Setting Goals

Achievable goals consist of clients, actions or conditions that can be brought about by clients’ actions. Often they include time elements: how often (frequency); when (date/time/deadline); and, how long (duration).

Define the goal in terms of final resolution of the therapy concern or of enough progress to terminate or take a break from therapy.

The goal must be mutual. If there is more than one client, or the customer (the person who initiated therapy and is motivated to make things change) is not the client, all parties must agree that the goal is relevant and achievable.

Translate vague, non-sensory-based words and phrases into action-based language. Goals are more checkable if clients state them as if they could be viewed/heard on a videotape player. Find outer (observable) correlates for feelings and inner states/qualities. Sometimes quantifying inner experiences or qualities by rating them on a scale is helpful. Then find action steps the client could do that would improve the rating to the desired level. Example: On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate your current or recent feelings of self-esteem and where will it be on that scale when you have reached your therapy goal successfully?

Provide multiple choice answers when clients hesitate in stating clear goals or when they continue to answer your queries about their goals with vague words and phrases.

Sometimes it is important to inform clients that you are searching for an achievable goal and give them a rationale for your search. Example: I keep going back to this issue of how we’ll know when we’ve been successful and can stop meeting because I want to make sure we’re working on your goals, not mine.

OR: I get concerned that what we’re doing in here could become (or has become) part of the problem instead of the solution. I think defining a goal will help avoid that because we’ll have a clearly defined stopping place.

OR: Sometimes therapy becomes a slippery business. It’s like nailing jello to a tree. It can be discouraging wondering whether I’m really helping people change or just passing the time. So it would help me to pin down a specific goal.

Focus on the goal and a successful outcome as early as you can without alienating the client. If you are getting messages that the client is irritated with the focus on goals, either explain your purpose or back off and refocus on what they are indicating is more important to discuss. Example: This may seem a funny place to start, but I always like to know where I’m going, so I can listen better for what will be helpful to you. So, if you can, tell me what you hope will be happening in your life when we’ve been successful in here. What will you be doing after therapy? How will others know you’ve changed? How will you know? And if you can, I’d like to hear it in a way that I can imagine seeing on a videotape.

Assume that therapy will be successful. Use words like “will, “when, and “yet, when speaking about the clients therapy (or post-therapy) goals. Example: So you haven’t asked a woman out for a date yet and you’d like to be able to get into a relationship? Example: When you’re feeling better, less depressed or not depressed, you’ll be getting up earlier and spending more time with friends?

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