Ambivalence is very common in everyday life. Ambivalence is when an individual experiences uncertainty or fluctuation, especially when caused by inability to make achoice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite orconflicting things. A lot of us are afraid to make changes in our lives, so when we are presented with new options in approaching situations, changing our behavior, or doing something a new way we become very hesitant.
So it should be no surprise when we see ambivalence come up when we are counseling an individual. In counseling, we are helping clients point out the positive and negative in how they currently do things, and help them see alternative approaches, and in many cases trying to get them to try these new approaches. When a client is ready for change, they are more engaging and willing to try a new approach, but there is still some uncertainty there. They wonder, “Will this make me feel better?” “Will this resolve my problem?” They still try the new approach because they feel supported and know if they know that if the new approach did not work, it does not mean they failed or that therapy was a failure. On the other hand, clients who are less motivated to change appear to be more reluctant and ambivalent about the different choices they are given.
In Specialized Family Therapy we work with clients who have a long history of dealing with the family court system. By the time they are referred to us for therapy, they have exhausted all the options that they were aware of, and feel that there is nothing more that can be done to help them. They also lack support from the family court system, family, friends, their co-parent, and often times their children. So when they come see a Specialized Family Therapist they are not optimistic that there is anything that can be done to help them. When new choices and options are presented to them, they cringe, get argumentative with the therapist, shut down or close themselves off, get defensive, or revert back to previous choices to help them feel more comfortable. They are afraid to approach a new option for the fear of the uncertainty. They are uncertain if things will change, and if they change, they are worried if the change will be for the better or for the worse. So they react in a way that will help them feel more comfortable about the uncertainty.
Tips for dealing with an ambivalent client
When dealing with an ambivalent client here are some things you should keep in mind:
- Remain supportive and optimistic-For many of the Specialized Family Therapy clients this is the first time someone is listening to them and being supportive. Keep that going, it can influence their willingness to change and to try new things
- Help them work through the ambivalence by asking questions such as
- What do they want to happen? What do they want to change?
- What are the advantages of the new option or changing their behavior?
- What are the disadvantages?
- What are they willing to try to move forward with the change process?
- How important is this to them?
- Develop a backup plan- Many times people are concerned about what might happen if their new option doesn’t work. Developing a backup plan can help them feel more confident and secure in moving forward.
- Allow them to call the shots-Again, this is the first time many clients are given the chance to make choices for themselves. Let them determine what they want to do, when they will do it, and so on.
- Seek supervision/consultation from your supervisor or another therapist
Working with an ambivalent client can be frustrating and draining at times. The key thing to remember is that this phase of the therapy process will pass at some point. Allow your client the chance to work through that ambivalence at their own pace. Rushing them will only hinder your therapeutic relationship and make them more ambivalent about the change process.