I’ve learned that old adages stay with us for a
reason. Never assuming minimizes my risk of making an “ass” out of “U”
and “me” (but mostly me).

I was a huge fan of the HBO series The Sopranos. Tony Soprano had a
tumultuous relationship with his psychiatrist. In one episode, Tony
storms into session and announces that his mother has died. A long
dramatic pause follows, during which I stared at the screen, dismayed by
the psychiatrist. I was incredulous that she would just let the silence
hang and not respond with empathy. Thirty seconds later, Tony announced
angrily that he was glad she was dead because he hated her. An empathic
assumption might have negated this response by the client.

Many years ago when I was new to the field, I made the mistake of saying
to a client, “I know how you feel.” To this day I am grateful to that
young man for cursing me out. He demanded to know if I had ever suffered
like he had (he intuited correctly that I had not). Today I know that
even if my experiences had been identical to his it is entirely possible
that we would come away from those experiences with different emotions.

Here is another adage, “We see and understand things not as they are,
but as we are.” Everything that we perceive depends entirely upon our
point of view. My perception is a product of my experience and the
resulting beliefs and values that I hold. It is the lens through which I
see the world. My perception is largely a product of intuition and when
I connect to a client through empathy I assume that what I feel is
similar to what the client feels. Yet I must not assume; to do so is to
dishonor my service to a client. So instead I ask, “Is it like this.?”

I am not afraid to ask stupid questions and despite what my clients tell
me, I do believe that there are stupid questions. I seek to understand
my clients as they are, where they are, and in their own words. When I
assume, I reinforce the tendency of clients to surrender personal power
to me as an “expert.” I declare myself an expert in nothing, but I have
learned that my clients will see me as they want/need to regardless of
my best efforts to be genuinely who I am. Humility demands that I ask
instead of assuming.

I use Motivational Interviewing quite often in my work and I have
marveled at the contrast between what I might see as a priority in a
client’s life and what they see as important. Barring the occasional
exception to the rule, I assert that our clients are always right in
terms of what they seek and furthermore that what they seek is healthy
even if the means by which they try to attain it are not. More
importantly, it is their priorities and aspirations that matter, not
mine. If we are to optimally serve our clients, we must be ever vigilant
regarding our biases, our values, and our propensity to engage in
ethnocentric approaches. Our best work is in assisting the client to see
the congruence or incongruence between their beliefs and values and
their behavior, helping them to identify what changes might need to
occur in order for them to achieve the results they seek.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim is the cofounder of an online addiction recovery program that is affordable and provides complete anonymity