Of late, I have come across various situations in which I have heard people say to each other “you are so strong”, “I don’t know what I would have done because I’m not as strong as you are”. It made me think how it makes me feel when someone tells me that they think I am strong. The first question that popped into my head was, do I agree with what they are saying? Was I in fact being strong or was I managing a tough situation as best I could? As counselors and therapists, we know better (or I hope we do) than to state an affirmation for a client before we know what they are thinking of a situation they have recently dealt with. What do they think about themselves and how they managed a situation precedes what we may think of their actions, but do we always wait to find out?
I wonder what the implications of making a statement such as “you are so strong” with a client could result in. Our words are so important as counselors because what we say or do might be understood in a variety of different ways. Is it ok then to say that one is strong, when a client does not feel that way or is it ok to name an action when the client is struggling with it? I cannot seem to find a definitive answer. I believe that in my past work, I have shied away from naming an action when the client has not done so themselves. Or I have found myself exploring how a client would name an action and tell me how they perceive what they did. Did they feel strong, exhausted, making the best of a situation or not?
What if I said, “that sounds like a situation that requires ______ (insert word strength, patience, fortitude, grit, courage)”. Would that make a difference? When we change a word into verb form instead of it being an adjective, we are not placing a name on the characteristics of an individual but the characteristics of their action. It also does not discount all the difficulties they may have experienced pre, peri, and post action. The turmoil, sadness, hurt, and struggle are all acknowledged. It also acknowledges the vulnerability that is required while taking an action that an individual is not comfortable with or is a struggle for them. It also does not establish or require a certain pattern of behavior to continue or not, there is no expectation. And the importance of how a statement from a counselor might make an individual feel is even more important. None of us want our clients to feel pressured to think a certain way, or behave a certain way, or perform a certain way. They get that enough already with expectations from other individuals in their lives. We want them to feel comfortable enough to express any vulnerability and share with us what that struggle is like.
Using our words intentionally as a counselor or therapist is imperative. Being mindful with the words we use and the effect that may have on our clients is one extremely important decision we get to make in a split second. After a few years of experience in the field, it felt like my brain took up a few different responsibilities when I was with clients. One was to understand what they were saying while being present and devoted to them in the moment, deciding what to say next and how that could affect the client, and knowing whether to lead or let go depending on the situation. All this along with unconditional positive regard, genuineness, and honesty as a counselor. A lot of work done in 50 minutes by the brain and yet in a few years it feels like second nature. One shifts in and out of full capacity brain usage (just an expression, I’m sure we don’t use our entire brain at any given time, more about that some other day) and a small break before the next client arrives. And yet, even though it becomes second nature, no situation is the same, no client is the same, and no two sessions will work out in the same way.
I will end today’s blog with one of my very favorite quotes by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel”. Let us be intentional and mindful in the words we use.
Jyotsana Sharma is a Doctoral Candidate, Counselor, Educator, and human being in the making. Visit her website at: www.jyots21.wordpress.com or find her on twitter @jyots21s.