I’ve learned that old adages stay with us for a reason. Never assuming minimizes my risk of making an “ass” out of “U” and “me” (but mostly me).
I was a huge fan of the HBO series The Sopranos. Tony Soprano had a tumultuous relationship with his psychiatrist. In one episode, Tony storms into session and announces that his mother has died. A long dramatic pause follows, during which I stared at the screen, dismayed by the psychiatrist. I was incredulous that she would just let the silence hang and not respond with empathy. Thirty seconds later, Tony announced angrily that he was glad she was dead because he hated her. An empathic assumption might have negated this response by the client.
Many years ago when I was new to the field, I made the mistake of saying to a client, “I know how you feel.” To this day I am grateful to that young man for cursing me out. He demanded to know if I had ever suffered like he had (he intuited correctly that I had not). Today I know that even if my experiences had been identical to his it is entirely possible that we would come away from those experiences with different emotions.
Here is another adage, “We see and understand things not as they are, but as we are.” Everything that we perceive depends entirely upon our point of view. My perception is a product of my experience and the resulting beliefs and values that I hold. It is the lens through which I see the world. My perception is largely a product of intuition and when I connect to a client through empathy I assume that what I feel is similar to what the client feels. Yet I must not assume; to do so is to dishonor my service to a client. So instead I ask, “Is it like this.?”
I am not afraid to ask stupid questions and despite what my clients tell me, I do believe that there are stupid questions. I seek to understand my clients as they are, where they are, and in their own words. When I assume, I reinforce the tendency of clients to surrender personal power to me as an “expert.” I declare myself an expert in nothing, but I have learned that my clients will see me as they want/need to regardless of my best efforts to be genuinely who I am. Humility demands that I ask instead of assuming.
I use Motivational Interviewing quite often in my work and I have marveled at the contrast between what I might see as a priority in a client’s life and what they see as important. Barring the occasional exception to the rule, I assert that our clients are always right in terms of what they seek and furthermore that what they seek is healthy even if the means by which they try to attain it are not. More importantly, it is their priorities and aspirations that matter, not mine. If we are to optimally serve our clients, we must be ever vigilant regarding our biases, our values, and our propensity to engage in ethnocentric approaches. Our best work is in assisting the client to see the congruence or incongruence between their beliefs and values and their behavior, helping them to identify what changes might need to occur in order for them to achieve the results they seek.