What do I Say When My Client Says…?

By Michael Jones
“You look bored,” or “worried,” or “tired.”

If I am, I say so, but always with some commentary.  I might say, “Yes, I am feeling worried—the choice you are describing seems unsafe,” or “The decision you are facing is difficult no matter what you chose, and I am concerned about your well-being.”

It is harder to do, but I am also prepared to admit when I am bored.  The commentary in this case has to be both about my boredom and the client’s boredom, because they often go together.   I might say that, “I find boredom to be a way I defend myself against something that makes me feel anxious—and today I am anxious about understanding what you are experiencing.”  But I might also venture to ask, “Are you bored too?”  “Are we stuck?”  “Are we going over old ground—not because we are seeking new depth but just to avoid a harder topic?”

If I am tired, then I admit it when challenged.  The issue then is how my tiredness—an aspect of my humanity—impinges on the therapeutic process.  And that is something to discuss in the moment.  “What do you feel in the presence of my tiredness, my imperfection?”  If the answer is something like,  “I feel rejected and de-valued,” then I have to own up to being the source of that experience, and I have to work to use the therapeutic space to process the experience.

If I am really not bored or angry or tired, then the statement is an occasion to reflect back—“Are you feeling that way?”

There are many possible variations on these themes.  One of them is the case where I am bored but nothing is said.  That is when I have to ask myself about my own boredom—what I am avoiding in my work with this client, or elsewhere in my personal and professional life, that is draining the energy from this moment?

“These sessions are going nowhere.”

This is hard to hear.  I know that not every session can feel productive, but I still want to believe that every client feels like every session is valuable, productive, worth the time and money.  It is a fantasy, but it stings to have it deflated.

But I have to bracket that sting when the client says, “These sessions are going nowhere,” and muster the courage to ask for more criticism.  “What are we stuck on?”  “What feels unproductive?”  “What do you want from me that you are not getting?” “What do you want from this session or from our work as a whole that you are not getting?”

So this complaint, this moment of anger or frustration, is a gift to the process.  If I welcome it, if I can survive it, and if I can give my client a chance to fill out the details of the disappointment, everything about our relationship will be richer.  At some point in the process I will want to take the brackets off my own injury and admit that it hurt to hear those words.

When my client has the courage to say, “These sessions are going nowhere,” both of us have a chance to experience, and to learn again, that breaks and repairs make for stronger bonds.

By Michael Jones, Ph.D., LSW

Published on November 9, 2017