What if counselees are hesitant to talk?

There are various reasons why people are hesitant to divulge data. Some have to do with mistrust. "What will the counselor do with this information?" they ask themselves. They wonder whether it will soon find its place in a sermon as an illustration or whether it will come back to haunt them as a piece of gossip spread around the congregation. Every counselor must keep information as private as the Bible requires.* When people have had a bad experience of this sort in the past you must reassure them that it will not happen again.

Others are ashamed to lay out the truth. They hint around it, try to speak, and soon wander from the subject. In such cases, I usually "string the sausages" (I hold out a string of three possibilities). I say, "Usually, when people have difficulty speaking, it is because it has to do with a crime, sex or some interpersonal relationship."** Even then, people may find disclosure difficult. They will say, "It's the second one." When this doesn't work I ask them to write it out as I hand them a pencil and paper. Hesitancy is not refusal. Hesitant people need help.

Others, who have come to counseling unwillingly, must be told that the information is crucial (if, of course, it is) and that you cannot continue counseling without it. There is a time to draw a line in the sand. If necessary, in order to emphasize the facts in the sentences above, you may have to cut counseling short, saying, "When you are willing to tell me what I need in order to proceed, then we'll take up where we left off." If there is continued refusal to "come clean," in cases where it is necessary to do so, you may even have to institute church discipline.

Information comes largely from asking the right sorts of questions. Don't ask questions that can be answered with yes or no, unless that is the sort of answer you want. Don't ask "Why" something or other happened, unless you want speculation as an answer. Ask questions that begin with "What, when, where, who, which"-those elicit factual replies.

When you give homework, you may often want to give data-gathering assignments. Early on, you may ask a person to bring in a list containing at least 100 items.*** Categorize these as follows: "Ways that I have failed God as a person, as a husband/wife, as a parent, as a church member." Sometimes, non-data gathering assignments may uncover unsuspected information. If a person has difficulty fulfilling an assignment, probing for what happened to keep him from doing it often brings out useful data. Whenever an assignment is not done, dig deeply to see why not. Ask, "When you left last week, did you intend to do it?" Ask, "When did you begin?" Ask, "Did you delay too long?" Ask, "What sort of obstacles did you encounter?" Ask, "Did you give up, or did you try to overcome them?" Ask, "How did you attempt to get past the obstacles?" And so on. Ask such questions until you are sure that you have scraped the bottom.

You will often uncover complicating patterns of lack of discipline, of avoidance, of disorder, of poor scheduling and the like in addition to the problems that you have already learned about. This is important, since it is difficult to inculcate new patterns unless you deal with the old ones as well. So, use various methods of data-gathering until you get the necessary facts. Don't try to move ahead on the basis of inadequate knowledge. If you do, you will have to retrace your steps later on. You can't counsel well without sufficient data.

  * Don't ever promise absolute confidentiality. In cases of church discipline, for instance, information must be divulged to more and more people if the case progresses (see Matthew 18:15ff). But unless the Bible requires otherwise, we ought to keep confidences.

  ** This third reason is a catch-all.

  *** Why 100? Because it is difficult to think of that many generalizations. You want concrete specifics; people don't live "in general." In 100 answers, you will get many specifics.

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