Remember the childhood retort that ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me’? If only this could be true! I can remember saying this on the playground to a now unknown tormentor only to turn away with tears streaming down my face. I’ve heard too many stories from too many people with similar stories. I’ve listened to many a client’s heartache over the harsh and painful words spoken by someone they loved. Words that they’ve taken deeply to heart. Words spoken twenty, thirty or more years ago that became the foundation of their identity. Words spoken with deliberation and cruelty or words spoken out of thoughtlessness or carelessness have the same painful impact.
Diane Setterfield writes “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” I’ve been unable to shake this quote since reading it a few days ago. While Setterfield is referring to the power that authors hold over those of us who are captive readers, I believe her quote applies to the counseling relationship. As I’ve been teaching beginning counseling students this year I’ve been reminded of both the magic as well as the power of words. I remember my hunger in graduate school to watch my professors demonstrate the art of counseling. I marveled at their choice of the right word at the right time that unlocked the client’s secret pain and allowed the process of healing to begin.
I still feel that thrill when I watch the masters of the counseling field (and am very thankful for video libraries and YouTube that allows me such easy access!). Recently in class we watched Carl Rogers and Gloria. It was thrilling to re-watch this master, learn from him yet again, and to see the novice counselors respond with the same wonder and enthusiasm. Beyond Rogers’ ability to be in the moment with Gloria, we marveled at his ability to choose the right word to bit by bit unlock her need. While words are just one avenue of expression of unconditional positive regard and need to be more than hollow, empty robotic responses if they are to mean anything, words can and do have lasting and healing power. The counseling relationship is truly an opportunity to allow words to work their magic.
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.