In Therapy

A user's guide to psychotherapy

Small Talk in Therapy

How about those Lakers? Small talk in therapy

 

Jane bounces into her session.

"How are you? How's your week going? I guess that's your question, huh?" She smiles and stirs her coffee. "Can you believe this weather? I mean, wow. It sure is hot." She settles into her chair. "Did you see the Laker game Sunday? I don't know what's wrong with them. If they don't start playing D, the Celts are gonna sweep the series. Like Boston needs another championship. Is that a new shirt?"

Jane is making small talk. She's chitchatting, chewing the fat, shooting the breeze and/or bull. Astute insight into the NBA Finals aside, Jane seems ready to discuss everything except herself.

In the vein of client empowerment, I've got three things to say about small talk:

1. Clients are allowed talk about anything they want
2. Clients should never feel obligated to make small talk
3. If it becomes a major part of therapy, there could be a problem

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You're welcome to shoot the breeze with your therapist. It's your dime and your time, you can talk about anything you choose. Weather, sports, fashion, politics, TV shows, trivia - all sections of the newspaper are fair game. Some therapists may ask why you've chosen today's topic, or suggest other items to discuss, but you don't have to bite. Small talk is not forbidden, you can steer the boat in any direction you'd like.

Having said that, chitchat in therapy can be a colossal waste of your time and money. Let's say you banter for the first 10 minutes of each session, you pay $100 per session, and you're in therapy a year. Your casual conversation will cost you around $1000 for the year. In our inflated economy, that's like 12 tanks of gas or two tickets to a Laker game. It's also eating up the equivalent of 10 sessions of your precious time that could be spent addressing your issues.

Some clients believe they need to make small talk. It's tempting to apply the same social customs from other relationships to therapy. When you enter a store or meet someone new, it's appropriate to break the ice with harmless banter. But therapy works differently. No therapist would be offended or consider it impolite if you dismissed the pleasantries and got right down to business. So why do some feel it's necessary to kick the session off with small talk?

Perhaps they feel the need to make small talk for the therapist's sake. They might feel sorry for this isolated professional, alone in their office all day with no one to chat with at the water cooler. Even if this is true, it's not your job to take care of the therapist's feelings. Therapists need to find time to meet their social and support needs through friends, family and colleagues outside their work. We require socializing as much as the next person, but not at your expense.

Some clients feel their own socializing needs aren't met outside therapy, so their session becomes their own water cooler. It would be worthwhile to address this in therapy - the lack of a social or support network could be an important issue to tackle.

More often, small talk is related to the discomfort of starting the session. As I wrote last week, it can be difficult to downshift into therapy mode when you're rushing in from the busyness of life. Small talk provides a transition - we're together, we're talking to each other, the content is light and non-threatening. The chitchat can help you relax, reconnect with the therapist and prepare you to dive into deeper issues. Each are important, but there may be a more efficient way to accomplish these same goals.

It can also be a way to stall. It's no secret that some work in therapy is painful and laborious. One part of you knows you really need to dive into difficult material, while another wants to kill time with chitchat to avoid the sting. The desire to avoid pain is human nature and nothing to be ashamed of. But sometimes you need to tolerate pain to experience growth and relief.

I encourage you to roll up your sleeves and make the most of your therapy session. Save the banter for other acquaintances and get down to business in your therapy. But like I said: it's your choice, your time, your money.

If you feel stuck in this pattern of chitchat, here are a few pointers:

  • Show up early to collect your thoughts, relax and think about what you'd like to address in the session. This might allow you to downshift before entering the session.
  • As you relax in the waiting room, ask yourself: "What did I notice about myself this week?" Your answer could be the opening line for your session.
  • If you find yourself in a gabfest, ask yourself if there's something you're avoiding. Don't be surprised if your therapist beats you to it.

 

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, musician and professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.

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