To Give or Not to Give Advice
He asked me, “Is it ok for me to tell my client what I really think?”
Posted May 10, 2012 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- It's helpful if a therapist thinks through their own motivations before offering advice to a client, whether the advice is solicited or not.
- Substantive advice, where a therapist simply offers a solution to a problem, can be counterproductive.
- Process advice teaches therapy clients how to solve problems on their own.
This week I had parallel experiences in both of my professional contexts. In supervision, one of my students talked about working with a client who was dealing with a relationship concern. My student has some definite opinions about it. He asked me, “Is it ok for me to tell my client what I really think about the issue?”
Then just a couple of days later in my own practice, a client was expressing some concerns they had with a family member. My client wanted to know what I thought they should do when they and their family members got into complex financial decisions. My first thought was to say to the client, “Protect yourself at all costs. Your family is not looking out for your interests.”
In the first situation, the client isn’t asking the student’s opinion. But he has one and feels at least somewhat compelled to share it. In the second situation, the client comes right out asking for advice. And I was tempted to give it—but stopped myself.
The ethics of giving advice as a therapist
When we have a certain position on the topic at hand, should we share our view? Is it ethical to share our opinions with, or give advice to, clients? What might make our advice beneficial for the client, and what arguments can be made against giving advice? What kinds of advice might be helpful and what kinds might be harmful?
We (Mitch and I) wrote about this issue in Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach. We encouraged readers to think about several issues before giving advice, including:
- What are my motivations for giving the advice? Sometimes giving advice makes therapists feel important and knowledgeable, but is ineffective. Sometimes, it may even foster a non-therapeutic dependency such that clients do not learn how to solve problems themselves but merely how to ask for more advice.
- How often am I giving advice? Remember the old saying about teaching a person to fish? Therapists who give too much advice may merely be giving clients fish but not teaching them skills to catch fish.
- How do I know that my advice is good advice? Is my advice based on research, or only upon the experience of one person—me?
- Am I crossing a boundary? Therapists may be encouraging clients to use the therapist’s values to make their decisions rather than exploring their own values.
- Would I take my own advice if I were the client?
Substantive advice vs. process advice
In our book, we distinguished between two types of advice: process advice and substantive advice. Substantive advice is when therapists impose or give specific suggestions for specific solutions to problems. It’s essentially telling people the solutions to problems. We believe this type of advice is often counterproductive.
The second type, process advice, is when therapists teach their clients strategies for how to solve problems. To say, “You might want to think about your commitments in terms of your own values and well-being,” for example, is different than saying, “I think you should dump the jerk!” First advice—process. Second advice—substantive (although a little extreme).
Of course, when my supervisee asked whether he should tell his client his views, he was asking for my advice, right?
This post was co-written with Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., whose blog is The Ethical Professor, and who co-authored the book Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Anderson, S. K., & Handelsman, M. M. (2010). Ethics for psychotherapists and counselors: A proactive approach. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.