A friend called me today to ask for advice about a conflict in his relationship with a mutual friend. After listening for five minutes, I told him exactly how I thought he should handle it. He was grateful and I was pleased; I joked that I wish that I could do the same thing with my clients--that is, tell them what to do and make everyone happy. After we hung up, I started thinking about the difference between friendship and therapy. In both cases, I provide support, give advice, and, to varying degrees, facilitate insight and personal growth. So what's the difference?
One of the biggest differences is that, for two reasons, I rarely flat out tell a client what I think he or she should do. Why not?
1) It's risky. I know my clients in a very limited context. I've never been to their home or to their workplace and I haven't met their partners, children, friends, or colleagues. If I tell a client how she should, for example, discipline her daughter, handle her overbearing boss, or respond to learning that her partner reads her personal emails, it could easily backfire, causing significant distress for which I would be partly responsible. Further, my client and I may have very different values, and a solution that seems perfectly appropriate to me may be completely out of the question for her. I know most of my friends much better than I know my clients and we share a lot of the same values, making it less likely that I would give bad advice (and if I did, there would be no question of professional liability).
And the more important reason:
2) It's kind of like "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." The goal of therapy is to render the therapist obsolete; I want clients to gain enough insight into their behaviour and develop enough new skills for problem-solving and for managing stress and distress that they no longer need a therapist. Telling clients what to do does not facilitate learning, and so a client who asks for straight-up advice will often get the answer-a-question-with-a-question technique. For example, if a client asks "Do you think I should take antidepressants?" I'll ask "What are some things that helped last time you were depressed?" If a client asks "Should I leave my partner?" I'll say "What are some of your options?"
It can be challenging to not tell clients what I think they should do--especially if it seems obvious--but it's much more powerful if they figure it out on their own. And when clients surprise me by demonstrating that they learned exactly what I was hoping they'd learn (e.g., "None of my avoidance habits really work. I guess it's time to try something different," or "I notice that when I force myself to be active, even if I don't feel like it, my mood lifts"), it's therapy gold.
NB: There are two situations in which I would tell a client exactly what to do. The first is if I have a tip the client can use to solve a practical problem (e.g., If you're suffering from insomnia, don't get into bed until you're tired; if you keep falling asleep during your relaxation exercises, try doing them before instead of after lunch). The second is a suicidal or other serious crisis (e.g., "When we hang up the phone, call your husband; if he doesn't answer, go to the ER").