Counseling: Three Choices Equals Freedom

When working with clients, have you ever encountered someone who knows what they want but has no clue of what to do to get there? If you were trained as I was, then you were taught that, in order for a plan to be successful, it’s important that your client is the one to craft the plan. That’s great if your client has some ideas, but what do you do if they don’t?

Try asking the question, “What are you willing to do to move toward your goal?” as many ways as you can think to ask it. But if your client still has no idea what to do, what do you do then?

Some counselors might start to make suggestions about what they believe would be helpful. These suggestions are typically offered in a question, such as, “Have you considered…?”, “Did you think about trying…?”, or “What do you think would happen if you did…?” When you, the counselor, propose one course of action for your client, they will hear it as advice. You don’t typically start with, “Have you considered…?” if you’re going to end with something you think is a bad idea.

When you give clients advice, depending on who they are and the relationship you have established, they may want to please you by doing what you suggest, or they may want to show you who’s boss by doing the opposite of what you suggest. In either case, your client is making their decision based upon you—but it’s not ideal to have a place in your client’s decision-making process.

The other thing that happens when you give advice is, if you are right, your client can become dependent upon you, never making another decision without inquiring what you think they should do. If you are wrong, your client will blame you and you become the bad guy. Neither of these scenarios bodes well for your future counseling relationship.

You may be tempted to offer two options, creating a forced choice. Often two options are framed as, “You can make the right choice or the wrong one,” “You can do it my way or your way” or, “You have two options, either you do A or B,” with neither option being a desirable one.

Something changes when you offer three choices. Three choices provide true freedom of choice for your client. When you lay out three options without indicating which one you think is best, your client feels free to choose the one they think is best. I have three ways I like to frame up three choices, depending on the situation.

One way is to offer the status quo, the worst option and the “do-it-better” option. When offering the status quo, you might say, “Well, you can keep doing it exactly the way you’ve been doing it.” This sends the message that you are not trying to change the person. Then, I like to offer an option that would be worse. Don’t worry, offering a worse option won’t put the idea in their heads; they have probably already thought about it already. Bringing it up accomplishes three things: First, you are letting your client know there is something they may be thinking of that might not be great. This can earn you some respect as your client realizes you aren’t afraid to talk about something that could be destructive. Second, if they decide this is their plan, you have the opportunity to discuss the downside of this option. Finally, it also provides your client evidence that they could be doing something worse, so they can give themselves some credit for what they have been doing up to this point. The third option would be anything you can think of that might be better. You can mention as many of these options as you can conceive of and then ask, “That’s all I can think of, can you think of anything else?” Inevitably, your client will think of something else that truly becomes their idea—their plan.

Another way to provide three options is they can change it, accept it or leave it. Changing it often involves using external control to try to change people and situations the client doesn’t have control over, which leads to frustration. Another way to change it is to change oneself, which may yield a better outcome since the client has all the control there. You can help your client accept the situation. This is done by getting in touch with how your client benefits from the situation. From there, they are able to recognize that their frustrations are not as big as the benefits. Then there is a conscious decision to peacefully accept what they have been frustrated over because it’s a small sacrifice for the benefits involved. Finally, leaving can be done in two ways—people leave physically as in divorce or quitting a job, or they can leave mentally as in being married but avoiding one another or being retired on the job.

The final way of offering three choices is to think about how the client could change their behavior, change what they want or change their perception about what they have. All of these options have the potential to correct the situation the client finds themselves in.

When a client has three choices, whatever they choose becomes their plan, especially if you don’t give away which one you think is best. Additionally, when you follow up your options by asking if your client has any other ideas, they will often formulate their own plan anyway. You are fostering freedom in your client which will allow them to choose the choice they think is best for them, without factoring what you want into their decision.

I remember doing training once at an adolescent residential program and they world me that in the month following training and implementing three choices instead of two, they were able to reduce the average number of physical restraints being used by staff with the boys from 33 a day to three. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

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