We’ve all been there: we’re driving around with a friend or a loved one and we are, without a doubt, hopelessly lost. We play around with the idea of pulling over for directions, but just then, our passenger throws up their arm in exasperation and declares that you’re lost and need to pull over. And from that moment on, pulling over is out of the question. We’re not lost, we’re on a detour, and our passenger needs to have a little faith. Admitting defeat is now out of the question.
We’ve all been confronted with advice we don’t want to follow. Whether it’s your doctor telling you to cut back on fatty foods, or your partner offering unsolicited driving advice, most of us don’t exactly relish the opportunity to be told what to do.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone then that chastising lectures from a therapist can be ineffective, and sometimes even actively harmful, to patients looking to better themselves. For instance, some people struggling with drug use may be more likely to use drugs after confrontation from substance counselors. Everyone, of course, is guilty of doing something. Whether it’s being a neglectful friend or family member, making poor decisions as a result of drugs or alcohol, or simply having a temper that strains relationships, we can all do better. But even if, deep down, we want to change our behavior, being told outright to “cut it out” can often force people to shut down and become uncooperative.
Like rebellious teenagers, we don’t want to change just because someone says so. Aside from undermining someone’s motivation to change, this sort of lecturing can also be detrimental to the therapeutic alliance, an ideal relationship between therapist and patient that involves collaboration, empathy and positive regard. When a therapist fails to acknowledge the client’s pace and suggests change without understanding the situation, the client’s resistance to change is increased. When therapy is tailored towards the client’s knowledge and readiness, the chances of adopting favorable change are much higher.
In many situations where a professional is advocating for a client to change their behavior, the professional resorts to non-specific advice giving without assessing the client. The provider may be prioritizing reaching their goals over reaching the client’s goals when in reality the goals should mirror each other.
Rather than lecturing, therapists work with their clients to discover and explore intrinsic motivators for changing a behavior. One technique growing in popularity is “motivational interviewing,” a conversational style that embodies partnership, acceptance, compassion and working to evoke a person’s internal reason to change. The therapist can help you to identify your core beliefs and goals and how they relate to the behavioral changes you would like to meet. In other words, motivational interviewing helps a client discover their own inner reason for change, the best motivation there is. In doing so, the client’s autonomy is respected, and both parties get to avoid an unpleasant lecture.
The relationship between a client and therapist is a delicate one, but with the right skills and attitude tremendous progress can be made. If you feel like your practitioner may not be the one for you but want to give them a chance, try to discuss your concerns with them. Their openness to discuss these issues with you may be the clearest evidence that they are truly ready and able to help you.