What do you want to work on today?
This is a frustrating question for many of my client friends, though they hear it most every appointment with me. Some deflect the question and talk about the events they have experienced since they have seen me last. Some ask me outright, “don’t you know me well enough by now?” Others look at me with a placid glaze hoping that I will answer my own question, which I sometimes do, especially later in the day.
My clients are smart. They are intuitive. And manipulative.
Some want me to set the agenda — many people find it easier to follow than to lead, or maybe they are worried about making a mistake. Some of my client friends think that I am the omnicompetent professional and that I should be able to tell them what it is that they should work on. Some people must simply think that I can’t think of a better opening gambit.
Here is what the question means to me and why I have used it for 40 years.
- The question is addressed to you, the one sitting in front of me. It is not about what someone else wants you to work on, or why someone else wants you to visit with me. The session is entirely about you.
- It is about wants, not the oughts – shoulds – musts you carry around in your head. It is not so much about what you need to do or what someone else thinks you need to do. The responsibility is yours to figure out what you want.
- It is not about sharing or chatting or being a sounding board. It is about mutual work towards a particular goal decided by you.
- It is about today. It is not about tomorrow or yesterday or some time far, far away. It is not about your genogram history, though that is relevant. It is about right now and how that fits into the continuity of your life.
- Also, it is an important question to me when I go for help. It assumes that I am responsible for myself. I like that. Maybe it’s a compliment.
So that is why I ask this quite predictable question. And while I am asking it, I am watching you and thinking. I want to see what efforts you will make to manage me. I want to see if you will avoid work by talking about the past or projecting to the future. I listen for your subjunctive tense [“well I would’ve done that if…”]. I wonder if you will start in blaming your partner, or your trauma, or your family of origin.
I listen to what you want to work on and what you want from me so that we can work together in the complicated narrative of your life.
See you next time.