Thursday, March 1, 2012

Counterwill - Why did I never see it this way before?

I have been taking a course on Promoting Flexible Thinking, led by an OT trained in RDI (Relationship Development Intervention). I'm not sure how much her RDI training is reflected in the course content, but she definitely has a different way of viewing things, which has been eye-opening, and given me a lot to think about.

This past session, she talked a lot about how we communicate with each other, and she raised a couple of ideas that have left me thinking, and experimenting at home. She brought up the topic of counterwill, and also discussed the use of directives.

Counterwill is a concept that Dr. Gordon Neufeld (co-author of Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers) talks about a lot. Basically, counterwill is what happens when you perceive that someone is trying to coerce you into doing something. You automatically want to say "No". It is a natural instinct that happens in both children and adults, and it happens more in some people than others.

It is actually a good thing. You do not want your child to hop into a stranger's car when asked. You do not want to be saying yes to every telemarketer that calls. It is a protective response, and it also helps children develop individuality.

However, it also has a negative side. People who demonstrate a lot of counterwill are labelled "resistant", "non-compliant", "difficult", "oppositional", "inflexible" and many other negative terms.

According to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, it is related to feelings of attachment that a child has to the person who is asking him to do something. If the child is feeling really attached, he is more likely to do as asked. However, if the child is distracted by his toys, or is not feeling close to the parent, he is more likely to experience counterwill. In this way, we are designed to follow the lead of those close to us, but not of unfamiliar people.

This is where a whole bunch of lightbulbs started going on for me. Wow - I can think of many situations, both personal and professional, where this applies.

My son has a strong sense of counterwill. I have never worried about a stranger taking him - I think the stranger would get the worst of it. The attachment part of it explains why he is much more willing to do as asked at home (with parents he is attached to) than at school.

It also explains why a loving approach seems to work best with him. If you think of it, harsh words, time outs, and removal of toys all interfere with the attachment bond. I always found it counterintuitive that the tougher we were with him, the worse his behaviour became. In the context of counterwill, it makes perfect sense.

Counterwill also explains why so many people with psychiatric disabilities resist when they are told they have to take medications. I have seen that psychiatrists who develop a close rapport with their patients and who work collaboratively seem to have more patients follow through with taking their medication than those psychiatrists who have the approach that patients should take the medication because they are told to.

I once worked with a client who sometimes had difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. One of the most helpful strategies that we used was that each week, I would help her make a list of things to do, and then identify the most important ones. I had a great rapport with her. She was the one making the list, with me only assisting her. I helped her prioritize by pointing out which items related to her overall goals. Ultimately, she had complete control over the list.

Unfortunately, I had to discharge her (due to time limits of our program). Upon discharge, I ensured there was another worker taking over the role of helping her make the lists. A few months later, she returned to our program. The list-making was a disaster. The other worker found she was "non-compliant"; she found the worker "controlling", and the lists had become a torture instrument for her.

The difference was in the approach. I was assisting her to do it for herself, while the other worker was doing most of it for her. I had a good rapport with her (attachment), whereas she did not trust the other worker. Counterwill was alive and well.

What can we do about counterwill? We can make the effort to connect with a person before we ask her to do something. This means going over to your child and attracting her attention in a positive way prior to asking her to get dressed (or anything else), instead of yelling from across the house. We can take the time to connect with a client before we assign homework. It reminds me of my other post, The Healing Power of the Genuine Relationship.

We can give opportunity for choice whenever possible. For example, "Do you want to wear the red shirt or blue shirt?" and "Do you want to work on budgeting or menu planning today?"

What the OT leading the session talked a lot about was to practice avoiding the use of directives as much as possible. Directive communication is any statement, question, or gesture that we use to "get" a specific response from our partner. It can be a question or an instruction.

Apparently in typical communications, directives are used 20% of the time, and sharing experiences are used 80% of the time. If you think of your interactions with your children or your clients, do they reflect that? Mine don't. Not yet anyway.

The OT recommended trying sharing experiences rather than directives. This is leading by example. For example, instead of asking your child about his day (a question demanding an answer), share something about your day and give your child the opportunity to reciprocate.

She recommended sharing your thinking about what you are doing and why (e.g. I am so happy to see Grandma. I am going to go say Hi.). She also suggested that it can be helpful to preface your statements with "I wonder", or "I see" or "I think".

So, I gave it a try. I'm not very good at it, but I'm working on it, and it seems to be helping. Yesterday I did not prompt my daughter over and over to get ready in the morning. Instead I said things like, "Looks like lots of kids are heading to to school now", and I basically just stayed quiet. She was late. However, today I also did not prompt her over and over (I could not resist once or twice), and she was on time.

Here is the link for Dr. Gordon Neufeld's book:


  1. Thank, you Linda. A terrific article, which I have shared with my school-based OT team and teachers. It's easy to forget these principles, especially given time constraints in today's world, and become excessively directive in the classroom and in therapy.

  2. Well written. Are you part of the ever growing group of parents/teachers/professionals who receive the Neufeld Institute newsletter in Winnipeg? We have an active chapter here too and regularly offer courses and presentations to the public.



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