On Goal Setting & Advice Giving

I believe that one of the mistakes that those in the various and affiliated helping professions can find themselves making is falling into is the trap of giving advice (speaking of, this post isn’t advice to anyone: it’s just my beliefs. Take it, leave it, modify it…the choice is entirely yours).

I am of the very strong belief that the only ones who should ever be giving out advice professionally are consultants which is a very different role (and one I’ve often held as a business consultant) than the roles held in the helping professions.

Consulting is a very different practice than working in the helping professions. In consulting I am being paid to provide professional advice based upon very specialized knowledge I have, within the scope of my education, training, and experience. In the helping professions, we are paid to help our clients elicit the answers that exist within themselves, and to be a guiding light, and a reflection board for them, so that they can make their own decisions.

The Problems With Giving Advice

There are two main problems I see with giving advice (and you can read this in a plethora of text books, conference proceedings, and on more blogs than this one. This idea is not unique and it’s certainly not originally mine):

  1. The worker becomes responsible for the advice.
    This means that if the advice fails the client, the worker is responsible. This also means that If the advice helps the client, the client doesn’t get to claim victory over their work.
  2. The advice is coming from the helper and the helper’s perspective.
    We are not experts on our clients or our client’s lives. The client is the expert on themselves, not us. This means that we, as the helper, are saying what we think is best for the client, rather than listening to the client and helping them verbalize what they think is best for themselves.

Advice giving isn’t the only, or main problem though.

I have worked with a number of various helping professionals who will agree with what I wrote above in its entirety…and yet, when it comes time to write a client’s goals and service plan, will then let their pen fly across the paper: using their words, their thoughts, their beliefs of what their client’s goals are, instead of the client’s words, the client’s thoughts, the client’s beliefs, the client’s goals.

The exact same problems exist here/with this as they do in the section above.

When I studied Motivational Interviewing is when I learned what – for me – is the ideal in goal setting, and it looks a little like this: Instead of making goal suggestions, or asking a client “what are your goals?” I ask a client a scaling question:

“On a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the farthest away from being where you want to be, and 10 being you’re exactly where you want to be, and everything in life is near perfect, and unicorns are dancing around you as we speak, where are you right now?”

Then the client will respond, and say they say something like:

“Well, right now I’m at a 4.5”

And then I might say:

“Wow, a 4.5! Okay, how do you know you’re at a 4.5, and not a 4?”

And I will then, in the words of one of my many incredible teachers and mentors, Mr. Sobota: “shut up and stare at them.” while I reflectively listen.

When the client is done, I will generally use an affirmation, or a reflective statement based on what they said. And then I’ll say:

“So, on that same scale, if you were to take the leap from 4.5 to 5, what would be different? What would being at a 5 look like?”

I then shut up and stare at them again. When they’re finished, I then go:

“So what would you need to do, to get from a 4.5 to a 5?”

And here’s where it gets totally critical: you shut up and stare at them again. As soon as they start telling you what it will take for them to get from a 4.5 to a 5 you start writing as fast as you can, because what they’re telling you is their entire goal list and service plan…literally, they’re telling you everything they need to do to get to the next step closer to where they want to be, so take good and detailed notes. 

After this, at least for this session, it’s generally smooth sailing: you should have a lot of:

“So what I hear you saying is…[read back what you wrote down as reflective statements/affirmations]…so if I understood you correctly, you would like to work on [goal] and you believe that you can accomplish this goal by [action]…”

You can then take all of those (now confirmed/adjusted and then re-confirmed) notes, and transpose them to whatever agency goal/service plan forms you’re forced to work with.

Guess what’s missing from here? Any of my interests, any of my biases…any of me determining what I think my client wants…and since it all came from my client they are the one who bears responsibility if their plan doesn’t work (and then you can help the tweak their plan, if that’s the case, or work through roadblocks int he exact same way)…but they client is also the one who gets to claim victory when their plan DOES work! THEY did it! CHEERLEAD THE HECK OUT OF THEM!

What if my client is making the wrong choices? Selecting the wrong goals? What if what they’re choosing will get them sent back to jail or won’t help them reach recovery?

Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter a lick if you agree with your client’s goals or not. There are, of course, exceptions: if those goals are robbing a bank, or injuring themselves or someone else, or anything similar to any of these situations…then what you think becomes very important and safety is paramount (codes of ethics, and laws almost everywhere support this).

That said, even in a drug treatment program the client may not have a goal of entering into recovery…and that’s okay: the consequences are theirs, not yours. A client who may need to see a job coach as part of their probation may not want to engage in services. That’s okay too: you’re not the parole officer. You’re merely presenting the client with an opportunity to engage in work or not and informing them of what the consequences might be if they engage, or if they choose not to engage. What they choose to do with that opportunity (and the consequences: positive, negative, or neutral) are their’s to bear alone.

What our job is, as workers, as helpers, is to help our clients enumerate what their goals are, to help them elicit from within themselves the way in which they  believe they will best be able to reach those goals, and if the client’s goals aren’t safe, or may have devastating consequences it is our job to help them understand what those potential consequences might be, to work with them to ensure that they (and others are safe), and to help them see alternatives.

However, at the end of the day, our clients must be the ones to develop their goals, to develop their own service and care plans, and to make their own choices. Sometimes those choices are incredible and beautiful to behold. Sometimes those choices will land them back in jail, which can be terribly painful to watch…but that’s okay too: they have every right to make that choice, especially if they’ve worked with you to examine all of their potential options, and all of the potential consequences that can be foreseen, based upon their goals and interests.

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