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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.