Tag Archives: Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: Why would he lie?

By Gregory K. Moffatt June 30, 2021

It was more than 30 years ago, but I remember the following experience with great clarity. I was relating to my supervisor an interaction with one of my clients — a tiny 10-year-old boy who probably didn’t weigh 50 pounds — simply giving her a quick summary of the beginning of our session before we got into more important things regarding my work with him.

Nonchalantly, I said, “When I asked him what he did for the weekend, he said he ‘went to the moon.’ Obviously, he was making that up.” I was about to continue, but my supervisor interrupted me — as she should have. More on that in a minute.

I was in my first year of supervision, but I was feeling confident in my work with children. This was 1987, seemingly a very long time ago, a time when almost nobody specialized with children. While some theorists such as Anna Freud and Clark Moustakas invested in children close to a century ago, it had not become a common specialty when I was a graduate student. From the outset, I knew I wanted to work with children, but there wasn’t a single class available in my graduate program that focused specifically on that client population.

As I scoured academic catalogs, I found very few resources available that focused on therapeutic work with children. Therefore, much of what I learned back in those days, I learned the hard way — either by guessing the correct action or, equally often, incorrectly guessing the right thing to do. This interaction with my client, as small as it might seem, was one of those times I made a serious mistake. So, let’s get back to my supervisor.

Igor Kisselev/Shutterstock.com

I sat in silence for a moment in front of her wondering why she had stopped me at such a seemingly trivial point in my summary. “Why would he lie?” she asked me. It was such a sincere question that it took me aback. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that my young client had actually traveled to the moon over the weekend.

“You are assuming your client is lying,” she continued. “What do you think that says to him about you?”

Ah! That was a great question, and I was embarrassed that I had not considered it. I had automatically discounted his story when I should have at least acknowledged and respected it.

What if my client had needed to tell me about some scary secret he carried? My attitude showed him that I would decide whether to believe him based on my own feelings of the story’s worthiness. What a disrespectful way to approach my client.

It would be easy to think that this situation applies only to children, but it doesn’t. We are all trained to respect diversity, and a foundational tenet of nearly all diversity theories proposes that our inner biases will show if we haven’t dealt with them. For example, if I harbor negative feelings about my transgender clients, they will eventually see through my smokescreen regardless of how I try to convince them that I value all people.

In my interaction with this little boy, I had assumed he wasn’t trustworthy by disrespecting his story. But if he couldn’t trust me with something like this, I could never expect him to trust me with experiences that might seem equally unbelievable. I shouldn’t have needed to be reminded that the fear of not being believed is one of the scariest things our clients face.

I have written before that all of our clients deceive us at one time or another. They might diminish or alter their behaviors, omit information or just flat out lie. There are many reasons why our clients deceive us, but a common one is because they are testing our trustworthiness. How easy it is to test us with one story when there is a much more important story they really need to tell.

Since this experience with my supervisor, almost no matter what a client tells me, I accept it as truth. If nothing else, it is their truth at the time. I won’t risk my biases interfering with what they need to tell me. Of course, there are times when we might need to confront or challenge our clients, but I rarely do that in the rapport-building stage.

If I could revisit that moment with that little boy again, I’d do what I have done thousands of times since then and respond, “You did? Wow! Tell me about that.” I have learned to be much more worthy of my clients’ trust.

 

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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.

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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.

Voice of Experience: The power of a moment

By Gregory K. Moffatt May 19, 2021

He wasn’t a counselor, and I wasn’t seeking any interventions, but a single powerful moment with a mentor changed my life. His name was Mr. Rouse, my sixth-grade teacher. He had been teaching at my tiny little schoolhouse for only a couple of years. My elementary school was a brick and stone structure that was built in the 1890s and had served our rural community for decades. Nearly every student walked to school or rode a bicycle, so only two or three buses lined the curb in front of the building each day. Almost nobody rode to school in a parent’s car.

Mr. Rouse had been my older sister’s teacher during his first year at our school, and he most definitely made a splash. He was one of only three male teachers in the building. That was unusual enough, but he was anything but traditional. Bearded and rough in his demeanor, he never wore a tie — this at a time when even students sometimes wore ties and dress shirts. He would teach in the United States for however long it took him to earn enough money to go overseas, and then he was gone again to teach in some remote village halfway around the world.

I don’t know how he picked our little village for one of his money-raising sabbaticals from overseas work, but I’m glad he did. I will mark my sixth decade of life this summer, and yet his face and voice are still clear in my mind.

I was a mediocre student who never took my studies seriously. Even though I was an avid reader very early in life, I liked playing baseball, riding bikes and climbing trees far more than schoolwork, and each school day was a countdown until I was free to get on my bike and head home. Equally significant, I never thought I was very smart. Nobody ever gave me any clear reason to think otherwise until Mr. Rouse.

One of his routines was a weekly spelling test composed of 10 words. Any and all students who got 90% or higher on every test throughout the year were invited to a local restaurant with him to celebrate in May. My sister made that goal and got her picture in the local paper with her fellow classmates and Mr. Rouse at the restaurant celebration.

I stayed in the game until just after Christmas break when I missed two words on a weekly test. My score of 80 meant I was out. It didn’t really surprise me that I hadn’t made it, but I was disappointed. Mr. Rouse came to my desk sometime that day and sat in the seat beside me, his huge body squeezed into the ancient drop-down desk — the kind with the inkwell in the upper corner. We went over my spelling words, and the mistake I had made was a simple one.

“Greg, you are too smart to make a mistake like that. You could have finished the year,” he said matter-of-factly. I could see that he believed I was smart and that he believed in me. I never wanted to disappoint him again.

Many years later, after a rough freshman year in college, I thought of Mr. Rouse as I worked to salvage my GPA. I also thought of him when I applied to graduate school and yet again when I applied to my doctoral program. As some of my classmates withdrew from our Ph.D. program, I remembered his words, “You could have finished,” and I pushed through.

I’m so grateful for Mr. Rouse, but he also taught me something very therapeutic. I don’t remember anything else from that sixth-grade year or about him. I moved on to junior high the following year, and Mr. Rouse moved on to his next adventure the year after that. I never saw him again, but the power of that one moment — just seconds in my long life in a sixth-grade classroom — influenced me forever. I suspect that if I had ever gotten the chance later in life to ask Mr. Rouse whether he did that on purpose, he would probably have said no. He was just a good teacher doing his job, but it was a powerful moment that he took advantage of, and we can’t always plan those times.

So now I think of him every time a client comes through my office door. I have my agenda and activities ready to go, but it may be just one serendipitous moment — maybe even a moment I don’t recognize at the time — that changes them forever.

Raymond Fisher/Shutterstock.com

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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.

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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.

Voice of Experience: We are all writers

By Gregory K. Moffatt April 29, 2021

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.

 

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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.

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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.

Voice of Experience: Spokes of a wheel: A lesson in physics

By Gregory K. Moffatt March 29, 2021

I can’t count the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten over the past year, in addition to the many times I’ve been asked to speak (virtually, of course), on the same topic: How can we help people cope during the pandemic? In fact, I recently spoke on this topic to one group for the second time in the past year.

Who could have known this pandemic would go on for so long and how our lives would be disrupted? We are all fatigued. Not only do I have to help my clients manage their fatigue, but I am also focused on the needs of my clinicians and supervisees. No one is immune.

There is no single answer to the best way to cope. As is the case with almost any issue in mental health, we encourage our clients to eat right, sleep right and exercise. This is what I call Moffatt’s Mantra. The treatments for depression, anxiety, grief and a host of other common diagnoses must include these three common components.

But beyond that, coping is idiosyncratic. Things that bring me peace might bring you stress, and vice versa. For example, I just finished a five-day business trip to the Gulf Coast. I stayed in a luxury estate, had a private chef for suppers and ate catered meals otherwise. All of the refrigerators were stocked with just about anything you could imagine. I was paid very well, my workload was light, and I had plenty of time for sailing, deep-sea fishing and the beach.

But I don’t like the beach. I’d rather be in the mountains. I also find it very hard to relax when I’m working, even in luxury accommodations like the ones I experienced. I’m happiest sleeping in my own bed. I may be the only person who wouldn’t find this consulting trip relaxing, but I am intensely introverted. Social events leave me feeling drained, and I’m always “on” when I’m in environments like that.

As odd as I am, I’m not alone in my idiosyncrasies. Some of you reading this might list coping strategies that perhaps nobody else would find helpful. In other words, we shouldn’t assume what would be a healthy coping strategy or stress relief technique for our clients. Our clients need to teach us those facts.

So, here is the physics lesson. The individual spokes on a bicycle are quite weak. Even a child could easily bend one. A bike with only one spoke wouldn’t go very far. In fact, the weight of the bicycle alone would crush that single spoke. But when you put multiple spokes around the rim — with several dozen of them sharing the load — the bicycle sustains its own weight and that of the rider. And the pliability of those spokes — the ones a child could bend — helps the repair person true the rim so that it doesn’t wobble.

This brief foray into physics teaches us something about coping. If you were to ask the bicycle specialist which spoke was most important, they would laugh. All of the spokes are important, and they all have to work together. Our ability to cope with stress, frustrations, anger, relationship problems and grief — all magnified by the pandemic — is based on multiple strategies working together. The more the load is shared, the better.

Even though one strategy — exercise, let’s say — may usually work, it might not always work. Healthy coping involves many skills from which one can draw.

A minimum of three clear strategies, tailored to the individual, is a starting point. We might think of these strategies as legs of a stool. With at least three legs in place, a stool will remain standing, and the more legs on the stool — like the spokes of a bicycle — the harder it will be for something to break it.

So, my response to all those media questions about how we can help people cope during the pandemic is the same. Examine your own life. What tools, skills and strategies have you found helpful in the past? The longer your list, the more spokes you have to sustain you when you feel you are reaching the point of fatigue.

I exercise religiously — almost every day, rain or shine — because I know it helps me avoid fatigue and depression. I nurture relationships — especially my family relationships. I know they are important spokes in my wheel. I need solitude, quiet, predictability and routine. These are some of my spokes, and I might even add my own pillow and my own bed as two others. So, even though a lucrative consulting gig on the Gulf might sound good, I limit them because limiting that kind of work is a spoke for me too.

Know your own spokes and help your clients brainstorm their personal lists. We can’t do that for them. With overt tools to lean on, we will see our way through these very challenging days.

 

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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.

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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.

Voice of Experience: Managing requests for client information

By Gregory K. Moffatt February 23, 2021

In nearly four decades of practice, I’ve experienced a number of attempts by various individuals to gain access to my client records. Here are a few of them.

  • Two police officers showed up in my office asking for records regarding a former client. They told me that the person was of interest in a very serious crime and they were trying to close that case. Would I please give them my records for that client? When I told the officers that I would be happy to comply with any order from the court, they pressured me. “Really! You are going to make us get a subpoena?” Yep.
  • An attorney sent me a very official looking letter that I believe was deliberately drafted to look like a court order. It was full of legal jargon and demands for information regarding a former client. I could have simply thrown it in the trash, but instead I called the attorney’s office. I knew the attorney would be waiting on my call. Sure enough, when I told the receptionist who I was, she immediately patched me through to his office. He answered on the first ring.

“I’m calling regarding your ‘request’ for information from me,” I said. Not waiting for him to make a comment, I continued, “I’m sure you know I cannot even acknowledge who my clients are without a court order or the client’s permission. Do you have either of those?” Of course, he did not. The call was polite and short. I never heard from him again.

  • A parent called my office seeking “any records whatsoever” I had pertaining to my therapeutic relationship with his son, who was a minor at the time. Ordinarily, I would have been happy to chat with a parent. However, I knew that this father’s custodial rights had been terminated by the court (my client’s mother had provided those documents to me), so the man calling me had no legal right to his son’s records. I declined his request.

Without experience, it might be easy to be intimidated by police, angry parents or clever attorneys. But you cannot be arrested (as I was threatened on one occasion) for following counseling ethics and HIPAA requirements regarding client information. In fact, you will likely be in greater trouble if you concede to these “requests” and thus violate our code of ethics.

To make your life a little less stressful, let me suggest three simple statements/rules that will help you know when to divulge information and when to stay silent.

First, never forget this line: “Who my clients are or are not is confidential information.” The two officers I mentioned above began by saying, “We are here to talk about M— S—, one of your former clients. Do you remember her?”

They were playing me. If I had acknowledged that I remembered her (as, in fact, I did), they would already have been on their way to pressuring me for more information. I simply delivered the line above and then shut my mouth.

Second, remember to ask, “Do you have a court order?” No court order is verbal. Police officers, lawyers and others have tried to tell me they had a court order and wanted me to provide information. I always state that I’m happy to comply with any court order that I receive. Unless a court order is provided to me, that is nearly always the last I will hear about a request for information.

Even if a printed order is provided, it must be signed by a judge. The lawyer who tried to scam me knew he couldn’t forge or fake a judge’s signature without risking losing his license and perhaps going to jail. I always first flip to the last page of the order to see what judge signed it. No judge’s signature, no information.

Finally, ask, “Who has legal right to this information?” Without a court order, that legal right generally lies exclusively with the client, but in the case of minors, those who have legal guardianship can request records as well. That can get complicated, as I indicated in the scenario above. If I hadn’t anticipated the question of legal guardianship, I might have provided client records to a person who had no right to see them.

If you have no experience with court orders, always consult with your professional organization or a trusted and experienced colleague. If you have questions about a court order, you can call the court to confirm or clarify.

One final caveat: I am not an attorney. I know some jurisdictions may have systems in place that differ from what I’ve described, so check with legal counsel in your area before you need it. You will then be prepared.

 

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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.

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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.