I am often asked, “What should I do when a client sets a goal and I know it’s unrealistic?”
The client is the only one who knows for sure whether it’s realistic. Your experience with other clients may tell you that it is unlikely he will follow through. If you get that intuition, you could ask to explore this goal a bit.
A lack of clarity could put
the brakes on any journey to success.
Unless commitment is made,
there are only promises and hopes,
but no plans.
First, let’s look at what may be going on. Perhaps he is focused on the benefits of changing and simply not thinking through what it will mean in his life. Another way to look at it is that the client is not in touch with the parts of him that will object to the change or get in the way when the time comes to do the behavior. For example, he meets with you in the morning when he is feeling energetic and optimistic. His plan is to exercise on the way home from work, and early in the day, it sounds fine to him. When evening comes, he is tired and hungry and misses his children. The parts of him that want to be healthy and actually like to work out are drowned out by the parts of him that kick in when he is tired or hungry. When you guide him to explore how the change will actually happen, you are inviting all parts of him to chime in.
Here is an example:
Counselor: So your plan is to stop at the gym every day after work. (simply reflecting plan as stated)
Client: Yeah, I know I should, and it’s right on the way home.
Counselor: Walk me through the later part of your day. (asking to explore)
Client: Well, I can leave work at 4:30 because I get in at 8. I guess this actually works about once a week. The work comes in all day. After a lull in the middle of the day, there is often stuff that comes in late that I need to take care of before I leave, because the next shift will need it. So I guess most days I’m out of there by 6. Every now and then, I need to stay till 7 or something. My wife gets really annoyed then. I’m only 15 minutes from home, so I’m almost always there when she has dinner ready at 6:30. We believe in family dinners. So when I get off at 4:30, there is plenty of time to stop off at the gym and still make it home.
Counselor: So you will work out on the occasional days when you can leave work at 4:30. (reflecting a discrepancy)
Client: Yeah, I guess that won’t be very often. I really want to get there at least 3 or 4 times a week.
Counselor: You see that in order to work out consistently, you’ll need to find a way to fit it into your busy life. (reflection with a reframe)
Client: Yeah, work is just too crazy at the end of the day to get out on time every day.
Counselor: What are your thoughts about how to make this work? (key question)
Client: Things do get really slow most days around lunch time. I even get bored. The gym is only 5 minutes from my work. Maybe I can go over there then.
Counselor: Tell me how that will look. (asking for elaboration)
Client: Well, I take a lunch break anyway, and some people take a walk in the neighborhood. I don’t see myself doing that. If my gym stuff is in the car, I can go over to the gym and work out. My boss isn’t strict about timing. Just so we get the work done.
Counselor: You know yourself well. You’ll have your gym stuff in the car and go there on your lunch break. (affirmation and reflection)
Client: Yeah, I can see that working at least 3 days a week. I do like to hang out with the guys at lunch every now and then.
Counselor: So, tell me your plan. (asking for commitment)
Client: I’ll get my gym stuff into a bag and keep it in my car and take off for the gym at 11:30 or so, probably Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I like that idea. It may break up the day better.
Counselor: How confident are you that this will happen next week? On a scale of one to ten, where one is you know it won’t happen and ten is that you are absolutely sure it will? (using scaling to check confidence and firm up the plan)
Client: Oh, I think it’s at least an 8. I like this idea. I think it will fit for me. And it won’t affect my ability to get home for dinner.
In this example, the counselor used reflections and key questions to invite the client to explore the details of his plan, and a more realistic one emerged.
Sometimes, a client will insist that a plan is fine that you suspect is unrealistic. You could ask the scaling question as a possible opening to explore it more. For example, “On a scale of one to ten, how likely do you think _____ will be a permanent change still in place next spring — where one is very unlikely and ten is very likely?” Notice the somewhat exaggerated wording. This may assist the client in really considering all the practical issues. You could choose which part to exaggerate. “How likely do you think ___ will happen every day for the next month?”
Another way to open this discussion is to offer to talk about the process of change. As always, do it in a manner consistent with motivational interviewing. For example, “I have some information about how people are most apt to be successful making changes. Would you like to hear it?” Or “What do you know from your past experience about the ways that work for you to make permanent changes?”