In their first couple therapy session, Bonnie and Greg present their problems in broad outlines. I want to get to examples. It is only by hearing what partners actually say to each other in specific situations that it’s possible to help them come up with the needed conversation. Before shifting to examples, however, I want to make sure that Bonnie and Greg have the opportunity to express what they want to say and tell me what they think is important for me to know.
Dan (to Bonnie and Greg): At some point, I’ll like to shift to examples. Is this a good time or are there other important things we should talk about first?
By bringing Bonnie and Greg in on the decision, I make our relationship more collaborative and less hierarchical. I turn them into consultants. I invite them to join me on the board of directors, to use Lynn Hoffman’s metaphor.
Some clients don’t want a seat on the board of directors. They want the relationship to be hierarchical. They’ve come in search of an expert who will tell them what to do to solve their problems. My task then is to find a way to provide some element of what they seek that makes sense to me too.
Generally, however, having a seat on the board of directors empowers partners—it gives them more of a chance to have their say—and it empowers me. It saves me from having to figure out unilaterally, without benefit of the partners’ input, what is going on and how to proceed.
Dan (to Amy and John): In what ways is this conversation useful and in what ways is it not so useful?
Amy and John know better than I do whether they’re getting something out of their conversation. They’re the experts on the matter.
Dan (to Joy and Angela): There are twenty minutes left. Are we getting to what you need to talk about today or are there other things we should make sure to address—things that, as you’re driving home, you’ll be sorry that you didn’t bring up?
I like to get the partners’ help in figuring out what the session is about—which is why I ask at the end of the session what’s been disappointing and what’s been helpful. And I like to bring partners in on moment-to-moment therapy management questions.
Dan (to Frank and Ethan): You began today’s session saying you want to discuss three issues. The session is two-thirds over and we’re still on the first issue. Should we switch to one of the others, or continue with this one?”
When a session appears to be ending badly, I might consult with partners about it.
Dan: We have only five minutes left and it looks like you’re going to leave feeling angry and alienated. Can either of you think of one thing you could say or do that might begin to turn things around?
Whenever I can, I like to bring partners in on my intentions, plans, and strategy.
Dan (to Ian and Leo): This has been a difficult session, so I’m going to make up a little dialogue to give you a taste of what it would be like if you were to feel really listened to by the other.
Dan: I’ve spoken several times for Kenny, but not at all for you yet, Charlotte. So let me do that right now.
When partners shift from topic to topic, making it impossible to focus on any one, I could say, “Let’s stick to one topic.” I prefer, however, to consult with them about the matter.
Dan: You brought up a number of issues in the last several minutes. Is one of them more important than the others and should we focus on that? Or is it best to do just what you’re doing and lay them all out?”
In summary, turning the partners into consultants:
- Empowers partners. It gives them a seat on the board of directors, brings them in on the decision making, and makes our relationship more collaborative and less hierarchical. The partners are not left wondering about my intentions and strategy. I’m telling them
- Empowers me. It saves me from having to figure out unilaterally, without benefit of the partners’ input, what is going on and how to proceed. I get the relief and sense of connection that comes out of confiding my plans, strategy, and concerns of the moment.
- Allows me to help partners deal with problems they have in their relationship with me and to get their help dealing with problems I have in my relationship with them.