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  • Writer's pictureJosh Killam, LPC

How does that make you feel? (A Therapist's View on Language)

A therapeutic relationship begins with listening and empathic understanding. Carl Rogers said listening with empathy is one of the most potent forces for change. Listening with empathic understanding and without judgment could be argued as one of the most important gifts we can give our clients. The great thing about listening is we can meet our clients where they are and show them care and understanding. Also, therapists who are good listeners can model for clients appropriate listening skills which can be a powerful tool in their relationships outside of therapy.

However, I want to talk about what may be the therapist’s second-largest therapeutic tool: language. Because there is so much emphasis put on listening, I think at times we forget this. Language, unlike listening, can be misused by our clients if used carelessly.

Therapists use specific therapeutic language intending to change behavior. People seek out therapy for precisely that, change! Therapists are trained to help facilitate this change. One specific skill that we use for this purpose is, in fact, language. My argument is that we can use it foolishly, mindlessly. It is easy to forget that as therapists we have context and training for the language we use, and our clients do not. For example when we use the phrase “make you feel” we are, in a way, giving our clients permission to blame forces outside their realm of responsibility. Essentially, we identify an external locus of control for the client to project their problems. “Make you feel” not only puts the blame on outside forces, but it strips the client of their power. External locus of control implies that the outcome is not the responsibility of the individual but an external force. This seems to go against our goal as therapists-to empower our clients. How are we to accomplish this goal if we are fighting against our ambitions with the language we use? The responsibility for one’s actions and decisions is what allows people to navigate the world. Without it, we are mindlessly moving through the world, blaming others, and fostering victimhood.

How did that MAKE you feel? What about the client who wants to have a healthy relationship with his mother? With a look of confusion and hurt, he expresses to you that he has spent the past weekend with his mom and her mistreatment of him. With the best of intentions you respond with, “and how did that make you feel?” This reinforces the idea that he is powerless over his relationship with his mom and his emotions are the responsibility of his mom. We unintentionally build defenses against our client's hopes for therapy by misusing language.

Subjective experience is a factor to consider when thinking about what language we use with our clients. Another way to think of it is the lens in which they view the world and how they interpret the world through that lens. As therapists, our subjective experience has been shaped by our training. Another way of framing it is, our training has provided us a framework in which to use our therapeutic language. Our clients come into therapy with their own subjective experience, a phenomenology that has been shaped by several different conditions ranging from the family of origin to the cultures they identify. Part of using language mindfully is keeping in mind our client's history and how they might experience the language we are giving them. If we are not careful, the tools we provide them can be misused. It is important to remember the power of language. Our clients perceive the world differently than us (DUH!) and to give them an instrument (language) that they do not know how to use appropriately is careless. Be mindful of your words, aim appropriately. As therapists, it is our job to empower and encourage our clients by allowing them space to take responsibility for their lives. “How did you feel when” is an excellent example of supporting clients to take responsibility for their emotions through the help of language. This use of language promotes personal responsibility and the use of an internal locus of control. This way, they can use the tools we give them with intent and purpose. Remember we have been trained to wield the weapon of language. Use it intentionally. Pause, take a moment, and remember language is a powerful tool. A tool that must not be used lightly.

Do not say anything that will make you weak. Be mindful of your language. Consider how your words will affect their perception of themselves and the world. Language is an instrument, an instrument that therapists use with the intent for good. Language is powerful and when utilized mindlessly can be dangerous. So do not say anything that will make you weak or harm your client.

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