The Art and Science of Clinical Interviewing (in Chicago)

In about 10 days I’ll be on my way to Chicago to video-record five short lectures on Clinical Interviewing. Alexander Street Press is producing this video project and Dr. Sharon Dermer of Governor’s State University is hosting. The project is titled “Great Teachers, Great Courses.” [This is pretty cool and my thanks to JC for getting me included.]

I’ll be recording the morning of Tuesday, May 19, which happens to be just before Debbie Joffe Ellis, who just happens to be the wife of the late Albert Ellis. She asked to switch times with me and so I obliged, noting in an email to Dr. Dermer:

Sure. I can do morning. Besides, if I said no I would end up with the Ghost of Albert Ellis’s scratchy voice in the back of my head saying things like, “What the Holy Hell is wrong with you?”

I’d just as soon avoid that.

All this is my slightly braggy way of explaining why I’ll be writing about five upcoming blogs on Clinical Interviewing. Here we go.

What is a Clinical Interview?

Definitions can be slippery. This is especially true when our intention is to define something related to human interaction.

One of my favorite descriptions of clinical interviewing is scheduled for inclusion in the forthcoming “Handbook of Clinical Psychology.” Mostly I suppose I like this description because I wrote it (smiley face). Here it is:

In one form or another, the clinical interview is unarguably the headwaters from which all mental health interventions flow. This remarkable statement has two primary implications. First, although clinical psychologists often disagree about many important matters, the status of clinical interviewing as a fundamental procedure is more or less universal. Second, as a universal procedure, the clinical interview is naturally flexible. This is essential because otherwise achieving agreement regarding its significance amongst any group of psychologists would not be possible. (page numbers tbd)

When it comes to formal definitions, it’s clear that clinical interviewing has been defined in many ways by many authors. Some authors appear to prefer a narrow definition:

An interview is a controlled situation in which one person, the interviewer, asks a series of questions of another person, the respondent. (Keats, 2000, p. 1)

Others are more ambiguous:

An interview is an interaction between at least two persons. Each participant contributes to the process, and each influences the responses of the other. However, this characterization falls short of defining the process. Ordinary conversation is interactional, but surely interviewing goes beyond that. (Trull & Prinstein, 2013, p. 165)

Others emphasize the development of a positive and respectful relationship:

. . . we mean a conversation characterized by respect and mutuality, by immediacy and warm presence, and by emphasis on strengths and potential. Because clinical interviewing is essentially relational, it requires ongoing attention to how things are said and done, as well as to what is said and done. The emphasis on the relationship is at the heart of the “different kind of talking” that is the clinical interview. (Murphy & Dillon, 2011, p. 3)

From my perspective, the BIG goals of this “different kind of talking” can be broken into two main parts: (1) ASSESSMENT and (2) HELPING That said, I’m likely to further break these two main parts into four interrelated and overlapping parts that may or may not be formally including in a single clinical interview:

1. Establishing a therapeutic relationship
2. Collecting assessment information
3. Developing a case formulation or treatment plan
4. Providing a specific educational or psychotherapeutic intervention

What are the Goals of a Clinical Interview?

[In the following two paragraphs I’m including a more wordy and erudite way of saying the preceding . . . which is one of the things that we academics are wont to do. I should note these paragraphs are excerpted from my entry in the Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology (2015). This piece, very recently published, is cleverly titled, “The Clinical Interview” and coauthored with Drs. Waganesh Abeje Zeleke, and Meredith H. E. Hood.]

Perhaps the clearest way to define a clinical interview is to describe its purpose or goals. Generally, there are four possible goals of a clinical interview. These include: (a) the goal of establishing (and maintaining) a working relationship or therapeutic alliance between clinical interviewer and patient; research has suggested the relationship between interviewer and patient is multidimensional, including agreement on mutual goals, engagement in mutual tasks, and development of a relational bond (Bordin, 1979; Norcross & Lambert, 2011); (b) the goal of obtaining assessment information or data about patients; in situations where the goal of the clinical interview is to formulate a psychiatric diagnosis, the process is typically referred to as a diagnostic interview; (c) the goal of developing a case formulation and treatment plan (although this goal includes gathering assessment information, it also moves beyond problem definition or diagnosis and involves the introduction of a treatment plan to a patient); (d) the goal of providing, as appropriate and as needed, a specific educational or therapeutic intervention, or referral for a specific intervention; this intervention is tailored to the patient’s particular problem or problem situation (as defined in items b and c).

All clinical interviews implicitly address the first two primary goals (i.e., relationship development and assessment or evaluation). Some clinical interviews also include, to some extent, case formulation or psychological intervention. A single clinical interview can simultaneously address all of the aforementioned goals. For example, in a crisis situation, a mental health professional might conduct a clinical interview designed to quickly establish rapport or an alliance, gather assessment data, formulate and discuss an initial treatment plan, and implement an intervention or make a referral.

What Happens During a Clinical Interview?

The range of interactions that can happen during a clinical interview is staggering. This could partly explain why we (foolishly) wrote a textbook on this topic that’s 598 pages long and includes an instructional DVD.

My son-in-law says one good way to get a flavor for any book is to put together the first and last words. In this case, our Clinical Interviewing text reads (not including the front or back matter), “This . . . culture.” To give you a further taste of “This . . . Clinical Interviewing . . . culture,” here’s a modified excerpt from the text:

Imagine sitting face-to-face with your first client. You carefully chose your clothing. You intentionally arranged the seating, set up the video camera, and completed the introductory paperwork. You’re doing your best to communicate warmth and helpfulness through your body posture and facial expressions. Now, imagine that your client:

  • Refuses to talk.
  • Talks so much you can’t get a word in.
  • Asks to leave early.
  • Starts crying.
  • Tells you that you’ll never understand because of your racial or ethnic differences.
  • Suddenly gets angry (or scared) and storms out.

Any and all of these responses are possible in an initial clinical interview. If one of these scenarios plays out, how will you respond? What will you say? What will you do?

From the first client forward, every client you meet will be different. Your challenge or mission (if you choose to accept it) is to make human contact with each client, to establish rapport, to build a working alliance, to gather information, to instill hope, and, if appropriate, to provide clear and helpful professional interventions. To top it off, you must gracefully end the interview on time and sometimes you’ll need to do all this with clients who don’t trust you or don’t want to work with you. (pp. 3-4)

In my opening Great Teachers, Great Courses lecture I’ll be focusing on the definition of the clinical interview and then limit myself to describing and demonstrating about 18 different interviewing “behaviors” or responses that clinicians who conduct clinical interviewing have at their disposal. These behaviors are named and organized into three categories. And so to help myself stop writing this blog and get back to work, I’ll wait and write about them later.



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