VIDEO: What to Do When Your Client Cries

Making Tears Your Therapeutic Ally

Jay Efran

Few therapists have received explicit training in theories of emotion. Most of what we think about crying and other emotional reactions are based on what therapist Jay Efran calls “steam-kettle thinking”—the culturally pervasive but biologically absurd notion that emotions are stored quantities of energy, which, like steam, wreak havoc when bottled up too long or released too abruptly.

In the following interview with Networker editor Rich Simon, Efran shares a proven intervention strategy for dealing with a crying client, including how to speak with them in a way that doesn't invalidate what they're feeling.

Jay Efran, PhD, is professor emeritus of psychology at Temple University and a member of the Society of American Magicians. He’s coauthor of Language, Structure and Change: Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy.

As Efran notes, we're biologically primed to react when someone cries. Clinicians in particular can feel an urge to rush in and “fix things” that aren’t broken, and this can often make matters worse.

Instead, he explains, asking clients what helped them cry rather than what made them cry gives them agency over their own feelings, and removes the stigma behind crying. This relays to the client that they're in a safe place, expressing a natural process, "a good outward sign," Efran continues, "that active processing is happening. If tears are flowing, you can just allow the process to unfold."


Did you enjoy this video? You might also be interested in our issue, Emotion in the Consulting Room: How Therapists Really Feel about Feelings. Or, check out Efran's magazine piece, "Spitting in the Client's Soup: Don't Overthink Your Interventions."

Topic: Challenging Clients & Treatment Populations | Grief

Tags: client relationship | crying | Depression & Grief | Depression & Grief | grief | Jay Efran | neurobiology | relationship | Rich Simon | sadness | safe space | therapeutic alliance | therapeutic crying

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1 Comment

Friday, August 31, 2018 9:25:22 AM | posted by KATE
Excellent--"What helped you cry?" When my daughter was about 8 years old, I had to tell her her cat died. As expected she cried for about 10 solid minutes. I left her alone. The next day I told her I noticed she had cried and then she stopped. Then I asked, "What happened when you stopped?" This little 8 yr old girl said, "I realized death is a part of life." Wisdom comes from tears.