Counselling, Communications and New Year Resolutions
I was recently reminded that communications with others can often be a complex affair. Confidentiality within therapy work is always of the utmost importance whether individual counselling or couple counselling. As a result counsellors will often only want to retain minimal paperwork related to client work.
A few months back I was asked for a copy of a note I had made some years ago. As the request was formally authorised by the client and perfectly appropriate I responded by providing a copy of my handwritten note. I was rather surprised to subsequently receive a reply to say that this submission was unhelpful as my writing was illegible. Having looked again at my original handwritten note my immediate thoughts were that although my handwriting was certainly untidy and perhaps in parts a little difficult to read, it was still legible. Surely others could understand what I had written.
This reaction brings to mind other issues around communication which often arise in the therapy room and which can be important for both individuals and couples. Our usual view as the originator of a comment or a note is that we are of course being absolutely clear in our communication. These assumptions mean that we can then find ourselves surprised if we are met by an unexpected reaction from the other party.
I often illustrate that with a very simple example. We greet a friend who since we last met has now taken on a very different hairstyle. You may say to your friend as an instant reaction and in a neutral tone, ‘what have you done to your hair?’ Some may immediately interpret this as a favourable comment. Given that you always get on well together and have much in common your friend decides that this just is your way of saying that you have noticed and approve of the new style.
Others who are perhaps more used to you arguing with them albeit about trivia may immediately interpret that very same observation as a criticism. This person may decide that your question ‘what have you done to you hair’ was your way of saying that you disliked the change and found it inappropriate. Your comment is seen as a criticism and given that interpretation your friend decides that you do not like the new hair style.
There will also be that third group who were unsure as to what you intended by the comment. Some of those may then switch off and just ignore your question whilst others would inwardly fret about the meaning behind that comment of ‘what have you done to your hair’.
This example reinforces that adage that what is important is not what we say (or write) but how we are heard (or read!). If we want to be understood by our others, by our friends, partners and colleagues we may want to consider how our message is likely to be received by the other side. If clarity is important, if we really want to be understood then perhaps we may need to spend more time thinking about the words we are using and then carefully constructing our message – or in my case, writing the note!
When those roles are reversed and we find ourselves as the recipient of a comment where we are unsure about the intended meaning, it may be helpful to gently seek out clarification and to do that before we rush to judgement.
What we hear and understand from others is likely to owe as much to our personal narrative and expectation about how others usually behave towards us than as from the actual words used. What will be important is not just what others say to us but how we interpret those words and the meaning we attribute to them. That interpretation may reflect our own prejudices, our expectations of the other person and even our mood in the moment.
And the lesson for me with regard to the criticism of that handwritten note? Well maybe there is a message about writing more neatly in the future.
Ah but I hear myself say, this is my handwriting, this just is my style carefully honed and developed over alas many decades. I cannot possibly change that after all these years.
Well perhaps I should rethink that view. After all this is coming from the counsellor and therapist who always tries to encourage client to think about how to readily accept and embrace change! Perhaps I really should now commit to trying some neater handwriting writing especially as this is the time for new Year resolutions………..!!