Stop Assuming You Know

Sometimes when we’re busy having our own experiences and feelings about what’s going on in the world, we assume that we know what’s going on for others too. This is an easy mistake to make when it comes to dealing with children and young people as often we’ve spent some time having to think about their needs in the past. Sometimes, they might say something that gives us a clue about what their experience is, but we later learn that it was not an accurate representation for them.

Young people can lack the vocabulary required to explain their experience or feelings and their emotions can also change very quickly. The way that they feel about something now might be very different to how they felt about it at the time.

For example, not too long ago, I had a young person who came to see me with his Dad for a consultation session. I asked ‘Tell me a little bit about why you’ve come to see me here today. What is the problem?’ and they proceeded to describe quite different things.

The young person was reporting that they felt particularly anxious. They were reporting that they had had this feeling of anxiety for a year because of having to go back to school after the lockdown had ended. Simultaneously, the parent was expressing problems that started years ago because of a school transition and being in the wrong group of friends. This young person was a teenager. They were of an age where they knew their own mind.

They started to debate about what this child’s experience was and where the anxiety was coming from. I’m not saying that the parent was incorrect. Though it is helpful to get started with where the client is currently at. If they say it’s about going back to school after lockdown, then that’s our starting block. That’s not to say that it won’t eventually evolve towards something more like what the parent is describing. We want to avoid creating a source of conflict with our client at the same moment they are opening up and being vulnerable about how they are feeling so that we can avoid invalidating their opinion and emotions.

If you take a different route to the one they are sharing it can seem as if we’re not really listening. It gives the message that I  know more about their life than they do. My job (at least initially) is to say, “Tell me about it. Tell me what your experiences are and where you think they are coming from?” It might be that because of our gentle questioning style, we take them on a journey, where they end up landing in the place where we knew the problem was all along!

A good statement to say is “Tell me more about that.” Repeat back what they’ve just said and then tag on, “tell me more about that.” Pick one specific thread from everything that they’ve given you, then you can gradually start worming your way down the various rabbit holes they have shared with you. It may lead them into giving you more information about the specific symptoms that they’re experiencing.

Alongside this, think about your intonation – specifically the pace of your voice, as you say it. When we first start communicating with anybody, we’re going to be pitching our pace at the same speed, the same volume, the same pitch, the same beat rhythm, everything else as the person that we’re talking to, regardless of how old they are. That matching and mirroring of their communication style put them more at ease.

Once we’ve got them at ease, start leading the conversation in a different direction. Use the ‘tell me more about that’ statement, tag on to some information that they’ve shared and begin to slow the pitch of your voice. This gives the message: “I’m taking what you’re saying very seriously, I’m truly listening. I’m going at a speed to help me really comprehend what you’re saying to me.” It starts to put them and you into an emotional feedback loop so that if they are feeling anxious or vulnerable about sharing this information, you begin to sound incredibly reassuring.

This is a tactic that therapists often use, not just for building rapport, but also for leading their clients towards a solution. Once you have explored what the problem is, avoid jumping in with your own solutions. The likelihood is those solutions would work really well for you, but would not necessarily apply to them. Instead, ask “What do you think would be a good next move here? What do you think you should do about that?” so that they start thinking for themselves and coming up with solutions to their problems.

This means that the solutions they coming reach are more likely to be the right fit for them (because they came up with them!). If they’re struggling to come up with solutions, then we can inspire by sharing the ones that we’ve got. Instead of framing it as “You should do this”, or “I think this would be the right thing for you to do”, we would use a softening frame around it such as “I’m just guessing but this might be a way for you…” or “I don’t know if this would work for you but…”, “If it were me, I would think about this….”

That way, they don’t have to fully accept it or have the discomfort or embarrassment of fully rejecting the idea you have put forward. They can take or adapt the ideas that you’ve given them and create some brand-new alternatives. When they come up with ideas and solutions they are much more likely to put those into action and begin solving their problems.


By Gemma Bailey

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