03 Oct I’m Curious
First, a disclaimer. Therapy does not always work. Not everyone who comes through my door goes away feeling better and/or doing better. I want to believe that many people are helped some and a few people are helped a lot but that just may be my own need for affirmation.
The question of why some people are helped in therapy has long been bandied back and forth within my profession. There have been tons of studies, debates, and outright conflicts over what does and does not help. It is an important question because the people who come to us are often in great need and we owe it to them to provide the best services possible; that is, those that help the most. The fact is, it is probably a combination of things including well-delivered therapy modalities, the education and experience level of the therapist, the skill level of the therapist, and probably most important, the willingness of the client to change how they think or behave or both.
I also have personal opinions about what helps. In my thinking, (along with the above list) the most important element that I bring to the therapy room is that I care deeply. I have a fundamental goal of conveying to people that they matter to me and that I do not look down on them or their problems. I believe this caring creates an atmosphere of safety that frees both the client and therapist to be honest and real. But just saying that I care does not always convey that I care. The thing that I believe conveys caring is the simple attitude of curiosity.
Please understand, I’m not talking about the kind of curiosity that leads to gossip mongering or deriving some sort of strange pleasure from somebody else’s pain. I’m talking about the real desire to get to know someone as deeply as he or she is willing to expose to me. The more they can do that without feeling judged, the stronger my position will be when it comes time to offer the possibility of some changes. Further, it’s not to say that I like or agree with everything that I hear but that I’m willing to make space for the whole story. It means I’m willing to hang in through the uncomfortable parts, the embarrassing parts, and the shameful parts. It means I will look at you while you talk and ask questions that invite you to talk more. I will seek clarification, and confirmation that my clarification is accurate. If nothing else, you will walk out of the therapy room feeling heard.
The more I have thought about this the more I realize that what I’m doing is kind of Good Relationships 101. It’s the sort of “skill” that works in any important relationship. If you want to get closer to someone or start a new relationship or enhance an old relationship, try curiosity. Hang in through the uncomfortable parts, the embarrassing parts, and the shameful parts. Look at them when they talk. Listen to them when they talk. Ask questions that lead to clarification and confirmation. Withhold your own opinions and until you are clear as to what their thoughts and feelings are (rather than what you assume they are). It works pretty well in therapy and I am certain it will work pretty well for you.