ACA Blog

Joan Phillips
Apr 07, 2010

“Do you mind if I answer this?”

I know I’m not the only one being asked this question- in counseling sessions. Our clients are on the phone or texting- constantly. I have clients offering to show me threads of texts that illustrate something in their relationship or prove some point they are trying to make. I have kids that want to show me videos or pictures on their phone. I have phones ringing and buzzing more and more. Do you? I imagine it’s a pandemic out there. The techno-revolution is here and it has won. Some clients don’t even ask- they just answer their phone. I am considering posting a notice like many other places have gone to- “please turn off all electronic devices upon entering the office”. But then again I think we have to consider rolling with this and seeing what we can learn about clients from this technological information.

I for one feel I learn a lot just hearing the ringtone chosen, the message on their voicemail or the way they utilize communication in their lives. Observation is the best assessment tool we have here I think. One recent new client of mine frequently wanted to answer her phone during session, and as I watched and heard the changes in her voice and demeanor as she talked to her boyfriend, even briefly, I quickly saw the level of deference and self-suppression she did to keep him happy. It was as if she somehow HAD to answer, and in fact his frequent calls were a part of wanting to control and know where she was literally every minute. Seeing this in action gave me a chance to really confront her on this relationship that she was not seeing through the same lens I was afforded by direct observation.

I once called back a client to schedule an appointment, for a substance abuse related employer referral no less, and the music they had on for the “enjoy this music until your call is connected” was Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville”. I love that song too- but when you are struggling with an addiction and possibly using your phone for callbacks from job applications, is it really the best choice? These are the things that observation will then allow to become a part of counseling rather seamlessly- as you have a concrete point of reference. Another young client of mine had a series of self-made videos on his cell phone (he was 12) and they all showed him having major crashes on his skateboard. These crashes were orchestrated and set up by him, and he loved to lose control and crash over curbs or into garage doors etc. This provided the perfect metaphor to work with in his therapy as we used a different art form than video, drawing, to work through his proclivity to “crash and burn” in all parts of his life- grades, parent relationship, friendships, etc. The key point that he himself created the crashes transferred very well into some focus on owning his own behavior in many other areas.

Until he could begin to create different possibilities in his art, he was not going to be able to do so in his behavior. Using his own artform as a jumping off point (excuse the analogy) we then could collaborate on creating excitement without the ultimate destruction to follow. Similarly in many troubled marriages these days, Facebook, MySpace, texting and other electronic communication is wreaking havoc- both as a time-stealer in already stressed for time relationships and also as inappropriate connections are fostered, hidden, and played out in media. When a client shares that with me it is useful. Indeed almost any sharing, technological or otherwise, is useful within therapy as assessment and information. In this discussion I am not taking this beyond the confines of the counseling office or art therapy studio- once those boundaries are passed many other issues arise that this blog is not big enough to encompass. But I do think all counselors continue to struggle with the basic “do you mind if I answer this?” and that’s a good starting point for considering electronic media from the point of view of client welfare for now. For me there is no quick or easy answer and I think we can consider broader views as we understand electronic media evolutions in our culture.

Other issues for other discussions include confidentiality, what if clients try to “friend” you on Facebook, how public is YOUR information out there, how do we use media to promote and inform about our practice, etc. These are only the tip of the electronic media iceberg. But hold on, I will get to that later… for now do you mind if I respond to the text I just got?



Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

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