Meeting Resistance

I met with a lot of resistance when I worked in hospice. I had plenty of patients who didn’t want to sign a Do Not Resuscitate form, for instance, or who didn’t want to take the medication that would keep them comfortable. Sometimes it was frustrating but for the most part, I accepted that resistance as part of the job. After all, people were literally dying. Who was I to tell them how to live out the rest of their lives? I remember once, at a consent signing, the son of a patient told me that his father “wasn’t handling his death well” and I thought… Well, he doesn’t need to; it’s HIS death. I wasn’t particularly troubled by those moments in that job because the big picture was so very big. Death has a way of throwing things into a very clear perspective.

But now I’m not a hospice social worker anymore. Now my job (a lot of the time) is to help people make changes to their behavior so that they have less stress, less depression, less anxiety, and better health. I feel pressure from the doctor who makes the referral and pressure from the patient who says, this is bad, fix it. And in these sessions, when I meet resistance, I struggle.


I’ve been trying to use motivational interviewing because a lot of what I’m meant to do is help people focus on behavior change. When using motivational interviewing with a patient, the clinician is supposed to keep in mind the stages of change. The first stage is pre-contemplation. Basically, these patients aren’t ready to make any changes. Even if they know they should quit smoking/lose weight/take their medication/you name it: they aren’t there. Sometimes the goal with these patients is just to help them identify what the consequences will be if they don’t take any action. Sometimes they don’t come back. It’s one of the basics of social work, right? MEET THE CLIENT WHERE THEY ARE.

But sometimes I really resist that!

This has been bugging me because I recently met with a patient who shot down everything I said. Every. Single. Thing.  I tried to join him with empathy. I reflected back to him what he was saying to me: job too stressful, health too difficult to manage, lack of social support. I tried to listen for change talk; when he said that he knew he couldn’t continue the way he was going, I seized on that like a drowning man grabs a life preserver. But he wasn’t having it. The session can be boiled down to me saying, “So what about…” and him saying, “nope, won’t work.”

In the end, we were both frustrated. He had started the session telling me that he didn’t think I could help him and honestly, my delicate ego had been marching around my mind the entire time, telling me I COULD help him and I WOULD! But at the end of it, we hadn’t moved much. He was resistant to me and I was resistant to him and we were both stuck.

This is one of those things that keeps coming up for me, however many years into my social work career: dealing with the impulse that screams PLEASE LET ME HELP YOU. It’s disappointing to me when the patient doesn’t want to do anything to change their circumstances. But why is that? Why do I want it more than the patient? Why do I measure my competence as a clinician through how a patient responds in one half hour session? If I’m being generous to myself, I can say it’s because I became a social worker to help people; I want people to leave the session with a plan to feel better. Less generously (but no less true), I let my delicate ego make me think I can save everyone, even people who didn’t ask for it. I’m resistant to their resistance and that’s just not going to work.

So I’m taking a deep breath and stepping back for a second. Pre-contemplation just is; same with resistance. I don’t have to move anyone forward. I don’t have to have any goal except for the goal the patient has given me. I can let my expectations go and get back to hearing what the patient in front of me is saying. And sometimes it may be, “I’m not ready.” And my response has to be, Ok. Tell me more about that.

Replacing "I'm sorry" with "Thank you"

Photo by  Nicole Honeywill  on  Unsplash

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.