As I’ve been reading and thinking about the ways health professionals work with people who live with pain, my mind keeps coming back to the power of human connection. Pain is ephemeral: we can’t touch it, see it or truly understand the “what it is like” for that person to experience that pain. The only way we can get to understand even a little of another’s pain is when we take the time to hear what they’re saying. This post is about how a cognitive behavioural approach can inform our communication and build a bridge towards shared understanding. Only once this is begun can we start “treatment”.
A cognitive behavioural approach is based on the idea that people are not blank canvases, reflecting whatever is thrown at them. Instead people actively think about what is happening, seeking out information they think is relevant, depending on their past experiences, the framework they use to understand what’s going on, and to make predictions in light of what they want to do (goals).
What this means is that a conversation about pain is like dipping your toe into a stream. The stream keeps moving on, but the water gets swirled around where your toe is dipped. Whatever is upstream comes down along the waterways, where you dip your toe is here and now, and depending on the depth of your toe-dipping (and the stream’s flow) will influence the stream’s direction downstream. If your conversation is superficial and only concerned with issues the person doesn’t feel is relevant, your toe-dipping isn’t going to have much influence. But if you take the time to get into the water, immersing yourself in what the person is really saying (where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, where they want to go), you may well have a huge influence on their future directions.
What’s the focus of an initial interview?
An initial interview usually focuses on “what are the problems?” and “what can I do?” Of course, most clinicians also recognise the importance of establishing rapport, and the need to be empathic. The actual factors considered important within an initial interview vary depending on the model of health or disease adopted by the clinician. For a strongly biomechanically-oriented clinician the factors may be muscle length, strength, range of movement, loading and tolerance. For a clinician using a biopsychosocial framework, hopefully weight will also be placed on beliefs, understanding, attitudes, past experiences, emotions, predictions for the future, past treatments and what has been learned from these, existing stressors, vulnerabilities and strengths. And of course, a whole heap of family, friends, workplace and social factors should also form part of this assessment.
I’ve attached a semi-structured interview I’ve used clinically when working with people who live with chronic pain – this interview can take 60 – 90 minutes, depending on the complexity of the person’s narrative – Self Management Semistructured interview. I don’t think this is the only way to approach learning about someone else’s pain, but it provides me with a very sound basis for deciding whether I can help the person, and more importantly, I think it gives the person a chance to feel that I’m really listening.
To abbreviate this interview, I’d hone in on two main questions that I need to answer:
- Why is this person presenting in this way at this time?
- What can be done to reduce this person’s distress and disability?
All of my questions are designed to help me answer these two questions. Of course, they’re not going to work at all unless the person I’m talking with is part of this conversation. After all, they have ideas about what they want from me, why they’re looking for help, and what’s led them to come to me now rather than seeing someone else, or at another time.
There’s something missing from this interview though!
Something you can’t get from a simple list of questions is how to ask them and how to respond to the answers. I used to think the art of asking good interview questions lay with the wording, but I’m not so sure now. I think it’s about my attitude. Let me unpack this.
Socratic questioning is the main orientation I use in my initial interview. Socratic questioning is about guided discovery, or a dialogue between me and the other person in which I guide both of us towards discovering things the person knows but may not know they know. Confused? Well, here’s an explanation of the process. (BTW I follow Christine Padesky’s approach for Socratic questioning – click here for more info)
Padesky states “Socratic questioning involves asking the client questions which: a) the client has the knowledge to answer; b) draw the client’s attention to information which is relevant to the issue being discussed but which may be outside the client’s current focus; c) generally move from the concrete to the more abstract so that; d) the client can, in the end, apply the new information to either reevaluate a previous conclusion or construct a new idea.”
To begin with, we need to find out what the person knows they know – so I will ask Informational Questions. These include things like “what do you think is going on?”; “what’s your theory about your pain?”; “why do you think your sleep is so bad right now?”.
The second and equally important part is Listening. Not only am I listening to (and then reflecting that I’ve heard), I’m listening for words or phrases that are idiosyncratic, have emotional impact, those metaphors and images the person uses, the emotional feeling tone of their account.
The third is Summarising in which I gather together several phrases or responses given by the person, and present them back to him or her to make sure I’ve heard them correctly, but also to give them a chance to hear what they’ve been saying. Sometimes it’s only by talking that a person finds out what they’ve been thinking (ever had that happen to you?!). In Motivational Interviewing this is called “giving a bouquet” of what the person has been saying. I like that image!
The final phase is Synthesising, or Analytical questions. This occurs after you’ve spent the time finding out what the person thinks, listened carefully and then reflected this, explored the unique meanings the person puts on aspects of what is going on for them, and finally you’ve summarised and reflected their narrative as a whole – synthesising questions help the person make sense of what they’ve just said, pulling it all together. I sometimes use phrases like “so where does this leave you?” or “what does all that mean now?” or “what is your next best step?” Smart readers will recognise some of the Motivational Interviewing phrases in here!
The attitude I bring to this kind of encounter is one of curiosity. I’m genuinely curious to try to understand how this person has developed his or her understanding of their situation. This helps me step away from judging their situation as “good” or “bad, and in particular helps me avoid judging them as “good” or “bad” (or “coper” or “noncoper”). I constantly remind myself and others that people generally don’t get up in the morning to do dumb things. There’s usually a reason for people being in the situation they’re in – and often it’s about lacking accurate information.
Putting it together
Having gathered information, reflected what you’ve understood and confirmed this understanding with the person – now’s your chance to help that person develop their own, personal understanding of what’s going on. I like to call this their own personal model of pain. It won’t be complete, but it’s a great beginning. Padesky suggests asking “What do you make of this? How do you put this? How do you put these ideas together?”
For more information on a strengths based approach to cognitive behavioural therapy (not the same as a cognitive behavioural approach, but very interesting to read) – go here for a full paper by Padesky and Mooney, published in 2012, and for a much more detailed discussion of Socratic questioning in a panel – go here.