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Speak the Whole Truth, but Don’t be Long-winded

As a therapist, I’ve never been more guilty of violating a piece of advice than the title of this post. Maybe it’s because I used to be a teacher, so I got away with speaking in long sentences. It’s just that… people and situations are so complicated! If I “keep it simple” with a client, then they won’t recognize and honor the complicated truth. And yet if I speak too much, they often stop listening altogether.

It reminds of the common critique of Al Gore during the 2000 election-- when explaining complicated topics, he came across as “professorial and distant.” He was far less skilled in speaking in sound bites than other politicians. Simple truths may be inaccurate, but are usually more memorable and popular.

So-- how can we as therapists speak the whole truth, but not in paragraphs? Here’s the advice I’m struggling to follow: (1) Make short interventions but always imply that there’s more to the truth; (2) Keep pausing, so the client can respond, process, and not be made to listen for too long.

Examples of #1:

  • “Sounds like the situation itself is complicated”

  • “Sounds like you’re torn between ___ and ___”

  • “You can be true to ____, but then you’ll be leaving out ____”

  • “You’d love to just (choose, be one thing, etc.), but what if it is/we are more complicated than that?”

Example of #2:

  • “There’s more and I can go on, but first I’d love to hear what you’re hearing.”

I want these to work, and I hope I can stay true to them! The best possible outcome is that the client comes to acknowledge complicated truths, leading them to speak at length, as they now feel the need to give full expression to the many sides of themselves and their situations. I need to give up on sharing the whole truth all at once, but continue to gesture towards the complicated.


There’s certainly more to say about this, but let’s stop there for now. What are your moves for being comprehensive and concise?

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