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In the last section, we discussed ways to assess the batterer's potential for change.
Now, let's talk more specifically about facilitating those changes by encouraging goal-setting. As you know, and as we discussed in an earlier section, clients often deny even having the problems that caused them to be court-ordered into the group. This denial, tied with the general view that clients must admit to having problems in order to change, creates a challenging therapy situation for me. Are you ready for a possibly controversial idea?
I have found that admitting to problems is not always a necessity when it comes to changing behavior. In fact, I find that continuously pressuring clients to take responsibility for their past behaviors results in a group setting that focuses on blame and time-consuming descriptions of those past behaviors. As you know, this can become discouraging and distracting for the group. I find focusing on goal setting for the future rather than focusing on admitting past problems to be more productive.
Shawn, 29, had thrown his wife, Megan, against the wall, punched her in the arm, and thrown dishes at her in the kitchen. Shawn, like many clients, firmly resisted taking responsibility for his behavior. However, he did not so strongly deny that aspects of his life could generally be better. As a result, when invited to do so, Shawn was willing to assume responsibility for making improvements, for instance in the amount of time he spent with Megan and their children. Think for a moment about a client you are currently treating. Does your avoidance of judgment and statements of blame allow your client to move toward a solution?
♦ Four Catalysts for Setting Goals
Shawn began to see therapy as more relevant and valuable when the focus was on what he believed would be helpful and what he wanted to achieve. Shawn stated, "I knew I had problems when I came to you, and having to replay them would have only made things harder." I have found it is much easier for a court-ordered client like Shawn to say, "I had a problem when I first came here" than to say, "I have a problem." Think about a client you are currently treating. Do you feel he might find it easier and more productive to focus on what he can accomplish, what he can do in the future, as opposed to focusing on his failures, what he did in the past?
I found that goal-setting allowed Shawn to begin exploring possible solutions safely while allowing me to hold him accountable for doing something different in his life. Accountability expands to creating a plan for change, creating change, and reporting on the impact that results from behavioral change. Have you found, like I, that clients most often seize the opportunity to do something they really believe will be of value to them and to the people they care about?
♦ How to Present Goal-Setting in 5 Steps
Once you've explained goal-setting to your group, how do you begin discussion of potential goals? Once I have explained goal-setting, I simply ask, "Does someone have an idea for a possible goal?" I find it particularly important to be patient and wait for a response from the group. I feel that my filling any silences would show that I am not confident in the group's abilities to begin setting their own goals. I have found that when I wait, the vacuum is eventually filled by a client's ideas.
I have found that a good analogy for the process of helping a client develop a goal is helping someone make a plan for a trip. Once Shawn had a general idea, which was to "communicate better," I pressed him to describe as many details of the goal as possible, including what specifically he would do, when he would do it, who would be present, how he would get started, and how many times he might do a behavior before the next session.
Eventually, then, Shawn was able to articulate that his goal was not simply to "communicate better," but to sit down for a few minutes in the evenings and talk to Megan about his day, especially the things about his day that were bothering him. In general, I want my clients to feel as if they have already accomplished the goal in their thoughts prior to leaving the session. As you know, for many clients, effective goal-setting is not achieved as quickly as it was for Shawn. In the next section, we will discuss how to deal with these goals when they are too broad, too vague, and clients who are stuck in creating a goal.