At a client’s first session, after we discuss things I’m legally required to and after I learn names, my next question is some version of “what do you hope therapy will help you achieve?” Or “Why are you here?” Most individual clients seem to answer either question with the same response: an outpouring of emotions, facts and current circumstances, stopping only to ensure I’m following. The nature of the open-ended question for single client sessions is less important than having – finally – a chance to let out what they’ve been mulling over.
Here’s where it gets interesting though. Yalom (and many other family and couples’ counselors since) suggest that to be an effective counselor for more than one person in a session, the therapist view them as one unit. The couple is struggling with finances, the family is having communication challenges. By doing this, the therapist doesn’t ‘take sides’ and the family or couple can focus on making changes and not on winning over the counselor to their point of view. Ask a couple or family ‘why are you here?” and you get the outpouring – but ask ‘what do you hope therapy will help you achieve?” and you can hear crickets.
A guess at what’s going on: an individual client understands at some fundamental level that the therapy space is an opportunity to be genuine; that for about an hour, they don’t have to be brave, strong or indifferent, they can just be. For them, the goal of counseling – at least in the beginning – is usually to be understood, the rest can come later. For couples and families though, the agenda comes first: because to be genuine, one has to be vulnerable, and the person/people sitting next to you may have rarely seen that happen. How can we answer a question about goals – about what we hope therapy will help us achieve – without vulnerability? What if they don’t want the same thing? Am I weak/stupid/greedy for wanting something different than they do? How do I let our therapist know what’s really bothering me without upsetting my spouse/partner/parents?
Chances are though, the upsetting has already happened, which prompted the visit with a counselor in the first place. And as all those worries – am I greedy/weak/stupid to want/feel?… - are subjective, a therapist will likely point out that there is no right or wrong, and it is what works for the group or couple that needs discovering.
Yalom (2005) offers “conflict may enhance self-disclosure… as they begin to understand that the other’s point of view may be as appropriate for that person as their own is for themselves [they learn that] anger is not lethal, and in the process, they may be better acquainted with the reasons for their position and learn to withstand pressure from others.” So while it might feel uncomfortable to lay all one’s cards on the table when your partner/family is in the room, it is a beginning to learning to communicate.
Whether you were born into the family, or fell in love with your partner, the person/people you have entered into counseling with will be held to the same expectation: to be genuine. It may feel uncomfortable, but when you think about what you want to achieve in therapy, answer honestly- there is no wrong answer.