February 10, 2012

Tips for interviewing involuntary clients

A recurring question in our trainings and workshops is how to deal with clients in involuntary situations. What can you do as a helper when the person you are supposed to talk was sent to you and does not seem to want to talk with you. In their classic solution-focused book Interviewing for solutions, Peter de Jong and Insoo Kim Berg (photo) offer the following tips:
  • Assume you will be interviewing someone who probably will start out not wanting anything you might have to offer.
  • Assume the client has good reason to think and act as he or she does.
  • Suspend your judgment and agree with the client´s perceptions that stand behind his or her cautious, protective posture.
  • Listen for who and what are important to the client, including when the client is angry and critical. 
  • When clients are openly angry or critical, ask what the offending person or agency could have done differently to be more useful to the client.
  • Be sure to ask for the client´s perception of what is in his or her best interest; that is, ask for what the client might want. 
  • Listen for and reflect the client's use of language. 
  • Bring the client's context into the interview by asking relationship questions [cv: questions like: "What would it take for her to let you come home again?" and "What would it take for your manager to know that you won't need to come here anymore?"]
  • Respectfully provide information about any nonnegotioable requirements and immediately ask for the client's perceptions about these. Always stay not knowing. 


  1. A classic example of where if you want to be really helpful it is extra important to ' come from not knowing'.

  2. One of the differences between Steve de Shazer and his partner, Insoo Kim Berg, was that Insoo was more prepared to start from where her audience was. If Steve had been asked this question, how to deal with involuntary clients, he might well have ignored it or at best simply said "I wouldn't start from there!" If in a more expansive mood he might have gone on to explain his response: that the question itself creates the problem it is seeking to resolve. I have found this process of questioning the question one of the most useful developmental tools. In this case it leads me to treat ALL clients as in some way voluntary, as making a choice whether to stay near me or walk away, and work from that premise, difficult as it may sometimes be. Doing this takes us to a different place and takes sdolution focused practice on a different developmental line.
    Chris Iveson

  3. Hi Chris, If this would actually happen this way, I would agree more with Insoo's perspective than with Steve's on this matter.

    Not only because I think her way of teaching would be more congruent to the solution-focused approach (ignoring the question or dismissing it, I think, has a dismissiveness to it which does not fit well with SF) but also because I wouldn't agree that the question is necessarily wrong.

    Clients themselves frequently describe themselves as involuntary.

    Steve once said: "A client tells you they've got a problem, then they've got a problem, and you better take it seriously. You also better take it seriously if they tell you they ain't got a problem."

    The same applies with voluntary/involuntary, I think. You better take seriously what the clients says.

    Of course - that is what the post is about - this doesn't mean that cooperative relationship can't develop and that the client's attitude can't change. It happens all the time.

    One of my favorite intervention in these situations goes something like this: "I understand you did not want to come here considering what you just told me. What made you decide to come here after all?"


  4. "I understand you did not want to come here considering what you just told me. What made you decide to come here after all?"

    Coert, I rest my case!!!
    If the client has decided to come then this aspect of his behaviour is voluntary and like you I would assume the the client has a good reason for making the decision (keeping job/freedom/children or some other highly motivating reason) Chris

  5. Hi Chris,

    I agree with that (that is, of course, the whole rationale behind the question).

    I guess I did not make clear enough that my main point was another one. What I was talking about was taking seriously what clients AND course participants say and about that I think there is nothing wrong with the word 'involuntary' (as there is nothing wrong with the word 'problem').


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner