Creating Flow in Your IFS Session

By Mary DuParri, MA, LPC, “Finding Your Way” Topic Expert Contributor

Newer IFS therapists sometimes become discouraged because the remarkable demonstrations and deeper work experienced in training triads does not occur as frequently in their sessions with clients. It can can feel as though we are doing something wrong if we are unable to get into that Self-led flow that we would like.

So, what is the difference between what we did in triads and what we are doing now in our own office? When not in flow, we have to look two places to see where parts may be getting in the way of the process. One is inside our own system. What is going on that our parts are not allowing us to be in Self at this moment, and what can we do to address this?

Sometimes we are working too hard. We may have thinking parts that are trying to figure out what to say next. Good intentioned as they are, they may interfere with the Self-to-Self relating between the client and us. When that quality of relating is not present, we do not have flow. Therefore, noticing and working with our own parts, including asking them to step aside in session, can help. I often spend a few seconds before I go to greet my client and ask my parts to help me be present with the person I am about to see.

The other place to look when flow is not happening is inside our client’s system. What is going on with him or her that this Self-to-part relationship is not happening, and what can I do to facilitate greater Self-leadership? This is where the questions we learned in the first days of training are so important.

How do you feel toward that part?
What does it want you to know?

These questions often seem to work like magic because they invite the basic ingredient for healing: the relationship between the client’s Self and a part. When the flow is not flowing, it is often because that relationship is not established or is not trusted. Our job, then, is to facilitate an improved relationship by asking the two questions and helping the client’s part to feel genuinely understood. I appreciate that the questions are so simple to remember that they usually do not trigger a thinking part. In fact, in my early IFS days, the simplicity of the IFS questions could trigger my concerns that the client thought I had only a ten-sentence repertoire for therapy. However, asking those parts to step aside was easy because they quickly saw how well the questions worked.

When we consistently remember that our job is to guide the client toward an improved relationship with his or her parts, our work becomes easier. We can ask ourselves, “Is what I’m doing now adding or detracting from the client’s relationship with the part?” When we add to the client’s words, we are often detracting. Instead, we can simply reflect what we heard and introduce a way to be with the part that is often new to the client.

Therapist: “So this part is always trying to figure out what is expected of it, right?”
Client: “Yes.”
Therapist: “Let it know you get that.”

Remembering that this last piece—directing the client to let the part know it is understood—is crucial to creating flow. Because we have just heard about the burden that the part carries, we might want to begin exploring right away how the part took on its role. That is the right path to take, but not until we have enhanced the connection with the part. Sometimes we do that by saying the above words. At other times, we invite the client to just be with the part, and we sit in silence, holding the space for that Self-to-part relationship. We get into flow when the Self of the client can see and be with the part and when the part can see and be with Self. We also get into flow when our Self can see and be with the client and the client’s parts.

Once we sense that the Self-to-part relationship is present, we ask the next question: “What is the part afraid will happen if it stops doing that?” When in flow, a sudden awareness often shows up for the client. The client might be surprised by the answer and say: “This sounds weird (or this doesn’t make any sense), but the part says if it stops…” And there it is—the flow of being inside with the client’s system. From there, we move to exiles and unburdenings, but those only happen if we have created the Self-to-part relationships and remain in flow.

I welcome questions and comments on this and future topics you would like to see in the next Finding Your Way column.

4 Responses to “Creating Flow in Your IFS Session”

  1. Laurie Ferreri, LPC says:

    Thanks for the suggestion to ready yourself for a counseling session with a client by asking your parts to step aside with their own issues and be present for the client. Very good advice. Some clients have the habit to launch into a story from the beginning when I just sat down with them. I find it hard to pay attention because it seems that the we should have started with a few minutes of small talk. I will try to get my manager to step back ahead of time, and also maybe ask the client to take a breath first so she/he is more in Self.

    • Mary DuParri says:

      It is great to create a moment for both you and the client to take a few breaths together and become present to the work ahead. When the client leads off right away with issues from the week, we can acknowledge that they have a lot going on, and then ask them to take just a moment with us so we can both get centered and from there decide which of the week’s issues to focus on.

  2. Eileen says:

    I think that it’s quite fascinating how much can come out of such seemingly simple questions in IFS. But I also know that sometimes one’s protectors can manifest in really skeptical and cynical ways, or not be trusting enough to answer questions about what their fears are. I wonder if you have suggestions about how to build that trust in ways that give the protectors something to grab hold of, without compromising the framework in which the client’s Self and parts are directing the conversation.

    I also really appreciated your comment about how you used to worry sometimes that the client would think you had only a ten-sentence repertoire for therapy. But as a serious follow-up to that, I could see a critical manager being worried of exactly that, or perhaps being worried that if those ten sentences weren’t helping, that maybe the therapy just wasn’t going to be effective for her in the way that ‘it must be for everyone else.’ Is there a way to help alleviate these doubts and concerns?

  3. Mary DuParri says:

    Yes, protectors can be skeptical and cynical, not feeling safe enough to talk about what their fears are. So, especially in the beginning, we confirm that there is not much reason yet for a part to trust in us or in the IFS process. We encourage the client to notice and appreciate how well the part is looking out for them by being cautious. It does not compromise the framework to use direct access if the client appears unable to be in relationship with the part. These managers are wise caretakers of the client’s system, and they can understandably view our probing as unsafe. I sometimes acknowledge to the client that I have been asking a lot of questions up to this point and ask whether they have any questions for me. This sometimes invites the skeptical parts to speak their concerns.

    The “something to grab onto” could be introduced as the big IF. As you ask the part, “If we could help the part so that it did not keep erupting in anger (for example), would you like that?” The part usually says yes, but emphasizes that the IF seems impossible. We do not need to convince the part that IFS will work; we just need to see if it will give us a little space. Some parts step aside only slightly and watch from the sidelines with all their skepticism on board, but that works. Inviting the client’s manager that has fears about effectiveness to name what it’s concerns are has a high likelihood of getting us right into the work.

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