Out of the Woods

Abstract: This is an exercise specifically about recovering from mistakes. You can describe and model a variety of ways of recovering from a misstep, and then have trainees practice.

Overview: Everyone makes mistakes, and when you do it is often quickly apparent in the client’s response. When you see your client becoming more defensive, resistant, evasive, etc., how do you recover? There are, of course, a variety of ways to do it successfully after a gaff. This exercise intentionally begins with a gaff, and then explores ways to recover.

Guidelines: You can begin by describing several different ways to respond when you’ve obviously missed the mark. Some possibilities include: (1) reflecting the client’s immediate reaction; (2) apologizing or taking personal responsibility; (3) changing focus - redirecting to less volatile terrain; (4) redoing your prior response that elicited resistance: What I should have said . . .

The basic structure is to start by making an MI-inconsistent response, to which the speaker (in a role-play or real-play) responds defensively, and then coming back with an MI-consistent response. A good way to begin these volleys is for the speaker to offer a statement involving sustain talk or resistance. Thus the basic structure is:
SPEAKER: Sustain or Resist
PRACTITIONER: Give an MI-inconsistent response (such as giving information or advice without permission, disagreeing, confronting)
SPEAKER: (Respond naturally – most likely more Sustain or Resist)
PRACTITIONER: Give an MI-consistent response
SPEAKER (Respond naturally)

If desired, this exchange can be continued, giving the practitioner the opportunity to offer several MI-consistent responses in a row in the process of recovery. This is a good exercise to model first. Except with more advanced trainees, this exercise is likely to require close supervision and assistance, so use this exercise where a trainer can observe, providing feedback and coaching.

Speaker: I don’t think I drink all that much really.
Practitioner: Well, actually you do drink a lot more than most people. (Confront)
Speaker: Are you saying that I’m an alcoholic? Because I’m not!
Practitioner: That’s really clear to you, that you are not alcoholic. (Reflect)
Speaker: Damn right.
Practitioner: Sorry, that’s not what I meant to say at all, and I didn’t mean to offend you. (Apology)
Speaker: Well it just sounded that way.
Practitioner: That’s a very sensitive topic for you. (Reflect)
Speaker: My wife thinks that I’m an alcoholic.
Practitioner: What I meant is that you do seem to be able to drink more than most people. (Reframe)
Speaker: Well, that’s true. I do hold it pretty well.
Practitioner: And like you, I’m not interested in labels like “alcoholic.” What I care about is what’s happening in your life, and what, if anything, you want to do about it. (Shifting focus)

Notes: If a golf metaphor works for you, these ways of responding to a gaff can be likened to various ways of recovering from a bad tee shot, depending on where it lands: in the rough (carefully hitting it back onto the fairway), in a sand trap (blasting out), in the water (starting over), etc.

Contributed by: Bill Miller