Actions as Loud as Words

By Sonja V. Batten, PhD

As a therapist or coach, our job is to work with our clients to move their lives forward in meaningful ways. But this is often easier said than done.

Obstacles can arise both on the part of the client and the therapist. If you’re finding that words are coming a lot more easily than actions for your clients, here are 3 common traps that you and your client may have fallen into:

1. You’re not the boss of me

Pretty much nobody likes to be told what to do. You may think that what you’re suggesting is totally in line with what the client has been saying he wants to do. He may even agree, conceptually. But if your suggested goal gets a lukewarm reception, that may be a signal to take a step back and check where the target came from.

If it’s something you recommended – even if you thought you had permission to do so – it may be time to reset the goal to something that the client himself identifies. Coaching the client to come up with his own commitments is a much more powerful process than handing him a beautifully designed goal that you created.

2. Unclear values

Have you ever had the experience where your client sets a goal, yet week after week, when you check in about it, she hasn’t followed through?

Perhaps she’s perfectly able to articulate a goal herself, but there’s just no charge – no voltage – behind it. This can be a sign that the goal is more related to something she thinks she’s supposed to do or that someone else wants her to do rather than to something she truly cares about.

If you find yourself in a situation like this with your client, you might take a step back and see if the client can articulate the overarching value that the goal supports. For example, if a client says over and over that she is going to start eating in a healthier way, but doesn’t seem to be making any changes, it can be helpful to explore what eating healthy is in the service of. Eating less sugar and more salads may not feel like a very energizing choice when she is tired in the middle of a long week. However, if the choice of a salad is tied to her value of being healthy enough to be able to play actively with her grandchildren, this can change how “appetizing” the choice is.

See also: Teaching Clients How to Take Values Based Action

3. Avoiding discomfort

Let’s face it. More times than not, changing a habitual behavior is hard. If it were easy, your client wouldn’t be coming to you for help with it.

But what does it mean to say that change is hard? Sometimes it’s the case that there is a skills deficit, and the person needs to learn some new ways of engaging. But more often than not, change is also uncomfortable – and we humans are really good at setting up our lives to effectively avoid discomfort as much as possible.

So, if your client has realized that he or she needs to practice better networking for his business to succeed, it may not be enough to simply set a target number of people to reach out to in the next week. When simple goal-setting is not enough, it’s probably time to explore what makes doing that task so uncomfortable and reconnect the likely feelings of discomfort with the value that makes the task worth doing. Doing this can help overcome avoidance, which comes much more easily than new behaviors do.

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