The following is a preview from a chapter I wrote with my colleagues Roni Johnson and Maegan Rides At The Door. The full chapter will be in the Cambridge Handbook of Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis . . . which is coming out soon.
The clinical interview is a fundamental assessment and intervention procedure that mental and behavioral health professionals learn and apply throughout their careers. Psychotherapists across all theoretical orientations, professional disciplines, and treatment settings employ different interviewing skills, including, but not limited to, nondirective listening, questioning, confrontation, interpretation, immediacy, and psychoeducation. As a process, the clinical interview functions as an assessment (e.g., neuropsychological or forensic examinations) or signals the initiation of counseling or psychotherapy. Either way, clinical interviewing involves formal or informal assessment.
Clinical interviewing is dynamic and flexible; every interview is a unique interpersonal interaction, with interviewers integrating cultural awareness, knowledge, and skills, as needed. It is difficult to imagine how clinicians could begin treatment without an initial clinical interview. In fact, clinicians who do not have competence in using clinical interviewing as a means to initiate and inform treatment would likely be considered unethical (Welfel, 2016).
Clinical interviewing has been defined as
“a complex and multidimensional interpersonal process that occurs between a professional service provider and client [or patient]. The primary goals are (1) assessment and (2) helping. To achieve these goals, individual clinicians may emphasize structured diagnostic questioning, spontaneous and collaborative talking and listening, or both. Clinicians use information obtained in an initial clinical interview to develop a [therapeutic relationship], case formulation, and treatment plan” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017, p. 6)
A Generic Clinical Interviewing Model
All clinical interviews follow a common process or outline. Shea (1998) offered a generic or atheoretical model, including five stages: (1) introduction, (2) opening, (3) body, (4) closing, and (5) termination. Each stage includes specific relational and technical tasks.
The introduction stage begins at first contact. An introduction can occur via telephone, online, or when prospective clients read information about their therapist (e.g., online descriptions, informed consents, etc.). Client expectations, role induction, first impressions, and initial rapport-building are central issues and activities.
First impressions, whether developed through informed consent paperwork or initial greetings, can exert powerful influences on interview process and clinical outcomes. Mental health professionals who engage clients in ways that are respectful and culturally sensitive are likely to facilitate trust and collaboration, consequently resulting in more reliable and valid assessment data (Ganzini et al., 2013). Technical strategies include authentic opening statements that invite collaboration. For example, the clinician might say something like, “I’m looking forward to getting to know you better” and “I hope you’ll feel comfortable asking me whatever questions you like as we talk together today.” Using friendliness and small talk can be especially important to connecting with diverse clients (Hays, 2016; Sue & Sue, 2016). The introduction stage also includes discussions of (1) confidentiality, (2) therapist theoretical orientation, and (3) role induction (e.g., “Today I’ll be doing a diagnostic interview with you. That means I’ll be asking lots of questions. My goal is to better understand what’s been troubling you.”). The introduction ends when clinicians shift from paperwork and small talk to a focused inquiry into the client’s problems or goals.
The opening provides an initial focus. Most mental health practitioners begin clinical assessments by asking something like, “What concerns bring you to counseling today?” This question guides clients toward describing their presenting problem (i.e., psychiatrists refer to this as the “chief complaint”). Clinicians should be aware that opening with questions that are more social (e.g., “How are you today?” or “How was your week?”) prompt clients in ways that can unintentionally facilitate a less focused and more rambling opening stage. Similarly, beginning with direct questioning before establishing rapport and trust can elicit defensiveness and dissembling (Shea, 1998).
Many contemporary therapists prefer opening statements or questions with positive wording. For example, rather than asking about problems, therapists might ask, “What are your goals for our meeting today?” For clients with a diverse or minority identity, cultural adaptations may be needed to increase client comfort and make certain that opening questions are culturally appropriate and relevant. When focusing on diagnostic assessment and using a structured or semi-structured interview protocol, the formal opening statement may be scripted or geared toward obtaining an overview of potential psychiatric symptoms (e.g., “Does anyone in your family have a history of mental health problems?”; Tolin et al., 2018, p. 3).
The interview purpose governs what happens during the body stage. If the purpose is to collect information pertaining to psychiatric diagnosis, the body includes diagnostic-focused questions. In contrast, if the purpose is to initiate psychotherapy, the focus could quickly turn toward the history of the problem and what specific behaviors, people, and experiences (including previous therapy) clients have found more or less helpful.
When the interview purpose is assessment, the body stage focuses on information gathering. Clinicians actively question clients about distressing symptoms, including their frequency, duration, intensity, and quality. During structured interviews, specific question protocols are followed. These protocols are designed to help clinicians stay focused and systematically collect reliable and valid assessment data.
As the interview progresses, it is the clinician’s responsibility to organize and close the session in ways that assure there is adequate time to accomplish the primary interview goals. Tasks and activities linked to the closing include (1) providing support and reassurance for clients, (2) returning to role induction and client expectations, (3) summarizing crucial themes and issues, (4) providing an early case formulation or mental disorder diagnosis, (5) instilling hope, and, as needed, (6) focusing on future homework, future sessions, and scheduling (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2017).
Termination involves ending the session and parting ways. The termination stage requires excellent time management skills; it also requires intentional sensitivity and responsiveness to how clients might react to endings in general or leaving the therapy office in particular. Dealing with termination can be challenging. Often, at the end of an initial session, clinicians will not have enough information to establish a diagnosis. When diagnostic uncertainty exists, clinicians may need to continue gathering information about client symptoms during a second or third session. Including collateral informants to triangulate diagnostic information may be useful or necessary.
See the 6th edition of Clinical Interviewing for MUCH more on this topic: https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1119215587/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1J46F6YFDV7XG&keywords=clinical+interviewing+6th+edition+sommers-flanagan&qid=1561646075&s=books&sprefix=clinical+inter%2Cstripbooks%2C242&sr=1-1