I recently passed my 29th year anniversary of mental health practice and 18th year as a psychologist. I’m not quite old but also have a few years under my belt. When I first began counseling as a counselor in my very early twenties I was fairly committed to proving my value. I wanted to diagnose problems and offer wise solutions. I’m embarrassed to say that I often thought I could do so in the first 15 minutes of a session. Sometimes I was right, but I can say for sure I hadn’t earned the right to speak. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly helpful in those early sessions. Thankfully, I learned that if I was going to be helpful I needed to stop worrying about whether I sounded smart and had something valuable to say and instead spend my energy entirely on the work of listening and understanding the person in front of me.
Not listening to clients might be the first and most common failure counselors make. It can happen throughout a session or for just thirty seconds during a momentary lapse of concentration. While beginner counselors may struggle to listen well, seasoned therapists can lose their edge without even recognizing it.
Not listening can happen by means of trying to dictate goals. It can happen when we therapists talk about ourselves. It can happen when we misdiagnose a client. It can happen when we are bored, or irritated, or caught up in our own world of pain.
This little series is dedicated to therapist failures. We’d rather believe that our mistakes are really client resistance or family interference. But as we own our mistakes, we acknowledge that counseling is a human interaction that requires our willingness to evaluate our end of that interaction. While this series is written for mental health practitioners, I suspect clients will also benefit from this look inside, if for no other reason than to identify when they are not feeling heard.
Some related thoughts previously written
I’ve written a couple of blogs recently on related topics. The first is embedded in my last blog,
I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.)https://philipmonroe.com/2019/11/24/some-thoughts-on-when-restoration-hurts/
I will write more on the problem of choosing the wrong goals for counselees–or the problem of choosing goals in the first place. A few months ago I wrote about the problem of choosing reconciliation as a goal.
Some years ago, I wrote this list of common mistakes made by novice counselors.
Come back for the first post exploring the setting of goals in counseling and how not listening leads to the likelihood of failure.