Quick Tips for Therapists

It Seems Like a Therapist’s Dream…

By Thomas G. Szabo, PhD, BCBA-D

Your client agrees with your assessment in session, but something doesn’t sit right. You sense they are agreeing to please you. This is likely a form of rule-following due to a history of desired outcomes that come from pretending to agree.

When a client seems too eager to please you, bring it up with them. Here’s how:

1. Ask if this is what they’re doing. It might be a good tactic in other life situations, but a less helpful one here.

2. Find out if this is a common way that they gain power or avoid conflict with others. Gaining power is important, but not when it comes at the expense of brave exploration of the things you are there to help with. Avoiding conflict is helpful in some contexts, but learning to speak up with a therapist may be a first step in learning to address conflict elsewhere.

3. Explore contexts in which they are most likely to try and be overly agreeable. It may be that in the past, disagreeing was punished—or that agreeing led to an increase in power with certain kinds of people or in particular places. Identifying these contexts helps in the next step.

4. Brainstorm other ways to get these needs met. Gaining approval and avoiding conflict may be important and possible to achieve while still being open and vulnerable.

5. Ask if your client is willing to rehearse this with you in role-plays. To reduce some of the awkwardness, offer to switch roles.

Your own behavior from this point forward matters a great deal. Reinforce fledgling steps in which your client clarifies or amends what you’ve said. Let them know this is the rewarding, if steep, path toward wellness.

Thomas G. Szabo, PhD, BCBA-D, is a professor at Capella University’s master’s and doctoral behavior analysis programs; an internationally recognized acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer; a practicing board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA); and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno—where he studied under W. Larry Williams and Steven C. Hayes.

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Quick Tips for Therapists