Tag Archives: clinical interviewing

Can Mental Health Professionals Predict Violent Behavior in Schools and Agencies?

Not surprisingly, violence has been on my mind lately. And so when I reached the Violence Risk Assessment section of the Clinical Interviewing text revision, I decided to cut and paste it here. It doesn’t immediately answer the question of whether mental health professionals can predict violence and so if you’re impatient and prefer to stop reading now, the answer to that question is, more or less, “No.”

Assessment and Prediction of Violence and Dangerousness

During an assessment interview, John had the following exchange with a 16-year-old client.

John: I hear you’ve been pretty mad at your shop teacher.

Client: I totally hate Mr. Smith. He’s a jerk. He puts us down just to make us feel bad. He deserves to be punished.

John: You sound a little pissed off at him.

Client: We get along fine some days.

John: What do you mean when you say he “deserves to be punished”?

Client: I believe in revenge. Really, I feel sorry for him. But if I kill him, I’ll be doing him a favor. It would end his miserable life and stop him from making other people feel like shit.

John: So you’ve thought about killing him?

Client: I’ve thought about walking up behind him and slitting his throat.

John: How often have you thought about that?

Client: Just about every day. Whenever he talks shit in class.

John: And exactly what images go through your mind?

Client: I just slip up behind him while he’s talking with Cassie [fellow student] and then slit his throat with a welding rod. Then I see blood gushing out of his neck and Cassie starts screaming. But the world will be a better place without his sorry ass tormenting everybody.

John: Then what happens?

Client: Then I guess they’ll just take me away, but things will be better.

John: Where will they take you?

Client: To jail. But I’ll get sympathy because everyone knows what a dick he is.

During an initial interview or ongoing therapy, clients may describe aggressive thoughts and images. Some clients, as in the preceding example, will be concise about their thoughts, feelings, and images. Others will be less clear. Still others will be evasive and will avoid telling you anything about violent thoughts or intentions.

Assessing for violence potential is similar to assessing for suicide potential; it’s a stressful responsibility and predicting violence is extremely difficult. However, similar to suicide assessment, we still have a legal and ethical responsibility to conduct violence or dangerousness assessments that meet professional standards.

Over the years, there have been arguments about how to most accurately predict violence (Hilton, Harris, & Rice, 2006). Essentially, there are three perspectives.

1. Some researchers contend that actuarial prediction based on specific, predetermined statistical risk factors is consistently the most accurate procedure (Quinsey, Harris, Rice, & Cormier, 2006).

2. Some clinicians believe that because actuarial variables are dimensional and interactive with individual and situational characteristics, prediction based on the clinician’s experience and intuition is most accurate (Cooke, 2012).

3. Others take a moderate position, believing that combining actuarial and clinical approaches is best (Campbell, French, & Gendreau, 2009).

Researchers have consistently reported that actuarial approaches to violence prediction are more accurate than clinical judgment (Monahan, 2013). However, actuarial violence prediction is not without its flaws (Szmukler, 2012; Tardiff & Hughes, 2011).

Narrowing in on Particular Violent Behaviors

Researchers who investigate actuarial assessment protocols have reported that different violent behaviors are associated with unique predictor variables. Below, we provide three examples of violence predictors for three different specific violent behaviors or populations. The goal is to sensitize you to different violent behavior patterns.

Fire-setting. Fire-setting is a particular dangerous behavior that may or may not be associated with interpersonal violence. Nonetheless, depending on your work setting and the clinical population you serve, you may find yourself in a situation in which you need to decide whether to warn a family or potential victim about possible fire-setting behavior.

Mackay and colleagues (2006) reported on specific behaviors included on a fire-setting prediction assessment. They identified the following variables—in decreasing order—as predictive of fire setting:

  •  Younger age at the time of the first fire-setting behavior.
  • A higher total number of fire-setting offenses.
  • Lower IQ.
  • Additional criminal activities associated with the index (initial) fire.
  • An offender acting alone in setting the initial fire.
  • A lower offender’s aggression score. (Interestingly, offenders with higher aggression scores were more likely to be violent, but less likely to set fires.)

We focus first on fire setting here because fire-setting predictors illustrate a general violence-prediction principle. Past violence is a reasonably good predictor of future violence only with regard to specific past and future violence. For example, future fire-setting potential is best predicted by past fire-setting behavior. Similarly, future physical aggression is best predicted by past physical aggression. But a history of physical aggression is not a good predictor of fire setting.

Homicide Among Young Men. Loeber and associates (2005) conducted a large-scale landmark study of homicide among young men living in Pittsburgh. This study is notable because it was both prospective and comprehensive; the authors tracked 63 risk factor (predictor) variables in 1,517 inner-city youth. Obviously, even this large-scale study is limited in scope, and technically the results cannot be generalized beyond inner-city Pittsburgh youth. Nevertheless, the outcome data are interesting and lend insight into risk factors that might contribute to homicidal violence in other populations.
Results from the study indicated that violent offenders scored significantly higher than nonviolent offenders on 49 of 63 risk factors across domains associated with child, family, school, and demographic risk factors. The range and nature of these predictors were daunting. The authors reported:

. . . predictors included factors evident early in life, such as the mother’s cigarette or alcohol use during pregnancy, onset of delinquency prior to 10 years of age, physical aggression, cruelty, and callous/unemotional behavior. In addition, cognitive factors, such as having low expectations of being caught, predicted violence. Poor and unstable child-rearing factors contributed to the prediction of violence, including two or more caretaker changes prior to 10 years of age, physical punishment, poor supervision, and poor communication. Undesirable or delinquent peer behavior, based either on parent report or self-report, predicted violence. Poor school performance and truancy were also among the predictors of violence. Finally, demographic factors indicative of family disadvantage (low family SES, welfare, teenage motherhood) and residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood also predicted violence. Among the proximal correlates associated with violence were weapon carrying, weapon use, gang membership, drug selling, and persistent drug use. (p. 1084)

Homicidal violence was best predicted by a subset of general violence predictor variables. Specifically, homicide was predicted by “the presence or absence of nine significant risk factors:

• Screening risk score
• Positive attitude to substance use
• Conduct disorder
• Carrying a weapon
• Gang fight
• Selling hard drugs
• Peer delinquency
• Being held back in school
• Family on welfare (p. 1086).

In particular, boys who had at least four of these nine risk factors were 14 times more likely to have a future homicide conviction than violent offenders with a risk score less than four.

Violence and schizophrenia. In and of itself, a diagnosis of schizophrenia doesn’t confer increased violence risk. Instead, research indicates there are specific symptoms—when seen among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia—associated with increased risk. These symptoms include severe manifestations of:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Excitement
  • Thinking disturbances. (Fresán, Apiquian, & Nicolini, 2006)

This research suggests that clinicians should be especially concerned about violence when clients diagnosed with schizophrenia have acute increases in the intensity and frequency of their psychotic symptoms.

Research versus Practice

For a short guide to predicting violence, see a previous post: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/02/25/guidelines-for-violence-risk-assessment/



Doing an Internet Interview on IHeart Radio

Today I did an internet interview with Dr. Carlos Vazquez on his “Circle of Insight” show on IHeart Radio. A few minutes after we finished, I got an email from Dr. Carlos indicating it was posted and ready to hear. Wow. Technology is amazing and it’s especially amazing when it works.

Here’s the link to the interview. Check it out if you like. Or ignore it if you prefer.


The show is titled: A discussion about Psychological Theories and how to talk to parents so they Listen with Dr. Sommers-Flanagan

This is what I look like when I do radio interviews.


Women’s Cleavage and the Man’s Package in Professional Counseling and Psychotherapy

In 2013, for the first time in the history of counseling and psychotherapy textbook writing (at least our history), Rita and I included a section heading titled “Straight Talk about Cleavage” in the 5th edition of Clinical Interviewing. This section was inspired by comments posted on the Counselor Education and Supervision Listserv (aka CESNET). Now, we’re working on the revision for the 6th edition (affectionately referred to as CI6). For CI6 we solicited reactions from students, professional counselors, and professional psychologists. Not surprisingly, we received some fun, stimulating, and challenging responses.

For your reading pleasure, here’s the first draft of the revised section on cleavage. You’ll notice that it begins with a section on “Self-Presentation.” That’s because the cleavage and related content is a subsection of the self-presentation section.

This is a draft . . . and so please feel free to message me (or post) your comments and reactions. Thanks for reading.


You are your own primary instrument for a successful interview. Your appearance and the manner in which you present yourself to clients are important components of professional clinical interviewing.

Grooming and Attire
Choosing the right professional clothing can be difficult. Some students ignore the issue; others obsess about selecting just the right outfit. The question of how to dress may reflect a larger developmental issue: How seriously do you take yourself as a professional? Is it time to take off the ripped jeans, remove the nose ring, cover the tattoo, or lose the spike heels? Is it time to don the dreaded three-piece suit or carefully pressed skirt and come out to do battle with mature reality, as your parents may have suggested? Don’t worry. We recognize the preceding sentences are probably pushing your fashion-freedom buttons. We’re not really interested in telling you how you should dress or adorn your body. Our point is self-awareness. If you’re working in rural Texas your tattoo and nose ring will have a different effect than if you’re an intern in urban Chicago. Even if you ignore your physical self-presentation, your clients—and your supervisor—probably won’t.

We knew a student whose distinctive style included closely cropped, multicolored hair; large earrings; and an odd assortment of scarves, vests, sweaters, runner’s tights, and sandals. Imagine his effect on, say, a middle-aged dairy farmer referred to the clinic for depression, or a mother-son dyad having trouble with discipline, or the local mayor and his wife. No matter what effect you imagined, the point is that there’s likely to be an effect. Clothing, body art, and jewelry are not neutral; they’re intended to communicate, and they do (Human & Biesanz, 2012). An unusual fashion statement can be overcome, but it may use up time and energy better devoted to other issues (see Putting It in Practice 2.3). As a therapist your goals is to present yourself in a way that creates positive first impressions. This includes dress and grooming that foster rapport, trust, and credibility.

In one research study (albeit dated), Hubble and Gelso (1978) reported that clients experienced less anxiety and more positive feelings toward psychotherapists who were dressed in a manner that was slightly more formal than the client’s usual attire. The take home message from this research, along with common sense, is that it’s better to err slightly on the conservative side, at least until you’re certain that dressing more casually won’t have an adverse effect on your particular client population. As a professional colleague of ours tells her students, “A client should not walk away from your session thinking too much about what you wore” (S. Patrick, personal communication, June 27, 2015).

Straight Talk about Cleavage
Although we don’t have solid scientific data upon which to base this statement, our best guess is that most people on the planet don’t engage in open conversations about cleavage. Our goal in this section is to break that norm and to encourage you to break it along with us. To start, we should confess that the whole idea of us bringing up this topic (in writing or in person) makes us feel terribly old. But we hope this choice might reflect the wisdom and perspective that comes with aging.

In recent years we’ve noticed a greater tendency for female counseling and psychology students (especially younger females) to dress in ways that might be viewed as provocative. This includes, but is not limited to, low necklines that show considerable cleavage. Among other issues, cleavage and clothing were discussed in a series of postings on the Counselor Education and Supervision (CES) listserv in 2012. The CES discussion inspired many of the following statements that follow. Please read these bulleted statements and consider discussing them as an educational activity.

• Female (and male) students have the right to express themselves via how they dress and should be able to dress any way they want.
• Commenting on how women dress and making specific recommendations may be viewed as sexist.
• Agencies and institutions have some rights to establish dress codes regarding how their paid employees and volunteers dress.
• Despite egalitarian and feminist efforts to free women from the shackles of a patriarchal society, how women dress is still interpreted as having socially constructed messages that often, but not always, pertain to sex and sexuality.
• Although efforts to change socially constructed ideas about women dressing “sexy” can include activities like campus “slut-walks,” a counseling or psychotherapy session is probably not the venue for initiating a discourse on social and feminist change.
• For better or worse, most middle-school males and middle-aged men (and many “populations” in between) are likely to be distracted—and their ability to profit from a counseling experience may be compromised—if they have a close up view of their therapist’s breasts.
• At the very least, we think excessive cleavage (please don’t ask us to define this) is less likely to contribute to positive therapy outcomes and more likely to stimulate sexual fantasies—which we believe is probably contrary to the goals of most therapists.
• It may be useful to have young women watch themselves on video from the viewpoint of a client (of any sex or gender) and then discuss how to manage sexual attraction that might occur during therapy.

We don’t have perfect answers to the question of cleavage during a clinical interview. Guidelines depend, in part, on interview setting and specific client populations. At the very least, we recommend you think about this dimension of professional attire and hope you’ll openly discuss cleavage and related issues with fellow students, colleagues, and supervisors.

Minding the Body for Males
It’s inappropriate to stop our discussion about sexuality and sexual perceptions without addressing the other end of the sexuality and gender continuum. To start, we should emphasize that, to a large extent, our cautions about cleavage aren’t really about breasts; instead, these are comments about cultural messages pertaining to sex and sexuality and how clients are likely to perceive and react to seeing too much of certain portions of their therapist’s skin. Back in Freud’s day and setting, viewing women’s ankles was reportedly rather titillating. This observation begs the question: “Is it possible for individuals who identify as being on the male end of the sexual identity continuum to dress in ways that might be described as titillating?” When we tried to experiment with this in a group counseling class, mostly the feedback was that the males were being “gross” and “disgusting.”

Despite the fact that our students reacted negatively to the idea of males exposing their skin, we should note that throughout the history of time, therapists who engaged in inappropriate, unethical, and illegal sexual behavior with clients have been disproportionately male. This leads us to conclude that our cautions about females showing cleavage is at the least ironic and at most sexist. Consistent with feminist theory, when men sexualize a woman’s body, it shouldn’t be viewed as the woman’s fault.

These issues are obviously laden with cultural stereotypes, norms, and expectations. In an effort to balance our coverage (no pun intended) of this topic, we went online and asked professionals and colleagues to give us feedback about the “Straight Talk about Cleavage” section. A summary of this feedback is included below.

Feedback on Cleavage
A warning to male therapists: Male therapists need to watch their own flirtatious behavior. They might consult with a female therapist friend to check out anything that might be questionable. I know, most males don’t have cleavage issues, but they sometimes do make provocative comments, such as, “You know, you should take that lovely sexuality of yours and use it to your advantage.” I’m not making this up. Also, they might want to rein in, “You are so pretty. I’ll bet this gets the guys going.” I’m not making this up either. (J. Hocker, personal communication, June 27, 2015).

Extending the conversation to male therapists: I do think part of the unfairness in professional attire for women vs. men is that men’s work wear is simply “easier.” But a woman doesn’t have to dress like a man in order to be taken seriously as a professional. Curiously, I do find that the conversation regarding appearance needs to take place with men; for example, male students who want to wear flip flops, large jewelry, or “muscle” shirts. We also talk about whether or not to wear things that reveal tattoos, hair styles, and so on – so I think men are now as much a part of the conversation as women (S. Patrick, personal communication, June 27, 2015)

A Message from a Licensed School Counselor: I know professionals in counseling and teaching who exhibit poor hygiene, dress, and might toss some cleavage out from time to time. Students do notice, and it’s not cool. In my profession I want students to see me as casual, clean, and someone they’re drawn to for a good ear and safe space. I don’t want them to see cleavage ever. It’s a distraction. Cleavage is sexy and draws attention no matter what. I’m not drawn to women sexually but I’m super distracted by cleav! I can’t imagine how a person attracted to females would react! I find that when I’m not at work there are dates and social functions available that allow me to find my sexy self, but that self doesn’t fit into the school counseling profession. Yes, women should be able to wear what they want, but the reality is if you sport cleav you’ll receive notice by everyone and there’s a time and place to celebrate our cleav; work may not be the place. (M. Robbins, personal communication, June 30, 2015)

The Man’s “Package”: I noticed there’s no mention of a man’s “package” or the open seating posture many men use that gives quite a clear view of any crotch bulging that may be had. I think this deserves to be discussed as well, and not just as an afterthought – it is at least as important as cleavage to the imagination and distraction.

One thing that seems to go on in common discourse is an acceptance of the idea that men are more sexually focused than women. This is problematic on a couple fronts, I think. Although research shows some increased arousal for men from visual stimuli compared to visual stimuli for women BOTH men and women have been shown to be aroused by visual stimuli. BOTH women and men want sex for physical pleasure, not just as a relational tool. The difference is in degree to which these things are acknowledged by each sex, perhaps, but I haven’t seen compelling evidence that there’s actually a difference in the degree to which men and women can be sexually distracted by physical bodies. It’s neither then men’s nor women’s job, then, to “protect” clients from that distraction more than another (C. Yoshimura, personal communication).

Monitoring Flirtatious Behavior
Behavior standards for mental health professionals are high. This is partly true for being a professional of any type. However, mental health professional standards for dress and flirtation are higher than most other professions. If you think about the setting and process, the high standards make sense. Personal disclosures and conversations that happen during clinical interviews and other mental health-related encounters naturally involve non-sexual intimacy. It follows that deep emotional disclosures and exchanges between client and therapist might arouse feelings related to sexual intimacy in clients and/or therapists. It’s perfectly natural for non-sexual intimacy to sometimes trigger feelings of sexual intimacy . . . and so maintaining professional boundaries in this area is essential. All ethical codes that pertain to professional counselors, psychologists, and social workers prohibit sexual contact between therapist and client. The bottom line is that it’s your responsibility, as a mental health professional or student therapist, to closely monitor your attire and behavior to make certain you’re not directly or indirectly communicating flirtatiously with your clients.

What’s the Difference between the Clinical Interview and Full-On Counseling or Psychotherapy?

I know my obsession with all things clinical interviewing is abnormal. This means I already know that most humans on the planet will have no interest in my hashing out the details and differences between clinical interviewing and psychotherapy. So, why then do I persist on blogging about such things? Well, the answer is simple: Obsessions are thoughts and compulsions are behaviors. Therefore, obsessions and compulsions go together like beans and rice. And so, as George Bush senior might have said, “It wouldn’t be prudent to not follow my clinical interviewing obsessions with a clinical interviewing behavior or two.” Now that I think of it, I’m certain that’s exactly what GWB I would have said, had he been asked about this very important situation.

There is, of course, the other reason. I’m revising (along with Rita) our Clinical Interviewing text to put it into the 6th edition. While doing so I have intermittent inspirations to post some of the new material we’re adding here and there. I think to myself . . . “this is the 6th edition of one of the most profound and exciting textbooks of all time and so I’m sure there might be 6 people out there who are interested in reading about what we’re writing.” Then again, as most of us know from either psychological research or common sense, it’s super-easy for me to fool myself into thinking other people are interested in whatever I’m interested in.

Now, having sufficiently fooled or rationalized or intellectualized or inspired myself . . . I present you with our latest thinking on clinical interviewing vs. counseling and psychotherapy.

Clinical interviewing vs. Counseling and Psychotherapy

Students often ask: “What’s the difference between a clinical interview and counseling or psychotherapy?” This is an excellent question and although it’s tempting to answer flatly, “There’s no difference whatsoever” the question deserves a more nuanced response.

The clinical interview is a remarkably flexible and ubiquitous interpersonal process. It’s designed to simultaneously initiate a therapeutic relationship, gather assessment information, and begin therapy. As such, it’s the entry point for clients (or patients) seeking mental health treatment, case management, or any form of counseling. Depending on setting, clinician discipline, theoretical orientation, and other factors, the clinical interview is also commonly known as the intake interview, the initial interview, the psychiatric interview, the diagnostic interview, the first contact or meeting, or any one of a number of other idiosyncratic and theoretically-driven names (Sommers-Flanagan, 2016, in press).

Although it includes therapeutic dimensions, the clinical interview is viewed primarily as an assessment procedure. This is one reason why clinical interviewing is typically included within the assessment portion of course curricula in counseling, psychology, psychiatry, psychiatric nursing, and social work. However, beginning with Constance Fischer’s work on Individualized Psychological Assessment and continuing with Stephen Finn’s articulation and development of therapeutic assessment, it’s also clear that, when done well, clinical assessment is or can be simultaneously therapeutic.

To make matters more complex, every attitude, technique, and strategy described in this text are also the attitudes, techniques, and strategies used in counseling and psychotherapy. Examples (along with their theoretical orientations) range from projective questions (psychoanalytic), therapeutic questions (solution-focused therapy), unconditional positive regard (person-centered), to psychoeducation (cognitive behavior therapy). Even further, some theoretical orientations ignore or de-emphasize assessment to such an extent that the traditional initial clinical assessment interview is transformed completely into an intervention (think solution-focused or narrative). In other cases, the clinical setting or client problem require that single therapy sessions involve an entire course of counseling or psychotherapy. For example,

“. . . in a crisis situation, a mental health professional might conduct a clinical interview designed to quickly establish . . . an alliance, gather assessment data, formulate and discuss an initial treatment plan, and implement an intervention or make a referral.” (Sommers-Flanagan et al., 2015, p. 2)

From this perspective, not only is the clinical interview always the starting point for counseling, psychotherapy, and case management, it also may be the end-point. This is partly because many clients stop treatment after only one therapy session.

There may be other situations where an ordinary therapy session (if there is such a thing) can suddenly transform into a clinical assessment interview. The most common example of this involves suicide assessment interviewing (see Chapter 10). If and when clients begin talking about suicide ideation or exhibiting other suicide risk factors, the usual and customary standard of practice for all mental health and healthcare professionals is to smoothly shift the clinical focus from whatever was happening to a state-of-the-art suicide assessment.

All this leads us to the stunning conclusion: Everything that happens in a full course of counseling or psychotherapy may also occur within the context of a single clinical interview—and vice versa. Although it’s usually the starting point of counseling and psychotherapy, parts of a traditional clinical interview also occur during counseling and psychotherapy, regardless of theoretical orientation. The entire range of attitudes, techniques, and strategies you learn from this text constitute the foundation of skills you’ll need for conducting more advanced and theoretically specific counseling or psychotherapy.

R and J in Field

Opportunities for Graduate Students and Professors as We Revise Our Clinical Interviewing Textbook

Revising textbooks is a joy and a burden. When I’m first forced to face the revision process, I feel unfairly burdened. I think things like, “I thought we wrote a perfect book that would last forever. How could anyone think it needs revision?” To say that I lack the necessary enthusiasm is an understatement. I lack any enthusiasm.

However, once I dive back into the text, it’s like visiting an old friend. And in this case, the good news is that it’s like visiting an old friend whom I like very much.

Rita and I started working on the first edition of Clinical Interviewing way back in 1990. Yep. It’s a very old friend.

During the next 6-8 months, we’ll be working on the 6th edition revision. If you’re a graduate student or faculty in Counselor Education, Psychology, or Social Work, we’re looking for your help. But, as before, we really only want your help if it will be meaningful to you. If you think that might be the case, read on:

You’re invited to help in one of four ways:

1. You can choose one or more of the chapters from the fifth edition, read it (them), and offer feedback and advice on changes you think would improve the text. We can take up to three reviewers for each chapter, but more than that will overwhelm us.

2. You can provide us with feedback and recommendations for DVD content that will help in the teaching and learning of basic and advanced counseling and interviewing assessment skills. This is very important because having excellent video content facilitates learning and is one of our big goals.

3. You can provide expert analysis of specific literature related to basic counseling skills and/or advanced interviewing assessment strategies. For example, if you’re on the cutting edge of administering mental status exams (or want to be), we can work together to read and select new literature that will help us update that chapter.

4. You can develop and write up specific classroom activities that help students learn basic and more advanced interviewing skills. If your contribution in this area is original, we’ll work with you to organize your learning activity so that it can be included as a short publication in our electronic instructor’s manual.

5. If you’re an expert in a particular area and want to send us citations of your published work, we’ll review your work and consider including those citations in the 6th edition, as appropriate.

If any of these opportunities sound good to you, or, if you have other ideas, questions, or comments about our revision process, please email me directly at: john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

Thanks for considering these opportunities to contribute to the Clinical Interviewing 6th edition!

Sincerely yours,

John SF

P.S.: In case you don’t know much about this text and the accompanying DVD, here’s what a couple reviewers said:

“A superb synthesis and presentation of the key concepts any beginning student absolutely needs to know about clinical interviewing. John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan make an eloquent case that connecting with the client on a human level is the superordinate task, without which little else of value can be achieved. Replete with relevant clinical examples, helpful how-to hints, as well as pearls of clinical wisdom, this comprehensive yet accessible text is highly recommended.”—Victor Yalom, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Psychotherapy.net

About the DVD:
“Indispensable interviewing skills imparted by two master teachers in an engaging, multimedia presentation. Following the maxim of ‘show and tell,’ the Sommers-Flanagans provide evidence-based, culture-sensitive relational skills tailored to individual clients. An instructional gem!”
John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of Scranton; Editor, Psychotherapy Relationships That Work

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.


Nice Review

Victor Yalom of Psychotherapy.net recently emailed us a copy of a review of our Clinical Interviewing DVD. This is a wonderful review from someone we’ve never met . . . but we think we’d like him. He’s a professor at Western Illinois University.
Here’s an abstract of the review.
Interviewing with humanity intact.
By Knight, Tracy A.
PsycCRITIQUES, Vol 60(9), 2015, No Pagination Specified.
Reviews the video, Clinical Interviewing: Intake, Assessment & Therapeutic Alliance by John Sommers-Flanagan and Rita Sommers-Flanagan (2014). This video blends the procedural with the human in a way that will enhance and deepen the training of mental health professionals. Beyond describing the most valuable guidelines of clinical interviewing, John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan provide multiple illustrative interviews with clearly nonscripted participants. Most importantly, the Sommers-Flanagans discuss both the information as well as the interviews, displaying both their depth of knowledge and perhaps the most important attributes of gifted clinicians: humility and curiosity. They not only provide a map, therefore, but also fully display and describe the landscape that interviewers and their clients traverse. The DVD includes seven distinct areas of focus, each one building on the previous. Initially, the authors succinctly describe basic listening skills, including both nondirective and directive approaches. Their definitions are clear and evocative, and during the sample interviews, the distinct attributes of the therapist’s actions are listed for viewers. This sets the stage for the authors’ subsequent discussion, during which they explore the dynamics of the sample interview and lucidly discuss important human factors. The reviewer concludes this video offers both knowledge and wisdom, providing students and trainees with an approach to clinical interviewing that makes the process more efficient, while always respecting the beating heart of humanity that rests within it. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved)