middle earth

Coalface conversations


Knowing about something doesn’t hit the heart or mind nearly as well as doing it. As regular readers of my blog will know, I teach various aspects of pain management to postgraduate health professionals who come from a wide range of disciplines. Hopefully I can guide people towards thinking about the range of factors that can influence what goes on between delivering a treatment and the eventual outcome. It’s difficult, though, because much of what I need to do is based on giving access to information rather than opportunities to practice and then integrate this material.

I thought about this the other day when I met with a new patient. He comes to me with a history of seeing lots of health professionals, and learning lots of skills, but still essentially having the same struggle as he’s had throughout his lifetime. What can I possibly add to his ability to cope when he’s already had such a lot?

One of the conversations I often have with new patients is the relevance of psychosocial factors in their situation. It’s a conversation many health professionals fear – and then avoid. I’ve heard people say that they’re worried that their patient will think they’re saying “it’s all in your head”, or that their problem isn’t taken seriously. That comment is certainly something I’ve heard from patients as well.

So, when I met with this patient I decided to use what he had already learned to find out what he thought was going on, and to help us both discover more about what I could offer. This is essentially Socratic Questioning. Socratic questioning is styled after the teaching approach of Socrates and written about mainly by Plato.  It’s an approach where questions are asked after each answer, and through doing this, people discover the underlying beliefs or “truths” for themselves, rather than being told what to think. It’s a process of discovery – and when I use it with a patient or client, I use it so we can BOTH discover something.

It’s not easy to describe how to use Socratic questioning without coming up with a pat series of responses, but I’ll have a go. In reality, Socratic questioning is a subtle series of responses that can summarise, clarify and then probe behind the superficial to access deeper insights for both parties. If the clinician “knows” what the answers are, and uses this line of questioning to simply show the client something, it can end up being a process to show off how brilliant he or she is, subsequently missing the point of this approach.

Here’s an excerpt (as far as I can remember it):

B:       Tell me what’s been going on since we last caught up.

P:       Well, I’ve had a few flare-ups and I’m struggling a lot with the effort it takes to keep going even on a bad day.

B:       You look defeated when you say that. Do you feel defeated?

P:       Yes. I’m no good. I haven’t got what it takes.

B:      What do you mean “I haven’t got what it takes?”

P:       I haven’t got the strength, or the commitment to keep going. I’m just not good enough.

B:       Has something happened to lead you to this conclusion, or have you felt this way for a long time?

P:        It’s just got clear to me this last week.

B:        So this is a change in your thinking?

P:         Yes. I spent the weekend with my family and saw how happy they all are, and here am I doing nothing and sitting on the sidelines. If my kids were with my brother, they’d be so much better off.

B:        So…because you care about your kids, you decided you’ve let them down, you haven’t got what it takes.

P:        That’s it. If I didn’t have this pain, if I could fight it more, I wouldn’t let them down and they’d be happier.

B:        You said this was a change in your thinking. You’ve had your back pain for quite a while now, and you’ve been around your family lots of times. What did you think about yourself in the past?

P:        I think I was feeling better about myself because at least I was trying and my pain wasn’t in the way as much. Trying hard isn’t enough.

B:        I don’t think I quite follow. Why is trying not enough?

P:       Because no matter how hard I try, I can’t get around my back pain and my kids aren’t getting what they should from me.

B:       Is that what they say to you?

P:       No, but I can see my brother’s kids are so happy.

B:       And you’d like your kids to be happier.

P:       Yes.

B:        What things would you do differently if your pain wasn’t such a problem?

P:       I’d talk with them more, I’d encourage them, I’d play ball with them, I’d be there more for them.

B:       Are these things you could do even though your back pain is more than normal?

P:        Well… I couldn’t play ball with them.

B:       What about talking, encouraging them?

P:       Well, I suppose I could, but I’m scared I’ll just get angry with them.

B:       How would it feel just to try some new things anyway, even if you get irritable by the end?

P:       I suppose it would be a start, and they would at least see I tried. But I am still worried I’ll let them down.

B:      If you did let them down, would it negate having tried encouraging them at first?

P:      No, I guess it would give them a bit of the old me for a while.

There are roughly three steps in this exchange: (1) collecting information together; (2) examining this information together; (3)  inviting the patient to develop his own plans for doing something with that information. You’ll see that I didn’t attend to his pain, but instead focused on what he was afraid of – that his pain would make him grumpy, and that this would make his kids sad.  The conversation is all about discovering together, being curious and trying to learn about his experience from his perspective. By doing this together, we make long term changes because our clients learn how to discover what they’re thinking and doing, explore their thoughts and actions from a variety of perspectives, and generate their own answers.

Simply giving my patient/client the task to “do things differently” with his kids might have given him some homework, but it doesn’t help him learn about himself, nor about his main concern which is the effect of his back pain on his relationship with his children. This is definitely a psychosocial issue, but my patient didn’t reject what I had to say because we discovered it together and he gave me the information himself. It’s a very rewarding way to collaborate with someone.

Here’s a handout swiped from www.thebeckinitiative.org

A more in-depth web page of info on Socractic questioning and cognitive therapy is here

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