My supervisee (we’ll call her Tasha) sat back in her chair and, with a look of confidence that I love to see in a first-year supervisee, told me that she had a successful session with one of her clients.
“I feel really good about it,” Tasha said.
I love watching the tentative and fearful looks that I see during the first few months of supervision gradually transition over to those first glimmers of “I’ve got this.” But that evolution also makes me nervous.
“Tell me about your feelings of confidence, Tasha. What happened that makes you confident you did a good job?”
Tasha reported that the client had made progress the week before after several weeks of stagnation in their work together. That is a good sign of course. But then Tasha said something that always raises a red flag in my supervisor’s brain.
“I don’t know, but I was explaining … and it just felt right. I think I got through to my client.”
I don’t know whether Tasha got through to her client or not, but the fact that she couldn’t operationalize it, along with the fact that she was “explaining” something to the client, made me nervous.
We’ve all been there as counselors. Everything just seems to click, and we close a session feeling good. But we also know that, in general, our feelings are not always trustworthy.
I suspect Tasha’s good feelings were reflective of her “explaining” things rather than anything the client did or said. Nothing is wrong with a little psychoeducation, but explaining well doesn’t mean that Tasha’s client “got it.” In fact, confidence based on her own feelings could even increase the probability that Tasha would miss it if her client didn’t get it.
Most veteran therapists at one time or another have felt good about a session only to find out later that their client didn’t share that feeling. The opposite is also true. Sometimes when we aren’t certain that we have connected well, we find out later that the session was a breakthrough moment.
I’ve made this error myself. I once worked with a young man who was strong, energetic, mature for his age and very verbal. He was one of those easy clients we all enjoy seeing on our calendars.
I thought we had hit it off pretty well in our first session and looked forward to each week with him. But after four or five sessions, he stopped coming. After he missed two sessions, the receptionist in the agency where I was working reached out to see if he wanted to reschedule.
As you can easily predict, he didn’t reschedule. What was more disheartening to me was his reason. He told the receptionist that he just didn’t feel like I was the right fit and that he had decided to go elsewhere. He shared no details beyond that, but I’ve never forgotten about what happened.
My mistake was errantly assigning the cause of my feelings. I supposed that I felt good because he was connecting with me when, in fact, I most likely was feeling good because of things about me. Yikes. It is never about us.
I’m always happy when new clinicians experience successes. It would be a miserable career if we never had those positive experiences and interactions, so I celebrate their successes. But I don’t stop there. I always ask why they think it went so well.
If the answers have to do with “gut feelings” or something about the clinician, I suggest caution. The session might have been amazing, but I don’t trust feelings that I can’t operationalize.
Feelings are unstable things on which to base decisions. Most of us have had an experience where we were positive that a relationship in our personal lives was right, only to be equally convinced sometime later that it wasn’t. Our initial feelings about relationships are often based on newness, first impressions, expectations, appearances, sex or other shallow pieces of data. As the relationship progresses, the more important data points eventually become evident and are much more reliable than our initial feelings.
It is the latter data set that tells us if we should continue the relationship, adjust it or terminate it. And that same type of data analysis should be part of assessing our feelings about our sessions.
Feeling good about a session is fine; just ask yourself why you feel good. If it is because of something that your client did, said or presented, great! But if you can’t nail that answer down, be cautious.
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.