disclosure is inherently bad.

It seems to me that we shouldn’t expect teens, especially ones who are avoidantly attached, to be open with us if we aren’t open with them. I’m certainly not suggesting that we share every detail of our lives with teen clients, but I do believe we should be willing to disclose relevant information, answer questions asked out of true curiosity, and be as honest with clients as we expect them to be with us. By doing so, we model effective interpersonal skills, demonstrate healthy ways to connect with others, and solidify the therapeutic alliance.

When teen clients ask questions of a personal nature, some therapists view this as a form of resistance, as a way to avoid the topic at hand or as behavior that interferes with treatment. I disagree, at least sometimes. Perhaps the teen is making an initial attempt to cultivate a relationship with us. Perhaps these questions are a sign that we’re becoming a secure base for the teen. Perhaps we’re witnessing a little nugget of change. Why would we shut that down?

When we deflect all questions of a personal nature, maybe we aren’t reinforcing appropriate therapeutic boundaries or challenging client avoidance. Maybe we’re rejecting a tentative attempt at connection. Maybe we’re demonstrating that we aren’t a secure base. Maybe we’re reinforcing the client’s avoidant attachment style.

For the first several weeks, sessions with Ben were slow going. He often showed up late, sometimes refused to talk and frequently stated he didn’t need or want help. One day, I taught him Fluxx. He commented that the game was about unpredictability. “I hate that,” he said.

The next session, Ben brought his own game, Unstable Unicorns. “It’s a complicated game,” he said, “but I’m a complicated person, and you seem to understand me.”

I let that register, picked up my cards, and lost three games in a row. At the end of the session, for the first time ever, Ben said, “See you next week.”

John Bowlby (1969) described attachment as a “lasting connectedness between human beings” and stated that the earliest bonds formed by children with their primary caregivers have significant, lifelong impacts. When meeting with avoidantly attached teens, it’s essential that we remember the ghosts in the room with us. It’s essential that we intentionally earn marbles. It’s essential that we slowly, but steadily, create connectedness. When we do, we invite teens such as Ben to move toward a more securely attached way of being.

 

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David Flack is a licensed mental health counselor and substance use disorders professional located in Seattle. For 20 years, he has met with teens and emerging adults to address depression, trauma, co-occurring disorders and more. In addition to his clinical work, he regularly provides continuing education programs regionally and nationally. Contact him at david@davidflack.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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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.

Technique without soul is dead

By Peter Allen December 10, 2019

As a licensed professional counselor, I am interested in what is helpful or effective for my clients. As a client in therapy, I am equally interested in what helps me to reduce my own suffering and develop better skills for navigating the larger world in which I live. Therefore, I consider myself a student in both respects. The clinician in me studies to achieve greater skill and experience, whereas the client side of me is ever sensitive to what is helpful in everyday life. I have had many experiences as both clinician and client that inform my approach, depending on which chair I happen to be sitting in on any given day.

There is one particular experience I had in therapy that has taken me years to integrate and use toward positive ends. At the time, I had been seeing a therapist for a few weeks. I was there to work through some old resentments and anger that were bogging me down and interfering with what was an otherwise good life. A trusted colleague and friend had referred me to this particular clinician, an older man with years in the field and a positive reputation.

After a few sessions, I remember thinking that the therapist was a little aloof for my tastes and perhaps a bit too professorial. He was kind but in a detached way. I had the sense that he did not think about me or my problems after he left the office for the day. Reflecting on my experience with him, I realize it was not what he did that sticks in my memory so much as how he taught me what not to do.

I had been attempting to work through some of my aforementioned anger issues with his help but had become somewhat stuck. He gestured toward a large, cube-shaped pillow on the ground in his office, measuring roughly 3 feet on each side. I hadn’t paid this object much attention until that moment, which is strange because a large cubed pillow in any office strikes me as noticeable in hindsight. The therapist asked me to repeatedly strike the pillow while verbalizing the very things that were upsetting me. I looked at him incredulously, and I remember specifically thinking, “This is stupid.”

I voiced my reservations, telling him openly that I did not think hitting a pillow and venting my anger in this way would be of much help. He smiled at me, trying to be reassuring, and encouraged me to try the exercise despite my misgivings. And so, I did.

Not surprisingly, I felt stupid. I was a grown man standing in a quiet therapy office hitting a large, cube-shaped pillow and trying to muster real anger in hopes that it would overtake my embarrassment. It did not. It caused me instead to feel like a petulant child who was not getting his way. Later, I would in fact feel the anger that was elusive in that moment, but my anger would be directed at the therapist rather than at the other people in my life.

What went wrong?

We processed this event immediately afterward in a somewhat perfunctory way, owing to my new resentment toward the therapist. I told him that I felt stupid, and he listened without comment. He was less interested in how the exercise reflected on him and more interested in my experience of it. The session ended on an anticlimactic note. I left his office and decided not to return. I should note that I could have given him more decisive verbal feedback about my experience, or inquired further about his intentions or technique. I did neither of those things, so in a way, perhaps I cheated him out of an opportunity to learn and grow. I take some comfort in the thought that his training and development were not my responsibility.

Upon reflection, I came to see that this therapist had disregarded valuable information and feedback I had given him in session. He used an intervention with me that he had likely used countless times before with other clients, and perhaps with some success. After all, he had gone to the trouble of purchasing that strange cube-shaped pillow. He executed a technique despite my obvious resistance because he thought he knew better than I did about what might be helpful. My experience was that I felt unimportant, unheard and embarrassed.

After reflecting on this somewhat minor event, I finally came to understand some of the dynamics that had played out in that room. The therapist was applying a technique without any soul — or, in other words, without first establishing an emotional bond or connection with me. Because he had not forged such a connection with me, the intervention was an abject failure. He assumed that the technique alone was powerful enough to overcome my reservations or, as I’ve said, that he knew better and I just needed to trust him. In my attempt to be the good client, I placed my trust in him, and he showed me that he had not earned it yet.

A basic critique I have of this method is that it does not translate to my life in the world. Hitting objects when one is angry has no application in the real world. We cannot repeatedly hit the table if we become angry in the middle of a corporate board meeting. This method is not encouraging the development of further skills; rather, it is reinforcing a negative human behavioral habit.

Although it took me many years to understand what I had experienced in that therapy session, I eventually arrived at an obvious answer: I went there assuming the therapist was, in fact, an expert, but the person who instructed me to hit the pillow was simply a flawed human being using a flawed methodology. He, like me, is in the process of learning and growing, and, as such, he is still making mistakes. I accept this, and I accept him as being in process.

Cause for reflection

Being on the receiving end of this intervention gave me license to truly examine its effectiveness, or lack thereof, in my own life. This small experience also led me to reflect on how often I — and perhaps, we, as clinicians — may be deploying techniques in a mechanical and disconnected fashion, whether we learned these methods in school, from a trusted mentor, or from a celebrity therapist. I have come to believe that when we do this, we are elevating and accenting the academic concept at the expense of an interpersonal connection.

What benefits our clients is subject to debate, of course, and reasonable people can disagree about this. We learn a variety of evidence-based practices, techniques and theories in the hope that we can help reduce our clients’ pain and suffering. I have colleagues I trust and respect enormously who approach therapy from a more scientific standpoint. They have a toolkit of interventions they use for a variety of presenting problems. Presenting problem A gets intervention B and so on and so forth. I also know brilliant clinicians who use a primarily interpersonal approach, in which the central and ongoing interventions are kindness, consistency, nonjudgment and acceptance.

I would be willing to gamble and say that the majority of therapists artfully blend the scientific with the interpersonal. What is scientific in counseling is by definition methodical, detached and concerned with evidence. What is interpersonal is by definition emotional, involved and subjective. There need not be tension between these two concepts; skillful therapists braid them together.

Carl Rogers, the founder of client-centered therapy (also known as person-centered therapy), came to the conclusion that the interpersonal approach actually produces scientific, measurable results. I will not dive too deeply into discussions of duality and what the superior approach might be (in part because I don’t know), but it is incumbent on the professional counseling community to ascertain anew each day what is effective versus what is ineffective.

My conclusion was that my therapist at that time was relying on pure scientific technique, which lacked warmth. Therefore, what I experienced was his detachment from me and his failure to respond to the verbal and nonverbal feedback I was conveying to him in that moment. My bias, of course, is the golden thread in this entire experience: I lean mostly Rogerian as a counselor, and my therapist had failed to honor one of Rogers’ most important insights — namely, that I am the expert on myself. My therapist put himself in the role of expert, which was a natural result of his unique life experiences, training, upbringing, biases and blind spots.

Undoubtedly, this therapist’s approach has been helpful and effective for many people over the decades that he has been in practice. With the enormous variety of human beings on this planet, an enormous variety of styles and approaches in counseling is merited.

I have concluded from this experience that technique without soul is dead. The cold application of scientific knowledge in the therapy office lacks humanity. However, using only warmth and empathy without technique can be amorphous and ungrounded. I occasionally find myself wanting to revert to technique alone for its definitive attraction — namely, that it is an intellectual and finite concept and therefore seems easier to grasp. Conversely, when I rely too heavily on an interpersonal connection, even as a Rogerian, I find this to be limiting in a different way.

For me in my process of development now, the interpersonal connection is what builds trust, and that is what allows techniques to flourish and gain traction. When techniques are successful and helpful, and when clients experience real change from them, the interpersonal connection thrives. In this way, a skillful pairing of these approaches serves to reinforce the strength of both of them.

I have tremendous empathy for my previous therapist, despite my obvious critiques of him. It was easy for me to see, both then and now, that he meant well. I also have the benefit of being able to evaluate his approach, whereas my own approach is not subject to his scrutiny. I have an inherent advantage in this sense because nothing I have done is under the microscope. That being said, readers of this article may find fault with my analysis, and I welcome a robust debate. I am grateful to him in a noncynical way for showing me what type of therapist I do not want to be: detached, professorial, expert. I strive to become more and more who I want to be as a counselor: someone who is involved, humble, and allied with my clients. In short, I strive to become the professional whom I needed that day in his office.

 

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Peter Allen is a licensed professional counselor at East Cascade Counseling Services in Bend, Oregon. Contact him at peterallenlpc@gmail.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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.

Client suggestibility: A beginner’s guide for mental health professionals

By Jerrod Brown, Amanda Fenrich, Jeffrey Haun and Megan N. Carter August 12, 2019

In the context of mental health treatment, suggestibility refers to a client’s vulnerability to accepting information provided by a third party as true, regardless of its veracity. This can result in the client providing inaccurate guesses or statements in a verbal, nonverbal or narrative format. Influenced by a range of individual, psychosocial and contextual factors, the client may be convinced that events unfolded differently than they actually did or that events that never took place actually occurred.

Such behavior is often encountered when clients are uncertain about what happened or what is true, lack confidence in their own memories or ability to understand, or are unable to discriminate between what is real and what is not. As such, suggestibility can profoundly limit a client’s capacity to navigate the various stages of the mental health system.

Suggestibility is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that mental health treatment specialists rarely take into consideration, largely because of the lack of research on it and the limited availability of training opportunities on the topic specifically tailored for these professionals. The research that has been conducted is largely circumscribed to the fields of criminal justice, forensics and the law, where it is well-established that clients who are more suggestible are more likely to provide unreliable eyewitness accounts, spurious alibis or even false confessions to crimes.

Across mental health treatment settings, suggestibility may result in inaccurate diagnoses and ineffective or problematic goal and treatment plans. Given the importance of this topic, we aim to briefly describe the phenomenon of suggestibility within the context of clinical interviewing, assessment and treatment planning. We will also suggest future directions that may assist mental health professionals in addressing this threat to effective clinical decision-making.

Minimizing suggestibility risk in clinical interviews

Certain forms of questioning can increase the likelihood of suggestibility. A suggestive question is one that implies a certain answer, regardless of the client’s actual perspective. Such questions intentionally or unintentionally seek to be persuasive, often by using wording that excludes other possible answers. For example, asking “Where did your father hit you?” instead of “What happened with your father when you got home?” is leading. It promotes a response that would affirm the interviewer’s hypothesis that a physical assault took place and largely excludes the possibility that no altercation occurred.

Questions framed in a negative manner also can have a suggestible impact and are confusing to the client. For example, asking “Didn’t you want to run away?” rather than “Did you want to run away?” is biased in that it may make the client feel guilty for not saying that he or she wanted to run away.

To avoid asking suggestive questions and to lessen the likelihood of receiving false responses from clients, consider using the following strategies:

1) Use open-ended questions while avoiding or minimizing the use of forced-choice and either-or questions.

2) Allow the client to speak in his or her own words, and avoid interrupting the client.

3) Do not assume that you know what the client is trying to say when he or she is unable to fully convey his or her ideas.

4) Accept “I don’t know” responses as potentially valid.

To further illustrate this point of decreasing suggestibility within the context of clinical interviewing, mental health professionals should try to avoid the following approaches when questioning clients:

  • Use of closed-ended questions
  • Giving an impression that implies the client is providing the wrong answer
  • Implying that a certain answer is needed or required
  • Leading questions
  • Misleading questions
  • Negatively worded statements
  • Persuading the client to change his or her response
  • Pressing the client for a response
  • Rapid-fire questioning
  • Repeated lines of questioning
  • Biased statements
  • Subtle prompts

How often questions are asked may also have a suggestive impact. Clients may perceive repeated questioning as a sign that they have not responded in a manner that the counselor deems “correct” or acceptable. Indeed, repetitive lines of questioning in which the client is asked about details of events that either did not happen or that the client does not remember well may result in the unintentional formation of false memories or confabulation (i.e., filling in memory gaps with fabricated memories or experiences).

Asking more general questions about an incident (e.g., “Tell me about what happened at the park”) and then later following up with related questions (e.g., “How often do you go to the park?”) has been found to be a useful method for verifying or clarifying information that might appear to be inconsistent or illogical. Regardless of the questioning style, however, it is advisable to allow clients as much time as they need to respond to questions and to verbally reinforce that they can take their time when answering questions.

In addition to questioning style, the counselor’s nonverbal behaviors, including facial affect, gestural affect and intonation, both before and during the interview, may increase the likelihood of suggestibility and threaten the validity of the information elicited. An example of facial affect could be smiling when a client is providing certain answers but not others. A gestural affect might include leaning forward when a client is providing certain answers but not others. Intonation as a means of nonverbal communication could be providing feedback using upward inflection when a client provides certain answers but downward inflection when he or she provides others. These nonverbal, and often unintended, means of communication are forms of both positive and negative feedback that can shape a person’s responses and increase the risk of suggestibility.

The context of the interview can also affect the likelihood of suggestibility. For example, false reports are more likely if an interview is conducted in a stressful situation (e.g., having an appointment with a therapist immediately following a family conflict). Environmental factors (e.g., a small room without windows or air conditioning on a hot summer afternoon) can also be influential. Providing clients with frequent breaks and avoiding very long clinical interviews is encouraged, when possible. The time between the occurrence of an event and the interview that focuses on the event can also influence suggestibility because clients can become more confident in the accuracy of their false accounts over time. Context within the realm of a clinical interview can include any of the following either prior to and during the actual interviewing process:

  • Body language of the counselor
  • Duration of eye contact from the counselor
  • Environmental distractions (lighting, noise, temperature, etc.)
  • Length of the interview
  • Pace of the interview
  • Tone of the counselor’s voice

Mental health professionals should also take into consideration personality and social characteristics that can influence suggestibility. These may include tendencies toward confabulation, acquiescence, memory distrust, low confidence, desire to please, extreme shyness and social anxiety, avoidant-based coping strategies, fear of negative evaluation, lack of assertiveness, attachment disruptions, fantasy proneness, and psychosocial immaturity (e.g., irresponsibility and temperament). Professionals should also consider cognitive factors, including executive function and memory-related problems (e.g., short-term, long-term and working memory), intellectual limitations, diminished language abilities, and deficits in theory of mind (the ability to understand mental states in oneself and in others).

Preparing for and debriefing from the interview

Understandably, many of these characteristics initially present as invisible, meaning that clients who are highly suggestible may not overtly appear as impaired or vulnerable. Clinicians would benefit from screening for such traits in the initial interview with new clients to determine the prevalence of traits that are likely to contribute to suggestibility. Specific screening tools for suggestibility, such as the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale, can help clinicians in determining a person’s level of suggestibility. This will also assist clinicians in understanding how best to proceed as it relates to interviewing techniques and treatment planning to account for an individual’s level of suggestibility.

False or misleading information can have a negative impact on diagnostic accuracy and treatment outcomes. Accordingly, it is important that mental health professionals not only conduct interviews properly but also prepare for and debrief from them properly. Prior to beginning an interview, counselors are encouraged to review client records (psychological testing, mental health records, criminal justice records, etc.) that may reveal a behavioral pattern of suggestibility and provide a resource for corroborating a client’s statements. Cross-referencing this information with information obtained from collateral informants is also recommended when appropriate. The importance of awareness of one’s self throughout the interview is an important factor for reducing the risk of suggestibility. This includes monitoring one’s verbal and nonverbal communication that could provide feedback to the client regarding potentially desirable versus undesirable responses.

It’s worth noting that some special situations may require clinicians to be more aware of their questioning style and require adaptations and flexibility on the part of the clinician to minimize suggestibility. For instance, those working in correctional and jail settings should consider how suggestibility presents among incarcerated populations, to include those with mental health needs and low intellectual functioning. Substance use is another variable that can have adverse effects on the accuracy of the information obtained during a clinical interview. Furthermore, when interviewing children or adults with neurocognitive and neurodevelopmental disorders, extra precautions may be necessary to reduce the risk of suggestibility. Finally, it is important to note that individuals with exposure to negative life events (e.g., the death of a parent or sibling, exposure to physical violence) may be more susceptible to suggestibility.

Conclusion

Given the importance of collecting accurate information, it is essential that mental health professionals acquaint themselves with the phenomenon of suggestibility. Unfortunately, many mental health providers lack the necessary awareness and training related to the detection and screening of suggestibility among clients.

Mental health professionals should seek to establish routine procedures to better identify clients who are at an increased risk of susceptibility to suggestibility before proceeding with the interviewing process. Such a procedure could include a validated suggestibility screening tool and a checklist of variables that research has found to increase risk of suggestibility among certain mental health treatment populations. We encourage mental health professionals to be aware of the various personality, social and cognitive factors that may influence some clients to be suggestible.

Suggestibility can have a negative impact on the various components of mental health treatment, including intake, screening, assessment, psychological testing, treatment planning, medication compliance, perceived understanding of treatment concepts, and discharge planning. For this reason, we urge mental health professionals to gain an increased awareness and understanding of this complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

One suggested step for moving the field forward is for mental health professionals to engage in self-study and continuing education via in-person and online training courses that focus on the evidence-based assessment and management of suggestibility. It is also important for mental health professionals interested in understanding suggestibility and its implications to review key research findings on at least a quarterly basis and to consult with recognized subject matter experts. Clinical interviews should be conducted through developmentally sensitive and suggestibility-informed approaches that consider the client’s psychiatric, neurocognitive, social and trauma history. By taking such steps, the potential negative impact of suggestibility can be minimized, thus paving the way for positive outcomes.

 

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Jerrod Brown is an assistant professor, program director and lead developer for the master’s degree in human services with an emphasis in forensic behavioral health for Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center for the past 15 years and is the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies. Contact him at jerrod01234brown@live.com.

Amanda Fenrich obtained her master’s degree in human services with an emphasis in forensic mental health from Concordia University. She is currently completing her doctoral degree in the advanced studies of human behavior from Capella University and is employed as a psychology associate for the Washington State Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment and Assessment Program.

Jeffrey Haun is employed as a forensic psychologist for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, where he conducts a variety of forensic evaluations and offers consultation, supervision and training in forensic psychology. He is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct instructor at Concordia University. He is board certified in forensic psychology.

Megan N. Carter is board certified in forensic psychology and has received the designation of fellow from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. She has worked as a forensic evaluator at the Special Commitment Center, Washington state’s sexually violent predator facility, since 2008. She also maintains a small private practice focusing on forensic evaluations and child welfare issues.

 

Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org

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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.

Voice of Experience: Giving away power

By Gregory K. Moffatt July 11, 2019

“Are you Dr. Moffatt?” a soft voice said as Antoine (not his real name) stepped into my office.

I nodded. He was a 20-something African American male. He explained that he had been arrested for assault. His court requirements included completing 12 counseling sessions for anger management. I quickly perused the copy of the court mandate Antoine had brought with him as he stood by respectfully.

“So, let me get the picture,” I said. “You got in a fight. A white guy arrested you. A white guy represented you in court, and a white guy sentenced you and sent you to see a white guy for 12 weeks. Is that about right?”

Antoine tried to stifle a smile but failed. “Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” he acknowledged.

“Well,” I said, “according to this court document, the only mandate is that we have to meet for 12 weeks. We can do whatever you want. We can talk about life, sports, or stare at the wall. Whatever you like. At the end of 12 weeks, assuming you show up, I’ll sign off. Or, if you like, we can work on what might have led to your arrest. If we do, then maybe I can learn something about you, and you can learn something about yourself and hopefully never see a jail cell again.”

When I tell that story to new clinicians, they argue that it would have been unethical to see Antoine for 12 weeks but not do therapy. We would have done therapy, but that isn’t the issue. The mandate didn’t require that I show progress or that the client cooperate. The document only required him to attend.

I’m not playing word games. Alcoholics Anonymous has done this since its inception. Individuals can attend, not say a word, be resistant, and they can show little or no progress or even relapse. Showing up is a giant step on the long road to recovery.

Predictably, mandated clients bring resistance with them. We have no power to force any of our clients to change. The wording of the court mandate allowed me to give away power from the get-go by stating the obvious: I couldn’t force Antoine to change or engage in therapy. (Be aware that some court mandates do require growth.)

I also gave Antoine power by stating something else that was obvious. He was nonwhite, and I was just another white man in a system in which he had no power. I gave him permission (power) not to trust me, and in so doing, ironically, I began to earn his trust.

Mandated counseling makes giving power to our clients especially challenging, and resistance is predictable. Because I’m white, I was pretty sure Antoine assumed that I wouldn’t understand him or his culture. He had no reason to trust me. If I had been in his shoes, I wouldn’t have trusted me either.

Giving away power is one of the things in our therapeutic tool boxes that can help us earn trust very quickly. My technique worked. Within minutes, Antoine was at least willing to give me a chance.

I do something similar with child clients because children are also mandated in a way. Guardians bring them to me — a stranger — often without even asking these children their thoughts about it.

But like Antoine, young children learn to trust me almost as soon as they cross my office threshold. I meet them at the door, welcome them in and say, “You can do about anything you want in here. If there is something you can’t do, I’ll tell you.”

Some children test me with a question such as, “Can I break something?”

“If you feel like you need to,” I reply.

I often watch them as they roam around my playroom, shooting occasional glances at me, seemingly waiting for me tell to them what they can’t do. Saying “no” is rarely necessary.

Antoine turned out to be one of my favorite adult clients. If I hadn’t given him power from the start, he probably still would have shown up and been respectful and cooperative. But growth may not have happened.

Instead, over our 12 weeks, he was fully engaged — starting with our very first session — and he grew tremendously. Several times I saw his eyes light up as he had epiphanies about his decision-making processes. He gained insight into his behavior and developed numerous coping and problem-solving strategies that make it unlikely he will ever see the inside of a courtroom again, at least as a defendant.

I still think about Antoine and his sly smile during our first meeting. Witnessing his growth was satisfying, and that is why I became a counselor in the first place. I doubt I would have ever earned his trust without giving him power from the beginning.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. 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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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.