Teaching Someone to ‘Fish’

An old adage says: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, how does this idea relate to clinicians in a therapeutic setting?

Well, when we, as clinicians, consider how to work with clients, we have plenty of therapeutic models and approaches to draw upon. Many of us may align with one or two models, using what could be described as a ‘purist’ approach. Others (myself included) adopt a hybrid approach, which flexibly combines several modalities. Whatever way you operate, be sure to choose your approach or model while keeping in mind the human being sitting across from you. No matter what challenge a client brings into therapy, holding the perspective that human beings are inclined to thrive is a helpful lens to acquire.

People are resilient and often need only a nudge to get themselves back on track. As clinicians, one of the best ways we can provide that nudge and help our clients is to recognize that we don’t need to “have all the answers.” We don’t need to give them all the ‘fish.’ Instead, we can hold a broader perspective that empowers our clients to catch their own fish — access their own agency, make their own connections, and find their own answers. Our role is to teach them how to fish.

So, what does that mean?

Remember, people are resilient. Resiliency is baked into us and can show itself in some surprising ways. Protective strategies and patterns — such as wanting one thing but doing another, negatively interpreting others’ intentions, struggling against what ‘is’, and participating in most addictive behaviors — are our efforts to adjust to something we don’t like or something that’s painful. In truth, these are all examples of resiliency, however misguided they may end up being. We can interrupt this ineffective pattern by exploring and, thereby, recognizing how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world.

What’s missing in these attempts at self-protection? Primarily, the awareness of how they’re not truly working.

Why is such awareness important?

Because, once we see what we’re doing — heading in the opposite direction from what we say we want or trying to protect ourselves when we don’t really need to — we can take a step back and say to ourselves, “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” With just that small breath or space of time, we can gain clarity about the situation and realize what’s not working for us. That space gives us the chance to regain our personal agency. And that means we can make a change. We can do the thing we need to do, the thing that will actually work.

Something relaxes inside of me, even as I write this, when I consider both myself and my clients from this perspective: that we are mostly doing the best we can. As the great poet Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” When we’re curious to learn how we currently relate to the thing that’s bothering us (what’s causing us further suffering or discomfort), we begin to restore our agency over our experience of it. With that mindset, we also find new territory available, which means more possibility, more opportunity. In contrast, fewer options are available to us if we’re attached to having the other person or external circumstance change, because they/it may or may not.

‘Teaching someone to fish’ is about not working so hard to come up with answers for them or even to view what they want for themselves in service of adopting new behaviors. Rather ‘teaching someone to fish’ means assisting them in learning how they relate to themselves and their circumstances as they exist in their current form and then allowing the person to decide what changes, if any, they’ll make.

We can help our clients understand why they don’t already have what they say they want and how they can make changes that will help them get it. By learning to make their own decisions and take their own actions, they can own the ‘fish’ they catch and can continue to improve their ‘fishing’ skills. The outcome? Everyone maintains appropriate responsibility for individual actions and grows in personal agency and resilience.