After months of anticipation, I’ve finally started my counseling degree, and I turned in my first assignment yesterday. The assignment was for my Basic Skills class, and we’d been instructed to create an outline of meeting with a client for the first time. We focused on covering informed consent protocol and multicultural competency. Throughout the semester in this Basic Skills class, we work in counseling dyad teams (one “counselor” and one “client”) and tape each other, preparing an analysis of last week’s session to hand in for each new week we meet. This allows us to get both practice speaking with “clients”, and feedback on the work we do on a regular basis.
For me, this assignment encapsulated everything I’ve been excited to start working on since I was accepted to the program. My entire reason for leaving geology in the first place stemmed from what I perceived as an unacceptable lack of focus on social justice work in my potential career. Writing an outline of how I would be doing my job seemed like such a fitting introduction to this new part of my life. I worked for ages on making each word perfect, and getting across exactly what I wanted to say, and, and, and —
and it turns out that counseling isn’t really about writing papers at all.
I was so proud of what I’d written, but the second the tape recorder clicked on, everything blanked out for me. I could have looked down at my paper, but the lecture that night had been all about earning trust. If I were a client and my counselor read a statement from a piece of paper, I would have left. So I blazed my way through it, trying ridiculously hard to remember the bolded headers in my outline, making sure I got all the points out without using five-dollar words, and doing my best to keep my tone conversational. When I was finished I turned off the tape recorder, let out a big enormous breath because WOAH, and looked at my partner for feedback.
“You did really well,” she said, “but honestly, between us, if a counselor had said all of that to me on our first session, I’d be out of there.”
I want to make it clear that she wasn’t putting me down. We’d been given the main points that our outline needed to contain, and you couldn’t pare it down for the purposes of this exercise. She was just airing a general grievance about an assignment that she had to do as well — on this particular instance she disagreed with the instructor’s method of gaining trust, and felt that a wordy, monologue-esque outline of informed consent and multicultural competency got in the way of the counselor/client relationship. And I can totally see that. I think that maybe for a lot of (most?) people, that’s true.
However, I had never even considered that someone might feel that way. When we got this assignment, I was excited because it was meaty. Something I could sink my teeth into, something I could use as a platform to fully articulate how I want social justice, diversity, and multiculturalism to fit into my professional life. I’m at a point in my life right now where from a professional standpoint, that’s about all I want to talk about. And so it was such a strange, foreign feeling to me to hear a classmate saying that the speeches we had to prepare were what she was specifically not looking for from a client/counselor relationship.
It didn’t make me feel any worse about what I had written, or about how I’d performed. (For what it’s worth, I listened to the recording to write my analysis tonight and I am honestly pretty proud of myself.) It was just a difference of opinion, and I respect that, and I think it’s really important to talk about it because if a counseling student feels that way then the chances are good that I’ll work with a client sooner rather than later who feels the same way, and I need to recognize that. What it did make me do was think about the concept of eagerness.
I am so excited to be in a field where we are finally encouraged to talk about these things. We are asked to “break the ice” with a client that might initially be skeptical about relating to us by immediately acknowledging our very superficial & obvious differences, which is a) not typical of all other interactions I’ve ever had and b) terrifying. frankly. But it also feels good, to me, because I’ve spent the last two years of my life coming to terms with what makes me different from others, and what that means for both my own humanity and others’. I’ve thought this entire time that that interest, which translates practically into an eagerness to discuss this huge “multiculturalism” word that keeps getting thrown around in all of my syllabuses, would be a good thing, would be a driving force. And I’m sure that there will be many instances throughout this degree where it will be, but last night was the first time I’ve ever come face-to-face with the notion that sometimes, it will not be. Sometimes, I will sit down with clients and the last thing they’ll want to hear is a little excited young white girl talking about how different I know we are, and isn’t that wonderful and beautiful, and we’re going to have such a great time together, aren’t you excited!!
Writing the outline was a good experience for me. It was hard. It forced me to think about myself from a professional standpoint in a counseling context, which I had honestly never done before. It made me articulate my goals, both as a person and as a person practicing counseling. But I think that carefully presenting the outline verbally to someone who was less than impressed was maybe even a more valuable experience.