“I don’t know” is a client response that often throws beginning therapists. Some therapists feel at a loss when presented with this response to some question about how a client is feeling or thinking. If this response occurs repeatedly then there is often a sense of frustration and helplessness built up in the therapist. I need this information to understand my client but they won’t give it to me. This frustration can lead to us labelling our clients as resistant, defensive or stupid. These blanket or pejorative labels do not lead to a good psychological formulation of what is going on for the client and as a result limit our thinking and motivation to work with the client.
A place to start thinking about “I don’t know” with clients is to think about the task of the client in therapy. At a basic level there are three rules for a client coming to therapy. Firstly the client must arrive on time. Secondly the client must talk about themselves and thirdly the client must leave on time.
If the client says “I don’t know” they are in my view breaking rule number 2 i.e. they are not talking about themselves but avoiding this for some reason. Usually when a client says “I don’t know” it is response to a question about themselves, their lives or their internal states. I will accept a client saying they don’t know the capital of Italy or to some factually based question but not when it is a question about their internal state.
People say “I don’t know” in therapy for a number of reasons. It is possible the client genuinely does not know but this is a very interesting piece of information that requires much more exploring. If the client is not able to access cognitions or feeling states or is unable to observe their own behaviour then as a therapist we need to understand this. Failing to take time to understand this difficulty with self reflection about an aspect of the self may have a significant impact on the progress of therapy.
As a first step we need to get the client to reflect on what is happening.
When I ask you how you feel you are not able to access what your emotional state inside is. Tell me more about this?
Is it like this all the time that you are not aware of how you are feeling or just in relation to this?
Has it always been like this?
What would other people think you were feeling/thinking in this situation?
Some clients say “I don’t know” as an almost reflexive response. Often leaving a few moments of silence allows the client to come back to the question, reflect on it and respond. If this pattern is repetitive then it can be raised and explored.
I notice that when I ask you about your feelings you first response is always to say “I don’t know”. What do you think is going on?
For some clients “I don’t know” is a way of avoiding looking at something. The client is not saying “I don’t know” but really saying “I don’t want to go there. When we sense this is the case we need to step back and explore the client resistance around talking about whatever the topic is. These sometimes centre on strong affect attached to the avoided area. This is often true whether you are exploring affect or cognitions. The clientcan fear loss of control or being overwhelmed by their emotions. They may feel the therapist will not be able to cope with their strong feelings or they feel the therapist will be critical or disgusted by their emotions.
The first step is to get the client to acknowledge the “I don’t know” is about avoiding something. If there are obvious non-verbals you can comment on these.
When you said I don’t know you became quite physically tense and agitated. Is it really that you don’t know or has this touched on something for you?
Or confront it directly
Don’t know or don’t want to say?
Once the avoidance is acknowledged then the resistance can be explored
What would be your fears if we explored this?
What do we have to do to make it safe for you to explore this?
How will we know the right time to explore this?
For me “I don’t know” is a clear signal to stop and explore what is going on. It is never to be accepted at face value and just move on to the next thing. Stop and take the time to understand what is going on.
My favourite response to “I don’t know” is to say:
If you did know what it would be?
As inane as this sounds I find that 90% of the time it gets a response from the client.