Having Difficult Conversations
by Diane A. Suffridge, Ph.D.
“I have a client who has been 10-15 minutes late to every session since we started meeting three months ago. My supervisor says I need to talk with her about this, but I’m afraid she might stop therapy if I confront her. Is it possible to continue seeing her in therapy without talking about why she’s late?”
I sometimes say to my supervisees and people I am training that as mental health practitioners we are in the business of having difficult conversations. Growing into the role of clinician means developing skills to talk about issues and areas of conflict in a way that is different than usual social conversations. I’ll discuss first some of the steps that can help us in having these conversations, then address the specific situation you describe.
Each of us comes into the clinical role with interpersonal skills that are familiar and comfortable, and these familiar strategies involve avoiding some type of discomfort. As we work with different kinds of clients, we find that these interpersonal skills are helpful in some of the situations we face but not in others. We also face situations with supervisors, peers, and colleagues that may challenge our familiar strategies for coping with conflict or distress. When we can expand our repertoire of skills in managing these difficult conversations, we are capable of being effective in a broader range of clinical challenges.
In working toward greater interpersonal flexibility, it will be helpful to take some time to reflect on the situation and your emotional responses to it. Supervision and personal therapy are good resources to use in developing greater self-awareness. Some steps to consider are to identify 1) the specific nature of the conflict or discomfort you feel, 2) the benefits and limitations of your familiar strategy for managing this type of conflict or discomfort, 3) the fears or worries that arise when you consider handling the situation in a different way, and 4) a small step you could take to expand your skills. Remember that change usually happens in small steps, so think about developing your interpersonal skills incrementally rather than pressuring yourself to do something dramatically different.
Applying these steps to the specific situation you mention, we start with the nature of the conflict. It seems your supervisor is suggesting something that you perceive as confrontational, but it isn’t clear whether you perceive the client’s lateness to be a problem and why discussing it would become adversarial. A starting point would be to explore more of your own response to the client being late and the potential meaning it might have. This would be something to discuss in supervision as well. It seems that your familiar strategy with managing this type of conflict is to avoid discussing it directly, so the next step would be to consider the positive and negative results of this type of avoidance in other situations in your life. It may be that this was the most effective way to respond in your personal relationships, but remember that your job as a clinician is to help your client face and resolve the issues that are interfering with her life. A limitation of relying solely on avoidance of potential conflict is that your client will not have an opportunity to gain insight into a pattern that may contribute to her difficulties outside of therapy.
A third step to consider is the nature of fears and worries you have about responding differently to this situation. You express a fear that your client will stop therapy if you discuss her lateness. This seems to reflect an assumption that she will feel judged or criticized by you and that your therapeutic alliance isn’t strong enough for a conversation about something that affects your work together. Consider approaching the conversation with curiosity rather than judgment. You can talk about the issue without requiring that she begin coming on time. A small step you could take toward handling this situation differently would be to say something like “I notice that you usually come a bit later than our scheduled time and I wonder if there is anything about that you’d like to discuss.” The client may simply say “no” and move on to another topic, but taking this step moves you into an area that has previously been fearful for you. You can then look at the meaning of your client’s pattern and additional ways you might discuss it with her.
For more about Diane Suffridge, visit: www.dianesuffridgephd.com
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The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.