When it comes to our jobs as helping professionals, the very first problem that we encounter with a client is how we define the problem, and who gets to define it.
That can seem like a bit of a lofty statement, so let’s break it down a little bit.
But, before we do that, it’s important to acknowledge that your view of “client problems” is going to be heavily influenced by your perspective and how much weight you give to Expert Driven vs. Client-Centred practice. Here at Becoming Responsive, we fall firmly into the perspective that client’s are the expert on their own lives, have the strengths and capabilities to address their challenges, and our job is less “expert as fixer with the answers” and more “expert as facilitator with the process”.
Most of our “problem definitions” in the industry are what we would consider Experience-Distant descriptions, words and labels that attempt to be general and diagnostic;
- any of the 265 diagnoses in the DSM5…
These are experience-distant descriptions of the problems people face because they contain nothing of the client’s experience. And this lands in practice in seemingly innocuous ways, in our day to day language about clients.
“Johnny has anxiety”. Does he really ‘have’ anxiety? Or is it a shorthand way for us to describe a set of behaviours, in order to generate a solution that WE think might be the right one?
You can start to see how something as seemingly straightforward as naming the problem is loaded with tension between a client vs. expert mentality. The act of holding loosely to our professional labels (both the formal and the offhand), is a way for us to move away from Expert-Driven, to a more Client-Centred approach.
What do we know about (insert Johnny’s behaviour) from Johnny’s perspective?
Would Johnny call it anxiety? Or fear? Or uncertainty? How does it (his behaviour, not the labels we ascribe to it) make sense in the conditions he finds himself in, both environmental and relational? What words has he used to describe it?
Margo Talbot, someone who struggled with suicidal depression and addiction for twenty years (only to come out of it through the power of ice climbing and some important relationships) mentioned on a recent podcast episode that her addiction “kept her alive through her suicidal depression.” Her addiction was a life vest in a sea of pain and trauma…who are we to take that away from someone?
To unpack an Experience-Near description of a client’s challenge is to engage in truly client-centred work, positioning them as the expert and authority on their own challenges and therefore, their own solutions.
We call it the Battle for the Definition of the Problem because it’s critical to everything that comes after it, and the act of naming someone else’s problems for them is a serious undertaking, loaded with the power and privilege that comes with our roles as helping professionals.
A power and privilege that we might need to look a little more closely at.