So, what do you want to achieve?

How do you respond to this question, or how might you have responded to it at various points in your life? Do you immediately reply with a list of objectives that you are working towards, or maybe a list of aspirations, things you hope to ‘get round to’? Or maybe it puts you a little on the defensive; after all it’s your life, so you must know what you want, right?

Sometimes when a new client comes for an initial discussion they will have a fairly clear idea of what they want out of counselling, such as, ‘I want to control my anger’ or ‘I want to learn strategies for handling the issues I’m facing’. And of course these are objectives to keep in mind as client and counsellor proceed with their work, periodically reflecting on them and discussing direction and progress.

Duncan Law and Mick Cooper, co-editors of Working with Goals in Psychotherapy and Counselling, wrote a piece recently in the BACP’s journal entitled ‘What do you want to change?’ a discussion of the pros and cons of goal-oriented practice.

There are certainly advantages to keeping counselling work focused on what the client wants to achieve – advantages from transparency to client-empowerment. Tracking progress towards goals in a disciplined way keeps the client’s goals at the centre of the work and enables client and counsellor to assess the effectiveness of the therapy on an ongoing basis.

So far so good. But what if you’re not really sure what your ‘goals’ are or if your ideas about goals are rather vague? What if you don’t actually have any goals other than knowing what it is you don’t want (‘I just want to stop feeling like this’, for example)?

In fact, Law and Cooper make the point that ‘goal-striving’ may be seen as a product (they say ‘sickness’) of a contemporary, western, neoliberal society. This reminds me of the question employees are often asked at appraisal time – ‘where do you see yourself in X years time?’ It presupposes that we all have a degree of autonomy and clarity that in many cases simply doesn’t exist, or at least not to an extent to be able to make realistic assumptions or predictions about the future.

But just because we might be in the dark to some extent about what we are looking for doesn’t mean we don’t have genuine underlying hopes and aspirations; these might just need to be uncovered or to evolve out of what we think we want now. As the article says, in counselling, the therapist should not treat goals as ‘fixed and definitive endpoints … but as fluid malleable and approximate indicators of the client’s preferred “direction of travel.”’

So to ask ‘what do you want to achieve?’ may be misdirected. Maybe it is more helpful to ask the broader question, in Law and Cooper’s words, ‘what do you want to change?’