I went to a Motivational Interviewing training the other day (highly recommend; it was super helpful and engaging). Lots of pieces of the training struck me but the one I keep thinking about is the power of saying “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry.” Let me explain: a big tenet of motivational interviewing is reflecting what a patient has said to you, the practitioner. Sometimes we misunderstand our clients, since we’re only human, and our reflection is off base. When this happens to me, I typically apologize. This trainer explained that when she misunderstands a client and they correct her, she likes to say “thank you” instead. That really stayed with me.
It reminded me of something I read on Facebook a while ago. (I usually ignore those positive meme/message things but this one caught my eye). It said, to paraphrase, “Instead of saying I’m sorry to friends, I’ve started saying thank you. If I’m late for instance, I’ll say, thank you for waiting for me.” I find that idea so powerful. It takes away the blame factor and invites the person on the other side to feel appreciated for being gracious rather than annoyed. And that’s important both in our professional and our personal lives. So much of this work is about relationship building. Won’t it build a stronger relationship if we foster graciousness rather than blame and apology?
There is a time, I believe, to apologize in therapy. Sometimes we unintentionally offend our clients. I, for one, am sometimes guilty of making a joke that doesn’t land very well that I have to walk back. In those moments, apologizing seems like the right thing to do. But if we reflect something back to a client and we just misunderstood, saying “thank you for clarifying that” seems like a more helpful response. We’re inviting our clients to continue to be honest with us. We’re encouraging them by thanking them for their vulnerability. Saying sorry can make things awkward; saying thank you is like opening the door a little wider.
Ultimately that’s what we want to do, whether we meet with a client one time only or once a week for a year: open the door. Invite honesty. And being grateful rather than apologetic may be one good way of doing that.