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The Expert Trap

How do we know when a critical juncture in therapy is taking place? The signs are usually quite apparent, albeit frustrating for us as agents of change: silence, hostile challenges, passivity, or the all-too familiar “yes, but . . .” response. Suppose a client comes to you with an array of problems to which you immediately see solutions. As you learn more about the client, you become increasingly certain that your ideas can help him, and repeatedly offer advice and suggestions. But here’s the catch: the more of an expert you become, the more you provide him with something to resist. Your expert suggestions aren’t welcomed at this point—his “yes, but . . .” responses signal this fact, if only you’re willing to recognize that.

So what do you do? How do you honor your client’s “yes, but . . .” with understanding and acceptance? One of the most effective ways of getting out of the expert trap is reversing your know-it-all therapeutic posture and presenting yourself as less knowledgeable, naive, and puzzled, a coinvestigator of how to get him unstuck from his quagmire. Now there’s nothing to resist. Although your attachment to remaining the knowledgeable professional can make your reversal difficult, particularly if you really think your ideas would help, it’s important to realize that the more of an expert you become, the less psychological freedom your client has to explore possibilities on his own and experience a sense of agency in his own life.

This expert trap is often fueled by our dedication to being helpful and our frustration with clients’ refusal to accept our influence. But what matters isn’t our good intentions and how much we know, nor is it how much we want to help. What matters is what’s occurring in our relationship with a client at any given moment. Of course, if your client is accepting of your suggestions, don’t resist his openness by holding back what you have to offer. A good rule of thumb is: the more resistant the client, the less you know; the more motivated the client, the more you know.

An Alternative Perspective

The broad area of academic study that best captures the perspective being described here is Social Interaction Theory, which has emerged over the last decades, incorporating the ideas of Rogers, Erickson, de Shazer, and many others. It posits that whenever two people are interacting, including in a therapeutic conversation, there’s always an exchange of influence that creates the dynamics of the relationship.

From this perspective, clients can be seen as coming into therapy to receive some form of influence that’ll help them resolve their problems. In my trainings, I teach that “resistance” is created by the therapist when the method of delivering influence is mismatched with the client’s current propensity to accept the manner in which the influence is delivered. While that may sound a bit long-winded, it helps us identify the reason for resistance in therapy, and encourages us to pinpoint the moment it enters into the therapeutic dialogue. In fact, a close review of a clinical session usually reveals that a therapist’s statements have spurred a client’s resistance without having to resort to any arcane theorizing about hidden, intrapsychic processes. But beyond that, Social Interaction Theory suggests a core set of practical guidelines that can help us respond more quickly and effectively when the telltale signs of “resistance” appear in our offices.

Slow the Pace. When many therapists encounter resistance, they unconsciously increase the pace of the dialogue to break through the current struggle, but that’s almost always a mistake. It’s usually better to space out your words more and allow for moments of silence. This technique results in a distinctive therapeutic environment that has several immediate benefits.

First, it creates pressure on the client to fill the space you’ve opened. Second, it provides time for thoughts and feelings to emerge—two things “resistant” clients avoid. The internal psychological work done by clients occurs in the moments between the spoken words. When you slow the pace, you provide more time for clients to process what’s being said, increasing the opportunity for a disruption of their current patterns of thinking and perceiving.

Third, slowing the pace creates an environment in which the therapeutic tension around the problem at hand remains within the client. Often, in a misplaced effort to help, therapists begin taking ownership of a client’s problems, relieving the client of dealing with the tension the problem creates and placing it between the client and therapist. Remember the last time you were in an argument? The faster and louder you presented your points, the greater the tension became between you and the other person. In therapy, when you slow the pace, you can keep the struggle within the client, where it belongs.

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  • Comment Link Monday, 20 May 2013 02:46 posted by Plamen Panayotov

    Hi, Clifton,
    Thank you very much indeed for this very interesting and useful thread.
    Right now me and my friend and colleague Boyan Strahilov are trying to shape a brief text on 'From the Death of Resistance to the Birth of Assistance'.
    As in psychiatric treatment, where many patients resist their medical treatment, it takes one step to go from 'resistance' 'compliance', and yet another one from there to 'adherence'.
    As we see it now, resistance is mostly connected to untimeliness.
    Each and every question we ask the client can be on time, which results in assistance from her; or out of time, which provokes resistance.
    So, the main question for a therapist becomes: How can I fit myself to the time of this client now?
    One possible answer to this you can see here:
    Hoping we all can be on time some day,