Overusing clients’ names can mask inattention

Use of a client’s name to foster engagement may mask flagging concentration and inattention. Using a client’s name sparingly permits more accurate judgement of attention to the conversation or task.

“…a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” (Carnegie, 1936).

Whilst using client’s given names uninvited can backfire, a genuine (and successful) attempt to remember and recall someone’s name can pay dividends.

We are more likely to notice our name than any other word. We can hear our name in the noisiest of rooms. Hearing our name can distract us from the most engaging of tasks. Pet owners and parents of small children will be aware that the first word out of their mouths when their charges are misbehaving or headed into danger is invariably the pet or child’s name. It is the word which is most likely to grab their attention.

When our attention is drifting from a conversation, use of our name by the speaker can refocus our attention upon them, at least for a time. Anyone who has suffered through dreary lessons (or lectures) can testify to the effectiveness of the teacher calling their name in reorienting them .

The power of our names can be misused, deliberately or inadvertently. Attempting to create and improve rapport by regular use of the client’s name, a therapist can create a situation in which they are, in effect, repeatedly snapping their fingers in the client’s face. Again and again the client’s attention will be brought back to the therapist, no matter how dull or aversive the task or conversation.

Therapists who overuse client’s names may believe the client is engaged with them and the content of their conversation. In fact, the client may merely be responding to their name, each and very time, creating an illusion of continuous attention.

In working with people with learning disabilities, I banned myself from using the client’s name during the session for a time. My aim was to see whether I could hold their attention without this artificial aid. I found that, with effort and practice, I could. The shock was how much of my apparent engagement with the client had been illusory. I now use client’s names rarely, if ever, during sessions.

2 thoughts on “Overusing clients’ names can mask inattention

  1. One reason that I like your writing is that you write about things that I have felt intutitively, but you discuss them in an explicit way. For example, I have recently been working with a parent of a child with autism and she calls his name too often (it feels like to me) and I want to tell her why this is not good but could not explain why. My explanation was bumbling at best and probably insulted her at worst. This little boy ignores his name altogether unless his mother is angry. I will use this explanation now, and work from it to help her learn to teach him to respond to his name when used more sparingly. Tahirih

  2. True, could be over used, but when a certain therapist used my name several 3-5x a session, she did it in a way that really showed she cared, was trying to connect with me and be warm and personal. Enough of this impersonal detachment by therapists. May as well have a session by phone or through the mail.

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