Have you ever experienced the situation in which you present a solution-focused question to your client and your client answers your question by saying ”I don’t know”?
Novice therapists often find this situation awkward. Seasoned therapists, instead, often either avoid these type of answers by taking preparatory measures that reduce the likelihood of the I-don’t-know answers or use elegant ways of responding to keep the dialogue rolling. I have listed a number of such preparatory measures and interviewing techniques below.
“Thank you for coming. I think it’s a good idea that you’ve come. There are no guarantees that this will be of any help. The only thing I can guarantee is that I will do my best and I assume you will too.”
Clients are more willing to cooperate with you when they feel that you appreciate them. In order to make sure the client feels appreciated you can, for example, give the client compliments, show interest in their strengths and talents, and be impressed by their ideas, solutions or coping strategies.
It is often easier for clients to answer solution-focused questions when it is not you who asks the questions but you read the questions together with the client from an interviewing tool such as a workbook, a set of interviewing cards or an app. In this arrangement the role of the clinician changes from that of a person who asks difficult questions to that of a supporter, or an assistant, whose role is to help the client think of answers to questions found in the intervention tool.
It is easier for people to think about answers to your questions when there are more than one person present in the meeting. If the client says, “I don’t know” you can keep the ball rolling by letting another person answer the same question: “What about you, what do you think?” or even “What do you think he/she would say if he/she would answer the question?” It is often easier to have solution-focused conversations when there are more than one person participating in the conversation. Especially when working with adolescents, the therapist should always encourage them to bring along one or more friends.
“Don’t answer yet. Let’s ask your mother / spouse / friend to guess what you will say.”
Therapists are constantly drawn into all sorts of human conflicts. In order for clients in conflict with another person to trust you they need to feel that you are either neutral or on their side. ”Whose idea was it that you should come to talk with me? Why do you think that person wanted us to talk? What do you think that person would like to see happen as a result of us talking? What about you? What are your own best hopes for this discussion?”
Sometimes therapists encounter clients who have previous negative experiences of having seen professionals. Previous negative experiences can spill over and influence the way the client perceives you. You can neutralize such prejudice simply by showing interest and asking the client of their previous experiences: “Have you talked about these things before with any therapist? How was that experience for you? Is there anything I need to know to make sure nothing similar will happen this time?”
When you have asked your solution-focused question and the client answers ”I don’t know”, seal your lips and wait patiently. What often happens is that after a little while, the client will begin to answer your question. This happens most likely because the client needs some time to think about the answer when they say, “I don’t know”, they don’t mean that they don’t want to think of the answer but that they simply need a bit time to think of the answer.
You may also be more explicit about giving the client more time to think about how to answer your question. You may say, for example, something along the lines of:
”It is a difficult question and not an easy one to answer. But suppose you would be able to answer, what do you think you would say?”
”It’s difficult to know, you are right. But what would you think?”
”I do sometimes present difficult questions. That’s one part of my job.”
”Take your time. There’s no rush.”
If the client finds your question difficult to answer, you can put the question on hold and say to your client that we can back to the question later. You may even consider turning the question into a homework assignment by asking the client to think about it at home and promising to present the question again in the next session.
“It is a difficult question and there’s no need for you to answer right now. We can come back to that later.”
“You don’t need answer now. You can give yourself time to think about thoroughly during the next week and we can talk about it next time we meet.”
It is often easier for clients to think about how someone else (e.g. family member / friend / colleague) would answer a question they find difficult to answer. Once clients have first thought about how someone else would answer the question, they often find it easier to come up with their own answer.
”It is a difficult question. But tell me what do you think your (best friend mother/father/spouse etc.) would answer if I were to ask him/her the same question?”
There is no rule forbidding you from guessing what the client will answer. Telling your guess to your clients is a way of helping them articulate their own answers, regardless of whether your guess is a hit or total miss.
”May I guess what you will answer?” “Was my guess anywhere close to what you would have said?”
Sometimes clients say, “I don’t know” simply because they don’t have a clue of why you are asking the kind of questions you are asking them. If the client looks perplexed, you can explain to them the reason why you ask your questions: ”I guess you are wondering why I am asking you that question. Let me explain to you why I’m so keen on knowing your answer to that question.” Clients are more willing to try to answer your difficult questions if they know where your questions are coming from and understand why it is useful to think of answers to your solution-focused questions.