The Two Kinds of Conversations We All Have with Our Clients

blue voice bubble in front of white voice bubble


By Kelly G. Wilson, PhD


What I want with my clients are significant conversations, conversations that can change lives—both theirs and mine.


When I say “change,” I don’t mean from something “bad” to something “good”—from a “bad them” to a “good them,” from a “bad life” to a “good life.”


Conversations about whether a life is good or bad or whether a person is good or bad or worthy or unworthy don’t interest me much. We have but one life—this life, this very life.


Back and forth they go, but to what end? I haven’t noticed these conversations taking me nor my clients anywhere.


Ordinary conversations come so naturally to us. One doesn’t need a therapist to have one of these conversations. Step into any bar. Buy the person next to you a beer. Complain about something, almost anything really. See if he isn’t willing to join you in that complaint.


“Oh, you think your boss is bad!”


“Well, then my wife said…”


“Nothing ever really goes right for me either.”


And on and on.


Wherever you find a human, you find suffering. But humans don’t just suffer when things are bad, they suffer when things might be bad.


See also: Rising to the Challenge of Not Believing Everything You Think


If your newfound companion doesn’t join you in your misery, he’ll almost certainly favor you with a hollow reassurance that things will get better. Ask him not so kindly for an alternate view, and he’ll start giving advice.


The conversations differ in comfort level but little in function.


Perhaps you can recall certain conversations you’ve had in your own life, though, that shook you, that altered your fundamental relationship with the world around you. Perhaps the conversation we’re having right now could be like that. Perhaps the next conversation you have with a client could begin such a process.



I’m not shy about telling clients that I’m interested in life-changing


conversation with them.


Let’s start by distinguishing two kinds of conversations.


One type of conversation is all about limitations—conversations about what can be expected, hoped for, imagined, about what is realistic or deserved or could be gotten away with.


Here, we’ll focus on the second kind of conversation.


It’s a conversation about possibilities, about that which we long for but perhaps can’t even name—a sometimes inscrutable more.


We’re not used to more, except in the crude material sense. We’re used to wanting more house, more car, more money. Even when we want more of nonmaterial things—to be loved, understood, appreciated—the more often has a clutching quality that’s not unlike the desire for a new car.


There’s little outside of religious conversations, though, that fosters a careful discernment of the direction one’s life might take. Even in religious conversations, such direction is too often formulized.




I’m interested in conversations within which we can hear the resonance of the very world and the resonance of our own lives in that world—conversations in which we can hear, really hear, the depth of love that has gone unspoken, perhaps even unfelt, the dreams and desires that remain tucked away—significant conversations.


Words are incredibly captivating. In ACT, we call this capturing of attention fusion. It’s not helpful to define fusion as either bad or good, but fusion can sometimes cost us awareness of other things that are going on in our interactions with clients.


Formal ACT techniques can sometimes be difficult to integrate into a fluid therapeutic relationship.


At his upcoming 6-week online training, you will learn how to practice ACT through natural conversations without using formal techniques. You’ll learn how conversational techniques can resolve difficult cases that challenge your ACT practice.


Due to the attendee-focused nature of the work in this course, only 20 total seats will be sold.


Learn to Practice ACT Fluidly Through Natural Conversations at Mastering the Clinical Conversation!