Word choice matters!

Counselors often use what they call “additive” words to help flesh out the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of their clients. For example,

CLIENT: I feel so frustrated about how long it is taking for me to hear about the job I applied for.

COUNSELOR: You’re feeling anxious?

Certainly, my example is superficial and simple but you get the point. Frustrated doesn’t really adequately describe the true feelings of the client. We sometimes need help with defining what we really feel, think, or believe. This word addition happened to me today in a powerful way.

Today I was telling someone about a repeated discouragement I have experienced in recent months. In describing my experience I used the word “rumination” to describe the re-occurring thought pattern. She deftly said just one word.

“Grumbling?” [well, in fairness, that is what I remember]

That one word changes everything. When I choose to describe myself as having a repeating thought–a rumination–I am accurate if I am speaking only about the repeating part of the thought pattern. But notice that “rumination” doesn’t evaluate attitude or belief. What my trusted friend was trying to tell me was that I was allowing myself to have a pity party. I was accepting the disappointment feelings without any evaluation of what it was that I believed about the situation at hand. Truthfully, she was right. I was accepting the thoughts and feelings as accurate rather than interpretative of my situation.

Now, I am not arguing that those who have actual ruminations (a part of OCD) are all grumbling. But, it is a good reminder that the words we use do shape our perceptions of our life! We do not just respond to disappointments, we interpret them.


Filed under Cognitive biases, counseling, counseling skills

3 responses to “Word choice matters!

  1. Julia Stone

    I’ll never forget the word choices that a “Christian counselor” used on my mentally ill son, who was profoundly depressed and had barely left the house in a year: “Man up!”

    • Julia, thank you for highlighting the flip side of word choice matters. What is said to us by others can also have equally devastating impact. My friend’s loving confrontation of my word choice is possible because of the relationship we have. What your son experienced is in another solar system–a form of slap therapy…which never works.

  2. Thank you for this article. Those of us who suffer an occasional diarrhea of the mouth need this kind of inspired imodium.
    To Julia Stone: not all Christian counselors are this reckless. One can speculate endlessly about his/her qualification or experience, but maybe it’s more helpful to have a direct conversation (aka friendly, constructive rebuke) and definitely a lot of prayer. Peace.

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