MTSU Social Work Department

SW 2630: Interviewing Skills

Client-Centered Responses

Client-centered responses are those things which social workers do or say to maintain the focus of the interview on the client's concerns. It is important to think of what we say as responses. This increases the chance that we will stay with the client, to let him lead us where he needs to go. It is our responsibility to be able to respond appropriately to client needs. This does not mean that we always say what the client wants to hear. It means that we try to say what the client needs to hear: to respond in ways that will help the client grow and become more aware.

Like many of the other ideas in this course, this material comes originally from a wonderful book, The Helping Interview by Alfred Benjamin. I have added to and changed his ideas to reflect my own philosophy, but the substance of this discussion should be credited to him.

Client-centered responses should be used frequently. Social workers should spend most of the interview listening whenever the situation permits, but after that we need to be able to respond to the client: what the client has said, what he seems to be feeling, or what he does. Therefore these types of responses should be the ones we use most frequently.

1. Silence. One of the most valuable client-centered responses is silence. It may seem strang to think of silence as a response, but it is. If you finish saying something important and I sit there, giving you my complete attention, I am responding. I am saying, 'I don't want to interrupt. I am listening. What you have to say is important.' I am giving you a chance to continue. I am asking, in a sense, if you want to go on. These are the reasons why I like to use short periods of silence frequently throughout the interview. I don't like the silence to be too long. That can make both the client and worker uncomfortable. I like to use two or three second silences anytime I think the client may continue to have important things to say.

2. Mm-hm. This response is known by many names, as 'hm-mm,' 'mmm,' or the 'ambiguous verbalization.' It can be used in a wide variety of ways, as a way to say 'Yes,' 'Go on,' 'I wonder about that,' and other things as well. It may be heard differently than it is meant. You may mean to say 'Go on' to a client and he hears 'I don't believe you.' One of the opportunities and dangers of this response is that it is often more ambiguous than the use of definite words. It is a valuable part of a social worker's response repetoire, however. If you are not use to saying 'mm-hm' in your conversations, it would be good to practice it. There are times when it can be very helpful. One of the most timportant things about your use of 'mm-hm' is to be aware of your use of it. A good social worker is very conscious of her verbalizations as well as the client's.

3. Yes. This is similar to hm-mm but more definite. It often includes 'OK,' 'Go on,' and similar statements. It should not be confused with encouragement, which is discussed as a worker-centered response. It is good to use brief responses like these to let clients know that you are listening, that they are saying things which are valuable, and that you want them to continue. All three of these first client-centered responses do that in different ways and they are handy tools to use when you are receiving important information from your client.

4. Restatement. Restatement involves the use of the client's own words in response to him. It may be exact restatement, summary restatement, or paraphrasing. It usually involves a change in person, so that if a client says 'I went to the store' the worker would respond 'You went to the store.' Restatement is a good way to tell the client that you are listenting, that what he has to say is important, and to give hime a chance to hear his own words. This is why I especially like summary restatement, to pick a word or phrase which I think is important and 'play it back' for my client to hear. It is an excellent response if not overused. I strongly recommend that beginning social workers try it.

5. Clarification. Most good questions are requests for clarification. You can also do this response by saying, 'Tell me more about that. I want to be sure I understand.' It is important to gain the client's perspective as clearly as possible and clarification responses do that. A question such as 'What do you mean by that?' is such a response. It is important to remember that the question needs to relate to what the client is saying in order to be a clarification response. If the client is talking about his son and you say 'Is your grandmother better?' that is not a clarification response. It is a question that comes out of your concern rather than the topic at hand. There are times when we may need to jerk the conversation around in this way, but not often. It is best to keep most of your questions as clarification responses.

6. Reflection. This is a response to the feelings behind what the client has said or done. It is important for people to become more aware of their feelings, and feelings are often central to a client's need for help. We do not always know the best way to respond to feelings, but it is often true that any well-intentioned attempt will be helpful. Many times a worker will combine reflection with clarification, in a sense asking a client how he feels, or asking if he feels a certain way. Reflection should rarely been done with certainly; we are usually not sure about another person's feelings, but responses which lead the interview in a mutual exploration of emotions can be very helpful in many situations.

7. Interpretation. Interpretations provide connections. They connect two things the client has said, or they connect what has been said to a non-verbal expression. Interpretations can be fancy and serious, such as the dream interpretations of helpers who have been trained in psychoanalysis, or they can be obvious and simple, such as remarking that your client makes a fist everytime he mentions a certain person. Even the interpretations which are obvious to the skilled observer may be very helpful for a client to hear. A connection such as 'You had trouble sleeping last night after that fight with your girlfriend,' may seem self-evident to the worker but seem extremely insightful for the client who has not be able to make that connection. Interpretations are also responses that we sometimes need to make tentatively or by asking questions, but sometimes they jump right out at us and can be offered with more confidence.

8. Explanation. There are times when we need to provide explanations for clients. This response verges on a worker-centered response because it is the presentation of information which the worker knows from experiences outdise the immediate interview. But the focus is still on the client's concerns, we are responding to an issue which the client has presented. An explanation may go something like, 'Depression is normal after you lose someone you love.' The client has talked about his depression and the worker feels that this information will be comforting and perhaps helpful in other ways as well. Explanation should be used sparingly, we don't want to sound like a 'know-it-all,' but there certainly are times when people need to hear about ideas which we think are related to their experiences.

Client-centered responses are very important tools for conducting an effective interview. They should be used frequently, to let your client know that you are listening, that what he says is important, and to allow you to participate in a conversation about those things which your client needs to explore in order to feel better and make good decisions. They should not be used so frequently, however, that they interfere with listening. Remember: listening is usually the most important thing that you can do. Effective use of client-centered responses gives your client a chance to talk productively and it gives you more to listen to.

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