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  • This blog provides a forum for discussion of therapeutic technique, including cognitive behavioural and psychodynamic technique. The focus of the blog is on psychotherapeutic technique and issues in the room rather than case or theoretical discussions. At the bottom of each post is a comments section. Feel free to make any comments you like. Please remember this blog is a public forum.

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  • Chris Allan is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Psychology Clinic at the University of Wollongong. He has a strong interest in both cognitive and psychodynamic therapies and an ongoing fascination in the interaction of technology and psychology. His interests are varied and include martial arts, playing guitar, cooking, chess, clothes, poetry and computer gaming. He is married with two children two dogs and a budgie.

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Brin Grenyer

"I don't know" is also a defense ie. the client does know but doesn't know if they can trust the relationship with the therapist yet. So sometimes the best response to I don't know is for the therapist to accept that the client is not yet ready and that further more general alliance building is required before coming back to this issue

Yvette Vardy

Although there is mention of the client saying "I don't know" because they're not in touch with their feelings, sometimes "I don't know" can be an indication that the client is in touch with several competing or simultaneous feelings. "I don't know" can represent being unsure how best to describe a unified feeling state when maybe the person is feeling several emotions at once or they're feeling conflicted. It might therefore be helpful to ask whether there are several different feelings operating together, or whether the client feels a range of sensations that seem confusing. You could then try and tease them apart and try to label them together.

Gary Fulcher

For some clients, "I don't know" can also mean that they have confusing feelings or are so rarely in touch with their feelings that they cannot access or describe them efficiently. Affect is so important in therapy that ways of accessing & heightening it are essential. I often ask clients to be ware of how they feel in their body (e.g. buttereflies in the stomach). Then, I ask them to touch their body where the feeling is located. This step often enhances the feeling experience & allows better access to the affect, thus leading to greater possibilities of exploring it & its underlying language.

Chris Allan

Thanks for your comments Gary. I think this is a good point and one also raised by Yvette that clients use "I don't know "to express confusion or an inability to access spcefic or all affect. While it is not something easily described in words I often find the voice tone of the "I don't know" gives a clue to what it is about.

I think your idea of getting client to touch or point to the part of the body where they are experiencing the affect is a good one. This helps the client move from just experiencing the emotion internally to also moving to looking at themselves externally.



Perhaps the intent is to make the question go away. Often, 'I don't know' is a verbal filler playing for time to think, whether the person who says it realizes that or not. I just wait silently but expectantly and most people respond to the initial question.


as a patient, i say this often. it is a stall. i can't quite 'touch' what i am trying to say, or feeling perhaps conflicted reactions to a mounting tension. it is not a conscious stall, but a mental stalling while i am trying to put things together. fortunately my analyst recognizes my pattern, and encourages me that i DO know. not in an insistant parental way, more jovial and encouraging. and, with him 'staying with me'...i do go deeper.

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clients doesn't have to know about it. I think that we need to be more compressive. There are clients that they don't know because it isn't their expertive area-

Calvin Klein

thank you1

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negation is the first answer that people try when they are facing a problem. I know that it is hard but therapist should open those door because they try to hide everything until they have confidence with their therapist.

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and why not I can say "I don't know" is a normal responce when we face a adversal situation, for example when we are nervous or in front something that we don't know.

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