What we say and how we say it can tell someone quite a bit about our character. We counselors earn our keep with words. And yet, it is our words that may do the most harm to others. As a result, I encourage us to take stock of our words. What do they reveal about us? Oh, and don’t just consider the words you use in a session. How you talk to a colleague, about a colleague, to another professional may reveal your character more than you think. Consider the following communication issues:
1. Client put-downs. In agencies where counselors share clients with other professionals (e.g., psychiatrists, social workers, community workers, etc.), it is common for conversation to descend into put-downs. No doubt these professionals care about their clients. But if they are frustrated with the client, does it result in blaming the client? Making fun of their idiosyncracies? “He’s such a narcissist; She’s so Borderline”. These kind of comments reveal more about the speaker than the one spoken about.
2. Professional Lingo. Every guild has its lingo. Read a psychiatric or psychological evaluation and you will likely come across a number of words that only make sense if you are on the inside. The client probably wouldn’t really know what is being said about them with translation help. What do your progress notes communicate? Who are you writing for? How might our lingo hinder our work. I highly suggest that use the client as a standard to evaluate all our written communications. If the client couldn’t understand or could possibly be harmed by what we write, the think better of it.
3. Professional Territorialness. We communicate with other professionals about our clients. Does our communication reveal any condescending attitudes? Any unnecessary hierarchy? How do you talk about another professional to clients? To other colleagues? Do we withhold data for power reasons? For fear of mis-use by the other. If so, we have serious issues to address. Leaving them unaddressed will only injure the client.
4. Unprepared staffings. Staff communications regarding shared clients often include off-the-cuff comments about clients. These kind of statements can sound as if they are well supported by data. Sadly, we can offer up anecdotes about a client and they are weighted as heavily as objective test data. Can we support our comments and insights with data? Are there other data that might challenge our offered hypotheses?
5. General coarseness. I once had a supervisor who used the “F” word in every sentence (and in every form of speech possible). He relished the power he got from using that word. I’m not opposed to ever using curse words but they usually reveal more about the user than the situation. More recently, I’ve noticed how frequently we use genital imagery to talk about important character traits. “Do you have the stones to do that?” I heard this question asked in prime-time television. Why couldn’t they just talk about the trait of courage? I do think that language has a way of devolving in the heat of battle. Counselors work in the trenches and so it stands to reason that they might slip here some.
6. General grumbling. It is easy to slip into the habit of grumbling. I am tempted to revel (yes revel since I think I enjoy it some) in pointing out the failures of other people. I feel better when I can see their mistakes that I would never commit. We grumble against people, against institutions, against policies; against pretty much anything that irritates us.
Let us be diligent to explore what our communication reveals about our hearts and character and let us resolve, with God’s help, to love others even when they are not watching–and to model that love in our speech.