A practice I have employed with clinical and consulting clients is the use of a follow-up note. Sounds simple, but it takes some time, thought, and extra effort if it is to be of value. Let me describe the way I use this practice. And perhaps the best way to begin is to offer a concrete example.
In this case, it’s a note to a professional couple I’ve been seeing about some difficulties they’ve been having in their relationship.
A few important things emerged this evening. We talked about what’s within and outside the “box” of our self-concept and self-awareness. We are tempted to disown and disavow the negative reactive emotions that can drive nonconstructive behavior, behavior we later regret, behavior we associate with ways of being we want no part of. However, when we exclude those reactive tendencies from our self-concept (as vulnerabilities) we are less able to understand them and bring them under our conscious control.
But there are ways to bring these less attractive tendencies in thought, feeling, and behavior within our conscious control by: 1) making it emotionally safe for others to give us feedback about what we did and how it affected them; 2) being curious (not judgmental) about the whole of our actual self, “warts and all,” and seeking to understand the feelings that we’re tempted to disavow (such as fear, anger, shame, insecurity) and what triggers them; and 3) journaling (simple notes on self-observations or experiences), which can help us capture these observations for discussion in therapy.
It can be helpful, especially when communication capabilities are not what they need to be, to employ the following ground rules: 1) when giving feedback try to do it in person rather than by email or text, and avoid sarcasm, humor, or hostile tone; 2) when receiving feedback assume positive intentions and seek first to understand – regard it as “data” for you to use, look for meaning through active listening, clarifying the message, and asking for any behavioral specifics that help you understand the issues; and 3) ask the other person if he/she would be okay with you offering an explanation of what you were reacting to, what you were thinking and feeling, and what (if anything) you were intending – be honest, don’t whitewash it.
This guidance requires a capacity to be more aware of your experience (feelings, thoughts, actions) and that of others. Notice the attitudes and energy you bring into the home or the room before you enter. It’s okay to not have the words, to listen more than talk, to ask more than answer, to be a bit quieter (and I don’t mean the “silent treatment”).
We are all works in process, persons in states of becoming, couples on our way through life, families trying to support one another. Just do your best between now and the next time meet. Note some of your thoughts and observations about self and interactions.
Why the Note?
Our conversations in therapy or coaching are often most valuable in virtue of the insights they yield. Insights about self, situations, and others arise from examining our experience, expressing our thoughts and feelings, noticing what we are reacting to, and what is motivating us to act as we do. This kind of dialogue frees us to learn from our experience, to make choices about what we want to do differently.
Neither I nor the client knows in advance what will arise, but we know that this is the place to notice things that we don’t normally notice in the course of everyday life. Once noticed, we’re able to examine them. We find words that resonate for us and seem to reframe an experience, feeling, or situation in ways that illuminate it. These words then carry fresh meaning, evocative meaning that lends significance to our experience, which may have been concealed in our ordinary ways of thinking and speaking.
Insights have implications for action. There may be in-session action (articulation of meaning, decisions, goal-setting), but the overt behavioral action that produces change mostly occurs in intervals between sessions. The note memorializes these insight-based conversations we’ve had and the in-session actions taken. It uses our evocative words to reactivate the meaning and felt effects of insights from therapy. And this activated meaning motivates us, gives us reason to act differently.
That’s the rationale for using a note to clients. I hope it also takes some of the mystery out of what happens in a therapy or coaching session – how change actually happens. Sessions vary. Sometimes they include advice and problem solving. But even then, it’s the captured insights, transformed into words of significance, which provides guidance for action between sessions. Insights are thereby appropriated as durable resources of practical wisdom.