How Do I Start Talking with My Clients About Spirituality?
Your clients know. Let them help you.
Posted March 9, 2020
Q: It got so drilled into me in grad school, “Do not impose your own spiritual ideas,” that I’m basically afraid to wade into these waters of spirituality with my clients. Your book was helpful to me, but I’m still working up my nerve to engage my clients in this area. If you were going to suggest one thing, one simple way to start, what would it be?
A: Great question! And I’ll respond to it in a minute. But first of all, good on you for leaning into something that makes you uncomfortable. That’s the way we learn to do so many good things—walk, ride a bike, play an instrument, date—and it’s what we encourage our clients to do when they’re stuck in a pattern that’s not serving them. So, way to get to your edge and stretch.
Second, good on your grad school teachers for teaching you not to push your own spiritual perspectives on your clients. There are many honorable professions where it is appropriate and expected to represent a particular spiritual point of view—rabbi, pastor, imam, to name three—but psychotherapist is not one of them.
Every code of ethics I’m aware of reminds us of the power differential between therapist and client, of the vulnerable position our clients occupy, and of our responsibility to serve our client’s good without advancing any cause—spiritual, political, economic—no matter how near and dear it is to us.
That said, “not imposing” and “not engaging” are two different things. Clients introduce spiritual material into the therapeutic interchange all the time, and while it’s not our job to push a spiritual agenda, neither it is our job to run away from spiritual material when it presents itself.
We want to meet our clients where they are, as they are, to help them draw upon whatever resources might help them stabilize or heal (these are often spiritual resources), and to lessen the impact of unhealthy factors in their lives (these can be spiritual, too). In fact, the more you recognize how expansive the spiritual dimension of peoples’ lives is, how integrated it is into every other dimension of their lives, the more you’ll hear, see, and feel the spiritual resonance in almost everything your clients say or do. And it’ll be nearly impossible for you to have any therapeutic conversation without it seeming to you to be a spiritual conversation.
Now, to your question: What’s one simple suggestion to help you begin engaging your clients’ spirituality a little more freely?
How about this?
Let your clients help you. If you’re willing to follow, they will guide you.
Find a posture within yourself that helps you be receptive to whatever resources of wisdom, resilience, meaning, and hope your clients bring with them. When you ask them how they’ve been getting through all this, how they’ve been making it (to whatever degree they have), and they tell you something spiritual—something explicitly spiritual like praying, or something implicitly spiritual like hearing a song on the radio that strengthened them or seeing birds rise together from a field at sunrise—pay attention to it, be curious about it. Dare I say, be reverent towards it.
Your clients know how to talk about spirituality. They talk about it the way they talk about it, which may be similar to the way you talk about it, or amazingly different. But let them talk, open your mind, relax your heart, and follow. If you’re willing to let them, they’ll help you wade into this wondrous water with them.
This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed here, please contact me through my website: russellsilerjones.com.