“I tried that…it didn’t work”: Responding to failures in counseling

One of the things a counselor does in meeting a new client is to ask, “tell me what you have tried thus far to solve this problem.” We ask this question because we know we are not the first stop for most folks trying to solve a problem. Whether it is a parent seeking a way to manage a child’s misbehavior, a couple seeking help in changing the way they talk to each other, or an individual trying to address an ongoing anxiety problem, most people have tried and not found adequate success–which is why they come to see us.

But, let me tell you what goes through my head when I suggest a couple of options/approaches my client might try and they respond with, “I tried it…it doesn’t work.” My internal, private response?

Define try. Define work.

Now that probably sounds negative but I don’t mean it that way at all. What I mean to communicate is that I do not yet know what this person tried, for how long, and what result, if any, was achieved. What I do know is that my work is cut out for me because the client statement usually conveys a closedness to trying that particular intervention (or similar ones) again. My job is to ask questions to understand each word: try and work.

Tried it.

There are a couple of commons ways people try solutions to problems. They may try something without proper consultation. They may try something in an intermittent manner. Let me give you some examples. Parents may try a reinforcement strategy with a child but fail to find a powerful enough reinforcer to make the system work. Or, a couple may try a speaker/listener technique but revert in the middle back to a debate/invalidating mode. A couple may need to take a “time out” or break to avoid a conflict escalation but the one asking for a break may do so using it as a power move (“I’m outta here!) rather than a de-escalation attempt.

Didn’t work.

A good technique may or may not work, depending on any number of reasons. Some interventions really won’t work for a particular person or setting. However, it is important to recognize that some interventions fail to work for reasons already mentioned above and others may fail to “work” because of client expectations. For example, a parent may try a particular intervention with their child to reduce angry outbursts. Then, the parent returns to counseling the next week and tells the counselor the intervention didn’t work. Upon deeper investigation the parent does admit that the number of outbursts reduced, the duration of the outbursts shortened. Why did they feel that the intervention didn’t work? Well, last night they have a horrible blowout and very small irritating interactions each day. So, the intervention may have worked even though the parent is feeling very worn out and discouraged. Or, in the couple illustration, listening technique may enable the couple to fight less but one spouse feels that the other has a history of being self-centered and thus cannot trust the reasons they are now trying to do a better job. So, they interpret short-term success as not real or legitimate.

Setting the stage for homework

Counselors often give homework. For homework interventions to work, a counselor should: (a) make a very clear explanation of what should be done, when, and how often, (b) what results, if any, to note, (c) the short and long-term purpose of this intervention, and (d) follow up next week to see how the  client fared and what alterations might need to be made in the following week.

Counselors do well not to oversell the value of the intervention, admit that not all interventions work and that troubleshooting is an essential part of counseling, write down their homework requests for clients, and make sure that the homework given fits the client’s level of commitment to the process.

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Filed under christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

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