A recent listserv post was intriguing. The writer wondered if she should have asked a widower how his wife died. She thought he might be offended if she did not ask. She also felt that knowing might give her some insight into what’s happening with him. I gave her my simple take: “Ask yourself: Is this critical to helping him with his nutrition goals? If yes, go ahead and ask. If not, contain your curiosity and move on.” After I clicked “send,” I realized that this is a complex issue.
The only solutions that are ever worth anything
are the solutions that people find themselves.
Curiosity will conquer fear
even more than bravery will.
Your curiosity can be a double-edged sword. Maintaining a curious stance allows you to stay open and willing to accept what comes. This can help the client discover what is true and move forward. When your curiosity is more directed, it can get in the way and be counterproductive. The questions to ask yourself are: “Will focusing on this help the client move forward? Who will benefit from the answer? What will the answer do?”
Let’s look at a few examples. In each of these moments you might find yourself curious. Let’s put each one through the client-centered filter.
- The client mentions his unusual profession. It sounds fascinating, and you would love to hear more about it. If you were at a social gathering, you would simply begin to ask to hear more about it and might even add, “I’ve always wondered what that would be like.” Will this conversation serve the client? It may improve his self-esteem, but that is not your job here. Remember that in the most effective nutrition counseling we maintain compassion, which means keeping the client’s best interest ahead of ours.
- The client refers to a new local restaurant that you have been considering checking out. You’ve been gathering impressions from your friends who have gone and would love to hear her experience. Notice that this curiosity is yours and that her answer would serve you, not necessarily her. To stay client-centered, you ask her to explore her experience if, for example, she has been working on eating out while staying mindful of her health goals. What you pursue and how will depend on what the client needs.
- The client refers to rare moments when she is briefly conscious of the emotions behind her overeating. You want to help her and are curious. Your curiosity may be directed to what the emotions are. You don’t know whether this focus will be most useful to her. You could offer your general sense of curiosity to her to see if she picks it up. “Hmmm. Those sound like interesting moments. Might you want to explore them more?” Notice this is encouraging her curiosity, not yours. The answers are in her, not in you.
- A client suddenly becomes quiet and gives only one-word answers in the middle of a session just when you thought things were going fine. You are wondering what happened. This one is tricky. Just voicing your response might sound like, “What just happened?” or “What’s wrong?” This will not come across as helpful curiosity. It will likely feel confrontative. This shift in a client indicates discord in your relationship and repair needs to happen before any exploration. Tips #103 and #130 have more ideas on this.
Notice in some of these examples your initial curiosity may trigger something useful for the client. This can occur only after you step back from your curiosity and examine it. Over the years I have learned to quickly recognize curiosity that is just mine and will not serve the client. These situations tend to be fascinating stories or anything I would like to learn more about. I take a few seconds to go inside, smile at my curiosity and remind it that I am at work and focused on the client’s needs. It usually graciously steps aside.
When we stay openly curious without guessing ahead, this allows the client more autonomy. Tempting though it is, the “twenty questions” approach decreases client autonomy and generally takes more time. An example here might be when a client says she wants to take lunch to work. You have lots of questions that you believe will be helpful, such as “What lunch foods do you like?” “Could you prepare it the night before?” “What time do you go to bed?” “How much time do you have in the morning?” “What’s in your fridge now?” “Do you have a fridge and microwave at work?” This approach implies that you are the one who is going to figure this out and then tell the client what to do. All these details are in the client’s mind, and she will retrieve them quickly as they are needed. Using open questions such as those in Tips #60 and #120 is more effective and maintains client autonomy. Tip #90 also has some ideas on how to encourage our client’s curiosity when he is stuck.
To get back to the example that triggered this Tip, let’s think about the widower. If the manner in which his wife died does have an impact on his eating or readiness to change, it will come up. Examples: She died in a car accident and as a result he has given up driving. She died from complications of heart surgery and he wants to avoid this at all cost. Let him share these meanings rather than you digging for them. It may feel as if it is our job to gain insight into what is behind what our clients say. It works best to focus on increasing the client’s insight into what is important to him.