Asking Clients Questions: Why We Don’t and Why We Should
Have you found yourself asking a question of your supervisor that would be better answered by your client? What blocks and gaps in competency might be at play here? Ahead of his six-month online supervision programme starting in June, Windy Dryden discusses a common experience across his decades of supervising therapists – and explains how he works with supervisees to understand and address this reticence to ask clients questions.
In my view, supervision has a twofold focus: a) to ensure that clients are being best served by the therapist whom I am supervising and b) to promote the professional wellbeing of that therapist. In fulfilling my responsibility in both foci, I will cover several areas. These include helping the supervisee to enrich their understanding of the client and encouraging them to improve their therapeutic skills.
When focusing on the supervisee’s understanding of the client, the person will often ask me something about the client that I do not have an answer for. In fact, the best person who can answer the supervisee’s question is the client themself. However, when I ask the supervisee whether or not they have asked the client, they invariably say no.
Before deciding how to proceed, I need to understand why the person has not asked the client the question that the latter is best placed to answer. It may be due to the fact that this has not occurred to the therapist. In which case, appreciating that they can do this is often all that is needed for the therapist to implement this principle. However, there may be two other reasons why the therapist may not have asked the client the relevant question. They may experience an emotional block that prevents them from doing so or they may not know how to approach asking the question.
Let me first consider the ‘block’ issue. The block may of course point to the presence of some kind of counter-transference issue: that is, the client represents in the therapist’s mind a significant person with whom the therapist experiences an emotional conflict that serves as a barrier to the therapist asking the client the aforementioned question. In which case, as a supervisor, I can either deal with this in the context of supervision or recommend that the supervisee deal with this in their personal therapy. Of course, I do not decide this issue on my own but with the full engagement of the supervisee. Often, however, understanding the counter-transferential nature of the obstacle is sufficient for the supervisee to do the necessary work on their own as a prelude to asking their client the relevant question (and similar ones as well).
The other block concerns the therapist’s view of what kind of therapist they believe they should be. If a therapist believes that they should be competent and be seen by their clients as competent then they will not reveal what they think is their ignorance, however misplaced this may be. While of course a therapist should ideally strive to be as competent as they can be, this does not preclude revealing gaps in their knowledge. Indeed, I am of the firm view that doing so is evidence of competence!
The other reason why therapists ask supervisors questions that they would do better to ask their clients is because they are unsure about how to frame these questions. In this case, I suggest role-playing the situation, where I play the role of the client and the therapist tries out different ways of asking the question. Doing this helps the therapist choose a way of questioning that best suits them. This is a good way of helping therapists to improve their skills.