Approve not of him that commends all you say.∗

Benjamin Franklin

Sometimes I have to learn things the hard way.  A general rule of thumb I’ve tried to keep is to steer away from giving advice on the first therapy session.  The people coming to see me are generally hurting and needing a listening ear.  It’s amazing how many people do not have anyone to talk to, to unravel the craziness in their head, to just lay it out all in a row.  They may have someone to talk to, but the person they want to talk to is not inclined to listen.  Debate, maybe, or argue or scoff or roll their eyes or shake their heads, but not listen.

I’ve learned the best approach on the first session, then, is for me to listen, take notes and largely stay out of the way.  Some folk are a bit reluctant to talk and need a little priming of the pump, a few timely questions to get their mind working, but by and large, I sit back, relax and listen.  The stories are endlessly interesting.  The themes are the same; the details are not.  The nuances change.  Inflections in the voice, the brightness in the eyes, the shaking of a leg, the folding of the arms, the direction of their gaze, the dance of their hands all accentuate a point.  If the client’s spouse is present, how the partner responds tell it’s own story: Does he listen?  Is she shaking her head?  Rolling his eyes?  Wanting to interrupt?  Actually interrupting?  Making scoffing noises?  Nodding in agreement?  Offering comfort?  Acting indifferent?  Superior?  Righteous?

But sometimes I can’t help myself and, even though I know better, I offer advice on the first session.  At times it’s perfect and they are ready to hear and they want some guidance, and, frankly, at the end, when I’m summarizing what they just said and we’re thinking through options, I’ll give a thing or two for them to think about or ponder or a behavior to put on hold or to stop altogether or some encouragement or pats on the back and it’s just fine.

But I’ve discovered a curious thing: If a couple comes to see me, he often wants me to give advice to his wife and go easy on him.  And she feels the same way…about wanting me to straighten out her husband.  Some will go to great lengths to make sure that I see that they are right.  Little do they know that I am not concerned as to whose right, unless we’re talking abuse or affairs or something equally destructive.  I’m assuming that both of them have some smarts to bring to the table, that neither has a monopoly on insight and that they need each other.

But if you are a martial therapist dude, you have to walk a fine line here.  If you side with one of them on an issue, it quickly becomes two against one.  Why would the other spouse want to go to therapy if his spouse and the therapist both are beating him up?  I try to balance this out, make the comments I make be applicable to both or something they both can work on, at least on the first session.  After they get to know me awhile I can banter with both of them, usually, and prod each for a moment and then go back to the other and so and it’s fine.

But not on the first session.  They don’t know me yet.  They don’t trust my judgment yet.  They don’t know if they even like me yet.  They have first session jitters already, no doubt, so, yeah, advice on the first session is dicey.

Sometimes I can’t help myself.  I’ve had a few first sessions crash and burn.  It wasn’t the client’s fault, necessarily.  I got ahead of myself, champing at the bit, ready to go, and here I am giving advice before I’ve earned the right to be heard.  Sadly, I’ve had a few folk look at me incredulously, unbelievable, you-gotta-be-kidding, and walk out in a huff.  My take-away from that is maybe if I was a little more patient and got to know them and they me, maybe down the road they would have trusted me enough to consider a different option or two?

An interesting side note: This has never happened to me if I’m seeing a client alone.  It’s only happened (Really, just a few times.  Honest.) with couples where the person excused me.  I’m guessing they felt I sided with their spouse?

So if you come to therapy the first time and you are wondering why I didn’t give you too much input right off the bat, it’s because I’ve had my knuckles wrapped a time or two and I’m buying a little time to get to know you and give you a chance to know me.  Don’t worry.  I definitely have an opinion.  I just need a little time to figure out how to prepare it so it can be eaten.

∗ Franklin, B. (1914). Poor Richard’s Almanac: Selections from the apothegems and proverbs, with a brief sketch of the life of Benjamin Franklin. Waterloo, U. S. C. Publishing Co. Page 14. Google Book Search: “Poor Richards”.

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