Tip #144 Wait: Why Am I Talking?

We talk in nutrition counseling sessions and the client talks, too. What is an ideal relative amount of talking for each of us? First let’s look at the various reasons you may talk.

  • You keep talking to maintain control of the session.
  • You want to make sure to cover a lot of information.
  • You hear something that concerns you and you need to put in your opinion.
  • The client seems to not be paying attention and you want to engage him.
  • You hear something interesting and you ask more about it.
  • You and the client are enjoying the session and you just keep going.

I’ve begun to realize that you can
listen to silence and learn from it.
It has a quality and a dimension all its own.

Chaim Potok

Measure twice, cut once.

Notice that some of these reasons are reactive. You react to some misinformation and quickly correct it or you look at the clock and forge ahead with the education you believe is essential. You may also slip into conversational habits such as going with a flow of small talk or asking questions about things that interest you.

Henry Babcock once said, “When I want to speak, let me think first:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?

If not, let it be left unsaid.”

We can apply this to our sessions. Of course, we say only things that are true. Keeping the truth as “short and sweet” (Tip #113) as possible makes it most likely that the client will consider the advice.

Asking ourselves “Is it kind?” in our sessions reminds us to stay client-centered. The spirit of Motivational Interviewing is captured in these four terms: Partnership, Acceptance, Compassion and Evocation. Jumping on something the client is doing wrong, tempting as it may be, is unkind and is not accepting.

There are many examples of things we feel like saying that are not necessary and at the least slow down a session and at the worst bring up resistance. One is comments about ourselves, our eating habits, etc. (Tip #1). Pausing a moment before sharing something about yourself may allow you to find a way to achieve the same goal without adding the self-disclosure.

Another example is when the client brings up misinformation. Is it necessary to challenge all of the myths you hear? Choosing carefully can minimize disengagement. When you do decide to address misinformation, Tip #105 has ideas for doing it most respectfully.

Much of our questioning may not be necessary. For example, when a client is talking about going out to eat on weekends, you may want to ask, “Where do you go and what do you order?” You would then follow up with more questions to get more details. If instead you say, “Tell me more about those nights,” you might follow up with, “Tell me how you would like to handle those situations.” Notice that the first way of speaking keeps you in the driver’s seat and it is about your assessment. The second way is about you supporting the client’s own process of change.

You may feel you need to talk more when the client seems to lose interest. In MI, this loss of interest is a clue that discord is occurring (Tip #130). Rather than talking more, find a way to back up, reengage with something the client is interested in, and ask open-ended questions that encourage client change talk (Tip #110).

In some cultures, there is less pressure to speak. Native Americans tend to talk much less than the rest of us Americans. It is a cultural expectation to hesitate before talking, and silence is expected and valued.

Our talking can be quite automatic. So how to tell what is unnecessary? One way is to stay silent for a stretch of time. When we are required to be silent, such as at a retreat, this helps us notice the automatic urge to speak. Silent retreats can remind us about pausing to consider each thing we say.

Another way to become more aware of your talking and how much of it is extraneous is to record a session (Tip #73). You could stop it at certain points and ask yourself if what you said was necessary or could have been shorter. Estimate the percent of session time during which you are the one talking and then see if you can reduce it. There is no one right relative amount of talking for you and the client. If you proceed with the assumption that you talk more than is necessary, you will likely be right. Periodically, say to yourself, “Wait, why am I talking?”


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