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Can't you just tell me what to do?


‘Can’t you just tell me what to do?!’ This and its close relations: ‘What is the best thing to do?’, ‘what is the answer?’, ‘what is the right way forward?’ are things I hear often in my life; as a therapist, teacher, friend, spouse (well maybe not so much the spouse one).

All this is to say I hear this quite frequently. I overhear other people asking this of their friends, acquaintances and family. And I wish the other people would do this for me too. So, it seems we all want answers. We all want to be told, given or advised of the answer. We all want help finding the way forward.

‘Surely that is what you do?’ I hear you think, or say out loud. I am all for audible responses to things we are reading. ‘As a teacher you give your students the answers to their questions, as a friend you must help your friends when they ask you for it, and surely as a therapist that is your job to tell and advise people what to do, to give them the answers they seek?! Surely that is good therapy?!’. 

Well, it may shock you to read the answer but: no. nope, not at all. 

Head against the wall

As a person centred counsellor I do not guide, advise nor solve the problems of my clients for them. I believe that all my clients have the ability, capacity and skill to answer their questions, solve their problems for themselves. What they need from me, as a therapist, is to create a space where they can explore and find the answers for themselves. Through creating a supportive, safe, respectful, non-judgmental, warm space, and by valuing them exactly as they are right now, they will be able to make the decisions and find the best solutions for them. This empowers the client.

‘But you’re a trained therapist, you clearly know more than your client? Is that not cruel to leave them to flounder while you have the answers?’ Except I don’t have the answers, I know what I would do or how I see a situation. But that advice may not work for them, and they may see the situation very differently. I certainly don’t know more than them about their own lives and what is best for them. How can I, I am not them?  I possibly have more knowledge about Person Centered Theory then them, but Carl Rogers is a well published man, anyone can access his work and gain the knowledge I have. They may not practice it for work or in their daily life, but they can have that knowledge too.

All this to say is that as a person centered therapist I believe (know) that the client is the expert in their lives and, in the same way I do not advise a plumber and gas engineer how to install a gas boiler, I cannot advise a client on what is going on in their lives or how to live that life differently or better. In the same way that me telling a plumber and gas engineer how to install a gas boiler has the potential to be very dangerous, so does telling a client what to do. However, what I can do is create a space in which the work can happen in the most effective and efficient way.

For the plumber, I can clear a space to allow easy access to the old boiler, I can make sure that the path the new boiler will need to take is as easy to navigate as possible and I can provide as much tea, coffee and snacks as required. But I cannot do the installation myself. In the same way, with a client I can provide a space where anything and everything that needs to be explored, worked on and solved can be bought and worked through safely, I can and will stay with my client in that work, but I cannot do the work for them, how can I? I will never know all the parts involved in one human’s life.


I am not saying this is easy. It isn’t, my students continually explore this in their lessons. How much they notice in practice sessions the urge to help, advise, rescue and fix. They know they can’t, the fully understand and love why, but the experience of that is very hard. In those moments the most powerful I can do for them is hold that space for them to learn what they need to from that exploration. They have all the knowledge and they have the theoretical answers/ reason. But they need to find where they are in the learning, what it means to and for them. I cannot rush that process I cannot make it better or easier. I can only be with them and support them in their exploration of the experience. 

To be clear we tend to train and want to become therapists because we want to help others. And often in this world helping is seen as doing something, providing a solution, offering advise or a different perspective. But actually the times when we gain the most help, feel the most heard, feel the most able to deal with things is when others hold space for us to be where we are in a problem or situation, to feel what we feel. 

My husband doesn’t get it, not on a theoretical level. He is a doer, he likes to do and solve things. Doing things for others is how you show you care. But when I say to him: ‘I want to talk to you, I don’t want advice, I don’t want suggestions and I don’t want this solved; I can do all that for myself I just need you to listen.’ He can do it beautifully (partly because I have given him something to do- listen).

But also because he respects my autonomy, knows that he can never fully know my whole world, he trusts that I do have the answers and what I need now is the space to find them. That is what I try to do for my clients; respect their autonomy and the fact I will never fully know their world, but I trust that they do have the answers and what they need from me is the space in which to do that.

Charlie Gould Smith is Practice Director of The Empathy Project
Charlie Gould-Smith, our Practice Director

This is not to say I don’t sometimes (often) worry that I am doing something wrong or that I feel I should do more, especially when a client is in front of me suffering- I do want and wish to make it better for them. But then there are times when a client will say something that makes it all so clear. As one client said to me recently: ‘You could be the most qualified and respected psychiatrist/ therapists whatever in the world and you could give me THE definitive answer on this situation and I would still pick it apart as to why it was wrong for me.’ 

There is nothing in this world that will ever make my take on a client’s life more valid than their own view on it and therefore their solutions will be much better then any I make.

Charlie Gould-Smith is our Practice Director and a Person-Centred Counsellor in Southampton. You can read more about her here, or book a session with her here.

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