How Counselors Can Have an Experimental Mindset

And how it can be key to being an effective agent of change.

Posted Sep 16, 2019

MaxPixels, Public Domain
Source: MaxPixels, Public Domain

Many decisions made by counselors, indeed in all human interaction, are simply judgment calls, and they can be wrong. That's why, especially for counselors, it's always important to have an experimental mindset and adapt to the client.

For example, when you decide to be silent, think of that as an experiment. Did the silence yield a positive result? Would you predict that the person’s response would be better if you said something, perhaps proposed an insight or suggestion? The right answer will vary with the people and the situation, but maintaining an experimental mindset will, especially as experience makes your antennae more accurate, result in more success.

Here’s a more fleshed-out example of how an experimental mindset can be helpful. It regards the question of how much small talk to encourage before beginning a session or meeting. Let’s say that a client walks in and comments on the flowering tree in front of your home-office. So you decide to say a little about it but, maintaining that experimental mindset, you note that after that comment, s/he’s silent. That’s a clue that your next comment might move toward beginning the session, for example, “I’ve been looking forward to hearing how you’ve been doing?” Again, pay attention. If the response is meeting-related or the person angles their foot away from the waiting room and toward your office, those are signs to move forward. If s/he makes more small talk, that experimental mindset of yours allows you to shift back again to a bit more small talk.

I have a client who, before the session begins, likes to make jokes and puns. If I jump into the session before he has done that for a couple minutes, for example, if I were to ask, “So, what have you been thinking and perhaps doing since last session?” his face closes down a bit. So now, I join him in a few minutes of joking and stay attuned to when I sense he’s ready to begin the session.

Here's another central if obvious example. Often, you or the client will propose trying something: a career to explore, a pitch to customers, a way to cope with worrisome thoughts, a medical treatment. It’s critical that you and the client have an experimental mindset. For example, I so often say to a client something like, “Okay, we’ve identified three possible ways to reduce your procrastination. Do you have an intuition as to which one or more are worth trying? And remember, even if the experiment fails, we may learn something from it so we can come up with a better experiment.”

Here are other issues that might particularly benefit from an experimental mindset, varying with the person, the situation, and, importantly, with your own preferences and strengths.

How fast should you proceed? Some clients need much breathing space, others thrive on quick-action-oriented sessions.

What percentage of the time should you listen rather than talk?

Should you be warm, colder, or neutral?

Should you be humorous?

How intellectual versus feeling-centered should you be?

How complex an analysis should you present?

How much if at all should you revisit a past trauma?

Should you be self-disclosing?

Should you encourage higher or lower aspirations?

Should you interrupt?

Should you err toward optimism, neutrality, or pessimism?

Should you confront?

Should you shake hands, hug, or just say hello/bye.

Should you encourage the client to have an in-person or phone or Skype/Facetime session?

Should the next session be a full one or a brief check-in?

The takeaway

Sticking too rigidly to a one-size-fits-all approach, whether consciously or because you’re on autopilot, is inimical to effectiveness. An experimental mindset is helpful in nearly all human interactions, for example, as a counselor, manager, or physician. It's even helpful beyond the human domain: I'm still very much trying experiments to get my new doggie Hachi to come rather than chase squirrels.

I read this aloud on YouTube.