Note-taking in sessions?

Counselors have vastly differing styles of counseling. Some choose to be directive, others are remain passive even when the client wants them to give advice. We are different because of our varying theories and personalities. But I always assumed that most counselors do not take notes during sessions unless needing to record very specific details (say taking a family genogram or collecting details for a psychological report). But after having conversations in several different locations I learn that many write during the session. They write down key client phrases and other things that they wish to come back to and explore at a later date.

I’m curious about your experiences–either as a counselor or counselee. Was there note-taking going on during the session and was it helpful (for both)? Did it cause problems?

I don’t take notes in session so that I can stay engaged in good dialogue with my clientele. I don’t want to miss subtle details and I don’t want to break up the work by taking a note. It seems to me that if I take a note during the session, the client waits for me to do so and then they move out of an experience to only describing an experience–and so distance themselves from their feelings and thus any insight or intervention is also distant.

What do you think?


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills

11 responses to “Note-taking in sessions?

  1. As a teen in counseling, when my counselor took notes, it bothered me. I was already a suspicious teen who thought my counselor was against me and on the side of my parents. Another counselor sat behind his huge desk, which was another big distraction. I felt like he was the king and I a mere peasant.

    However, after working with an excellent counselor who doesn’t take notes until after the session, I have felt myself more comfortable and at ease.

    When I worked as a therapist, I did a lot of intakes (which I loved), so it was part of the job to take notes. Of course, I could most of those diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia were leery of that. The use of treatment plans eliminates the need for a lot of note-taking as long as one mentally considers the goals in mind in each session. Treatment plans are great because they put counselor and counselee on the same page.

    I suppose it also depends on one ability to recall details and facts of a person’s life. Having been trained in journalism in undergrad, one learns to pay attention to facts and details. Thinking back on it, I took notes during the session more out of my own insecurity as a counselor.

  2. Have been in both situations and I’m not sure which I prefer. My former counselor, since retired, took notes during our initial 3 or 4 sessions, but after that I do not recall him ever writting anything down. He had me write things down for my on benefit, but even that was very occassional.

    My present counselor does take notes. I’m not sure if that is because we are still in what I would call the initial stages (first six sessions), or if that is her standard practice. I do find it distracting at times when she is looking through notes to keep family relationships correct, refering to past histories, or jotting something down. My distraction is probably more from our being on a learning curve while I adjust myself to a new counselor and her counselinging style, and she adjusts her style to my needs.

    At the moment, I think I’d prefer that the counselor not take notes during the session.

  3. Karen

    When I have been a counselee I am usually the one taking notes! I don’t have that great a memory and I go back over the things that are said during the week so I get them in my mind. I don’t think it hurts to slow things down so both people are being thoughtful about the conversation. I know my counselor is seeing several people in a row and I don’t want them to forget my details either- I need their help to work on my issues. I like it when they are taking notes. Perhaps I am an unusual counselee! ?

  4. eclexia

    When I was in counseling where the counselor took notes, I found that they were much better at remembering specific details, the family relationships, the specifics of what I said. They got the details so correct that I much more frequently felt like they missed my heart. I felt much more analyzed, and in the end, much more missed, by that style of counseling.

    I have been in two other counseling situations and one intensive mentoring relationship, where notes were not ever taken. In all three of those, I felt like, even when specific details were forgotten, or when I had to repeat myself, that my heart was heard below the words.

    Granted there were many factors that went into that: I am very emotional and have a strong emotional memory. I am also introverted, although I use a lot of words when I talk. I am a MBTI “S” which means that I think with a lot of details. And if you listen to every single one of those details and try to interact with it intensely, all you will have at the end is a long list of details. If you try to then connect those details in a dot-to-dot way, you will probably not end up hearing me accurately (or I at least won’t feel heard).

    When counselors take notes, I feel that they are trying to get all the details right. But I think it is harder to do that and really get such an accurate total feel for the person and not just for their words.

    Also, I understand that counselors want to maximize efficiency and not spend time having to ask a client to repeat or even to have to admit that they’ve forgotten a specific detail. For me, personally, though, I don’t remind repeating it. It’s part of what keeps the counselor human and real to me.

    I’ve known people to be offended when a counselor forgets a specific detail, but, even then, I think that’s more an interpersonal dynamic that could be worked on together (making space for the counselor to be human; making space for the client to feel whatever) rather than needing to be a reason for a counselor to have to take notes.

    I wonder if a lot of it has to do with the paradigm that counseling is seen from. Is it clinical, like visiting a doctor? Or relational? Or is the counseling session a reporting, to be analyzed and profound conclusions drawn from that “report”? I was thinking of other paradigms of conversation when notetaking is not unnerving to me. The situations that came to mind are doctor visits, interviews and tutoring/teaching/training sessions. If a counselor were going to take notes, perhaps thinking about it from a different paradigm than a counseling relationship would make it a little easier for me. I don’t know for sure. There’s something about it still being a relationship that makes me prefer the give and take and possibility of something I say being forgotten or having to be repeated, to the distance that I feel when someone is taking notes when I talk.

    One exception I just thought of–in my mentoring relationship, sometimes she would draw/chart out on paper what I was talking about and ask me if that were really what I was saying. Sometimes that helped ME to organize and bring together the scattered and many pieces that were connected inside of me, but which I couldn’t articulate clearly. That felt very different from her taking actual notes.

    • Lynn

      I am a counselor who is aware of the distraction that note taking can be. I still take some notes, but it is minimal during session. I am working on it and would like to get to the point that I only take notes after the session has ended. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and agree completely. I actually printed a copy to have on hand to remind me of the important points you make. Thanks!

  5. Scott Knapp, MS

    In my training as a biblical counselor at PBU, we were encouraged to try to not take notes, unless germane to the conversation (testing, info gathering for intake, etc.). When I got CT training from Aaron Beck, I discovered that Beckians keep reams of blank paper at their table-side for easy access! Beckian CT therapists not only take copious notes, they encourage the counselee to take notes and keep them in a therapy notebook, which they are to bring to each session. I rarely take notes any more, but I’m presently working with kids…I’m not sure I’ll be doing any more note taking when I finally expand into private practice, either. I tend to have a fairly good recollection of session content, and can regurgitate it back into my clinical notes with good recall. I guess if I could take notes so subtly that it didn’t trip me up when I’m in session, it’d be OK…I simply haven’t needed to take notes yet.

  6. I try to take notes but only when client breaks off eye contact, or I try to write brief words or short phrases while maintaining eye contact. I don’t take as many notes during couples counseling.

  7. I take notes during sessions… and train my interns and post-grad supervisees to do the same. For me, the risk of putting note taking off ’til the end of the session – which then becomes I’ll make four entries at lunch, and then I’ll do all my entries at the end of the day – is too great. I definitely have a need to “do it now or it won’t get done”.

    I find most of my clients don’t know what to expect from therapy; if someone has never been in therapy before it is up to the therapist to help them understand what to expect. I’m not aware of my note taking being a problem for any of my clients.

  8. Bowden, putting off note-taking is a huge problem. I once knew a case manager in a cmhc that had to do 2 weeks of note writing to finish her files before she resigned (all without pay)!

    But doing notes after each session should suffice.

  9. I’ve been a counselee. Note taking never bothered me. Whatever works for the counselor I guess.

    I don’t know enough about what counselors do outside of the session regarding my case to know what they do with the notes or what they’d do if they didn’t take notes.

    Does it depend how good their memory is. I’d rather they take notes and review them before the next session than having to re-explain something.

  10. Joan

    I have been in both worlds one in which the counsellors takes notes and one in which none was taken i must say i found it rather annoying when every week i would be asked the same questions i dont know if this was because no notes was taken , yet i do find taking notes distractacting in that it breaks the intensity of what is being expressed.

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