When Clients Ask, “What Do You Want for Me?” By Russell Siler Jones, ThD, LCMHCS on 9/19/23 - 8:27 AM

“What do you want?”

We therapists are constantly asking people some version of this basic question.
  • What are you wanting to be different?
  • What are your hopes for yourself?
  • This difficult circumstance being what it is (and beyond your control), what do you want to be able to do in the midst of it?
  • This difficult person being who they are (and beyond your control), how do you want to relate to them?
  • What needs to happen?
  • What do you want?
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And people respond:
  • I want to feel less depressed.
  • I want to leave my marriage.
  • I want to stop drinking.
  • I want to feel happy.
  • I want to feel more connected to others.
  • I want to be less reactive and controlling.

Therapists Must Listen for What Clients Really Want

These answers become the guiding force that frames and energizes our work together. And as therapy progresses, and we keep asking “what do you want?” the answers and the focus of our work shift and deepen. “I want to feel happy” becomes “I want to interrupt my ingrained habit of always looking for what’s wrong.” “I want to feel more connected to others” becomes “I want to feel more connected with myself.” Or, “I want to be less reactive and controlling” becomes “I want to learn what it takes, and do what it takes, to feel safe in the world.” And beneath all these answers, beneath the “what do you want?” question itself, is one of the deepest questions of all: “What’s worth wanting?”

So, we keep asking, over and over, “What do you want?” And following our clients deeper and deeper.

Recently, a client turned the question back on me. I’d asked her some version of the question, and she’d responded with a thoughtful litany of hopes for herself and her life. But then she paused, tilted her head, and asked, “What do you want for me?”

Sometimes, of course, people ask therapists (and others) to guide and direct their lives because they lack confidence in their own inner compass. Perhaps they grew up with parents who sheltered them or micromanaged them, and they weren’t given space to grow that confidence. Or perhaps they entered adulthood trusting themselves, but a lot of things have gone wrong, and they’ve come to doubt themselves.

We therapists are careful about giving advice for lots of reasons, but this is one of the main ones: we don’t want, in an effort to help someone through a hard moment in their lives, to send a meta-message that we believe they can’t think and judge and make good choices for themselves. Quite the opposite: we want to respect and nourish people’s trust in themselves, their power to know what’s needed, and their capacity to choose and to act.

This woman, however, had demonstrated these abilities many times, in session and out. She was insightful, intuitive, and brave. So, I did not hear her question, “What do you want for me?” as a flight from responsibility: “Tell me what to do.” I heard it as healthy curiosity: “Tell me how you carry me in your heart.”

And so, I paused, took a breath, listened inside, and said to her: “I want you to be happy and powerful.”

I paused again, to see what else might be there. And I’ll pause with you, too, to say that, by “powerful,” I don’t mean CEO powerful or politician powerful. I mean the ability to gather and concentrate our energy, to plug the leaks that dilute us, and live from a strong and regulated stream of force.

I continued: “I want you to be faithful to who you are and what you know. So many people, you included, have been gaslit — by their parents, by friends, by their employer, by religion, by advertisers — and end up not able to trust themselves and their inner GPS. I want you to be a deep witness to the truth of yourself and your experience, to hear what your mind knows and, even more, what your body knows and what your intuition knows. And I want you to be able to live from all that.”

That was all. I paused and gave her space to absorb what I’d said and, if she wanted, to say how it had landed in her. She looked at me quietly, and I imagined she was doing exactly what I’d just said — listening to herself, weighing the truth of my words against the truth of her own knowing, and welcoming whatever she found trustworthy.

Then she said, “Thank you. I like that.”

And I said back, “Thank you. I like it, too.”

What I liked was twofold. It was, firstly, the experience of connecting with her, which I found deeply nourishing. And secondly, it was the sense I had that, spontaneously and concisely, I’d just articulated my view of what I hope happens for people who talk with me in therapy. I’m hoping they will grow in consciousness and in power. I want to help people witness the truth of their life — their outer life and their inner life — and, based on what they witness, to exercise agency, freedom, and choice.

I’ll close by asking you, therapist or whoever else you are, when it comes to the people you care for, what do you want for them?  

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