I have been a writer since I was a very young child. Back then, I would write stories on my notebook paper from school — the large, three-lined paper on which children learn to produce their letters — sometimes writing with a crayon. Using cardboard from discarded cereal boxes, I would make covers for my stories, binding the pages and covers with old shoestrings. I still have those simple stories, my first “self-published” works, from a time when that language didn’t even exist. These primitive tales about the world around me are carefully stowed away somewhere in my attic.
Through the years, I’ve published more than a dozen books and well over a thousand articles. It makes me smile when I get an email or phone call from a reader who begins by telling me, “I read your article,” assuming that I’ve written only the one.
Many of my colleagues don’t understand my love of writing. Putting words on paper is tedious to them, and sometimes they find even the management of their process notes to be a chore.
But that doesn’t come close to the panic my clinical students experience when they see an assignment for a paper 10-15 pages in length. What in the world could they write about that would fill that number of pages?
But when you stop and think about it, all therapists are writers in a way. When we sit in session, we listen carefully. As all of us learned long ago in our first counseling procedures course, we need to spend much more time listening than talking. And especially early on in a clinical relationship, as our clients are spilling their stories, we process those words carefully for one single purpose — to communicate that we understand.
Then, when the time is right, we produce words — nouns, verbs and modifiers — carefully chosen to ensure that our message is 100% accurate and as precise as possible within the limits of time and space. This process is repeated over and over again throughout a session.
Writing is exactly the same. I study and listen, sometimes for days or weeks, as I try to understand the subject I want to communicate. Then, instead of speaking those carefully chosen words, I write them down. I edit multiple times to be as sure as possible that those nouns, verbs and modifiers are in just the right place to most precisely communicate what I want to say within the limits of time and space.
There are differences of course. I have the luxury of editing my thoughts for days, as well as the benefit of multiple editors reading through my work before it is published. But in a way, we do the same thing in session as counselors. We think through our responses, editing them based on the directions of our past supervisors and colleagues. They are the voices in our head that function as our editors.
My goal is not to convert our readership into becoming writers. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. But this lengthy simile has as its purpose something pertinent to counseling. My supervisees play their session tapes for me, and I’ll sometimes pick a random spot and ask them why they said what they did.
In that context, I’m not really concerned about the client or whether the words were the best ones. I simply want to know if my supervisees know why they said a particular thing. My rule: We never do or say anything in therapy that doesn’t have a purpose. Just like every word, comma and phrase in this article was precisely selected.
We don’t do small talk with clients. It wastes therapy time. But if you were to observe me in session with a client, in the first minute or two you might think I was engaging in small talk. Not a chance. I’m using that conversation to go somewhere specific in my session. In much the same way, my story about making primitive books at the beginning of this article was setting you up to think about words, writing and precision in therapy.
My students could listen to my session tapes, stop at any random point and ask me, “Why did you laugh?” or “Why did you ask about the client’s job?” or “Why did you sit back against your chair?” I could tell them why. My internal editor is very polished, and I produce an exact product. Words are carefully chosen, and my movements, facial expressions and use of silence are my punctuation. If you aren’t doing something similar, you should be.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.