9 Big Questions for Therapists
What does it take to be a great therapist and coach?
Posted Sep 19, 2019
I was recently interviewed by Tayo Rockson, author of “Use Your Difference to Make a Difference” (Wiley, 2019), about what makes a great therapist, and how to deal with the challenges that necessarily arise… with our clients and within ourselves. Tayo and I will be sharing the stage at the NSLS National Leadership Summit this November, and I look forward to continuing the discussion!
1. As a therapist, how do you study patterns that help you understand and predict behavior?
Working primarily with singers, performers, and speakers, I watch for and recognize patterns, rather than study them per se. There are common threads and themes in most people with similar presenting issues, and over time I’ve developed practices that generally help people overcome obstacles in these areas. I say generally, because of course everyone is unique, as are each person’s issues. One of my greatest tasks, therefore, is to always keep an open mind, and to ensure that I’m seeing each individual clearly, rather than bringing my own ideas and issues – or those of other clients – to the table.
2. What type of questions do you ask to see where your clients are coming from?
Over the years I’ve found that if given enough time, clients will share the most important and relevant aspects of themselves and their issues. So silence – pausing and giving space – and active listening are two of my most powerful tools. When clients seem to need some help with direction, I find that asking them to hone in on experiential specifics, rather than story, leads us most directly to the core of the issues, and to their resolution. And, as I’m sure most of my clients will tell you with a laugh, I intersperse that listening with bluntness, love, and humor when I need – and need them – to break through.
3. How do you make them feel heard?
Because my work is a bit outside of the realm of ‘traditional therapy’, my approach and techniques are a bit different as well. The way I respond to clients' singing – vocally echoing their personal sound and approach, for example – demonstrates that I not only hear them, but really understand the physical machinations of their instruments and by extension, them. In the spoken realm, deep, active listening and my ability to recall and reflect back things clients have said– even months after a conversation– lets them know that I really hear them, and care about them and their journeys. I also think about my clients between sessions, actively as a practice, and share what I’ve been thinking about with them from time to time. When people realize that they’re not just a slot in my schedule, that I care about and bring them with me into my life outside of the office, that has a huge impact.
4. How do you keep your composure when your clients are angry at you?
I don’t take clients’ anger, or any of their feelings, personally. I recognize that each person is on their own path, and I expect emotions to emerge and sometimes come my way. Knowing, or assuming, that emotions are going to flow helps me to not be negatively affected by them. That said, it’s not an impermeable wall that I put up; I don’t believe in that kind of boundary, actually, and find that it can be counter-productive. We’re all humans after all, and humans are social animals. Therefore, I am always self-assessing to see whether something I’ve done or said has provoked a response that is in reaction to me, rather that the result of someone working through his or her issues. If it is the former, I claim and apologize for any misstep that I’ve made. My willingness to be accountable, vulnerable, and even wrong helps people feel safe and vulnerable as well.
5. How do you find alignment with clients when you don’t agree with them?
I remind myself that the goal isn’t for people to think or live like me. The goal is that they think and live as they want to. As such, I really view my role as a mirror for clients. I do my best to show them – from various angles – how they are being and the impact of their way of being, so that they can choose what is and isn’t effective, and what they would like to change. My role is then to help them find the path and process to achieve those goals.
That said, I’ll admit that I often have to check myself internally when I see people making choices that I wouldn’t personally make. I have to keep distinguishing between whether I think, ‘is that a powerful choice?’ and ‘is that a powerful choice for them?’ That’s my ongoing work, especially as I get older. I’ve seen more than many of my younger clients, and I have to resist the temptation, albeit a very loving one, to want to give advice. They’re not here for advice (though some ask for it). They come to me to find their own paths and to gain the skills to walk down them with bravery and confidence.
6. What do you do when someone shuts down?
I stop talking. I let the space and silence ring. I summon love and energetically send it into the space. I’m patient. I wait.
7. How can one think like a therapist?
There are many traits that make for a good therapist, and they’re the same traits that make for a good friend, partner, and human being. Unconditional positive regard, managed expectations, kindness. Humility and patience. And objectivity; the ability to relinquish our human tendency to categorize and label, to make circumstances and people wrong, right, bad, and good. Also, it’s important, as in chess, to recognize that life is a long game, as are personal and relational development. Results don’t always show themselves moment to moment. A session that might seem stagnant to an observer may in fact be rippling with the seeds of progress and change. After all, you have to make your way to the precipice before you can take off and fly. That often long, slow walk is as important as the final, glorious leap into the sky.
8. How can we create a culture of acceptance in today's world?
I believe that begins with learning how to accept and be at peace ourselves. Our egos are desperate to judge and label everything and everyone. It takes strength of character and objectivity to step back and view life and others with perspective and love. To realize our frustrations and fears, and most of our issues– in the grand scheme of our lives and time in general– are minor. This realization helps us to remove the powerful grip they often seem to have on us and as a result, helps us to be more graceful and kind with ourselves and other people, as well as grateful for this blessing called life.
9. Why do you think it is important to study human behavior and the mind in today's world?
I think self-awareness and perspective, no matter how one goes about finding them, are critical skills. That said, I think our western therapeutic focus on delving into and reveling in our stories, can be problematic. As I mentioned in my most recent book, we need to move from realization, to understanding, to freedom… which only comes when we recognize that whatever has happened to us has happened, and that the stories and conclusions that we’ve come to about what has happened are often more powerfully destructive than the events themselves. So, whether one studies William James, Søren Kierkegaard or Eckhart Tolle, or participates in workshops to the same end, the realization that we are not exclusively our thoughts and feelings is, I feel, imperative to mental health. Only by moving beyond identifying with and reacting to our thoughts and feelings – moving beyond constant judgment of ourselves, others, and life – can we find the stillness and objectivity to simply be in this world and in our relationships. And in that stillness and being, that witnessing of life and everyone and everything in it, lies the key, I believe, to power, peace, and joy.
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