Breaking the Rules: When Parroting is the Best Approach in Therapy By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 6/6/23 - 5:49 AM

A Non-Directive Approach

Carmen is your new ten o’clock client. You are excited to be of assistance but you will soon discover that this enthusiasm is short-lived. You have decided to begin with a Rogerian person-centered approach since this is your typical modus operandi and is generally very effective in most instances.

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The first rule that runs through your mind is that like virtually every other non-directive therapist, you were trained to employ paraphrasing and not parroting when responding to the client. Parroting refers to repeating back the exact words that the client has said, without any interpretation of evaluation.

After Carmen utters a few sentences, you respond. Secretly you feel greatly convinced you were hitting all the desirable keys on the Carkhuff Empathy Scale. But Carmen’s response was not even close to what you expected.

Her reply, “No that’s not what I’m saying, not at all. I believe you are missing the entire point of what I am attempting to convey.”

Okay, let’s try it again. Carmen tells you more and once again you paraphrase using fresh words only to hear, “Seriously! Are you listening to anything I am saying or am I just paying you to talk to the wall?” (Your thought, not verbalized, of course, is: Um, no, your insurance company is just paying me to talk to the wall.)

Focusing on the positive, I was convinced I would not need to spend a lot of time making Carmen more assertive.

This is déjà vu therapeutics. It immediately occurs to most helpers that on rare occasions, we have all experienced this dynamic with other clients. The dilemma is always the same: Is it truly the fact that your responses are pathetic or is Carmen (and similar clients) just the difficult, resistant clients from Hell?

Unfortunately, without running a complete battery of tests, consulting a string of experts, perusing a host of journal articles, and watching a video of the session again, it is next to impossible to know for sure. And yes, your own negative self-talk haunts you as you recall the sage advice of your uncle George who often quipped during your grueling time in graduate school, “Forget about this counseling and therapy graduate school stuff. Become a plumber like me.”

In essence, you really have no way to be 100% certain whether your therapy skills are a bit rusty, your uncle George was on to something, or if Carmen is just the resistant client your professors warned you about.

And surely you would never turn to parroting since your graduate faculty depicted the horrors of this evil technique. Moreover, every book, article, and mentor in the field insisted parroting was negative as well. In fact, it had to be true, since I have mentioned the dangers of parroting in my own books.

Even the ultimate expert Chat GPT AI says, “Parroting can be seen as invalidating and unhelpful for clients. Chat continues, “Parroting is condescending and dismissive to the client and does not allow the helper to add interpretation or elaboration.”

Does Therapeutic Parroting Work?

Having said that, ironically, I am going to suggest that the solution to your predicament with clients like Carmen lies in using a fool-proof intervention that can help you diagnose the situation virtually every time: parroting. Yes, parroting, the concept your professors warned you to avoid like the plague.

Your answer will become crystal clear when the client responds to your intentional parroting. Hence, if Carmen says, “I hate my mother,” and you violate the advice of your graduate faculty, and virtually all texts on the subject and say, “You hate your mother,” and Carmen replies, “No you really aren’t getting this, are you?” We can begin to suspect that her combative or perhaps clueless behavior is fueling the discord.

Assume Carmen’s next response was, “I had a terrible childhood,” and you come back without a shred of creativity with, “So you had a terrible childhood” only to see Carmen roll her eyes and say, “Where did that come from? I mean, really. No, I never said that. Are you really trained to perform therapy?”

Now you know Carmen has some issues and most likely your psychotherapeutic skills, although they may not be ideal, do not need a complete overhaul.

At this point, you can choose to confront Carmen either now or later or implement whatever strategy you deem appropriate, but at least you will have convinced yourself the issue is within the client and not you.

You may be asking if I have just invalidated a long-standing tradition in treatment. Well, not really. My guess is that in perhaps 99% of your interactions with clients, your graduate faculty got it oh-so-right when they recommended you refrain from parroting. Parroting is used for the 1% when a client has put your paraphrasing, summarizing, and reflective listening skills in a double bind.

I must disclose that I have a slight advantage over most therapists. On rare occasions when I need a little encouragement, I have my two pet African Grey parrots in the next room ready to help if I can provide a small treat.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

How effective has parroting been in your own therapeutic work?

What techniques do you find most effective in demonstrating that you are listening?

Are there particular clients with whom parroting is more effective? Less effective?

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections