She was an acclaimed writer. But she had writer’s block. There was nothing she could do to get her creative mojo back.
Her psychotherapist was a writer too by the name of Irvin Yalom.
So he suggested an exercise for them both, in an attempt to inspire her.
At the end of each session they would each write up an account of it.
After a few months, they would swap journals and read the other’s insights.
She liked the idea and the journal got her writing again.
After each therapy session with Yalom, she would return home and write up her take on it. He would do the same in his office.
Eventually, it was time to swap journals.
Yalom was excited. He was keen to read how his ingenious insights had affected her.
He remembered each session clearly from his own journal. The incredible metaphor he’d used. The life changing nugget of wisdom.
He couldn’t wait to read about their impact.
Yet they weren’t there. He was stunned.
His client had picked up something entirely different from each session.
The moments that he believed had been groundbreaking didn’t even merit an entry in her journal.
Things were shifting for his writer client. That much was obvious. Her life was getting better.
Yet it was almost as if they had attended different sessions.
The things he thought had been key were different from what she felt had been helpful.
Without this exercise, Yalom would never have known what had really made a difference to his client. He discovered it almost by accident.
He would have missed out on crucial insights from the very person he was seeking to help.
I loved this story so much, that it taught me to end my sessions differently.
It’s not unusual for a therapist or counsellor to sum up the session.
They will share their observations of what has been important about the session.
Yet, as Yalom discovered, chances are that this is not what has been important about the session at all.
So I ask rather than tell. I learn rather than pronounce.
I’m curious to discover what their take away is from having listened to themself reflect. So I ask them.
Like Yalom, I am often surprised and wowed by their answers.
It is a crucial moment of reflection. It allows a moment of thinking to crystallise what they learned while talking.
It allows the person to leave the session with a self written powerful idea to take into the week.
For instance, one person said: “I am my own worst enemy and my own superhero, and I get to choose who to be.”
Would I have come up with that? Doubtful.
Even if I had, would I have timed it so perfectly that I would pick the exact moment when it would fit so well?
For a therapist to declare the key learning of the session misses a golden opportunity.
A lot of learning and change happens in that question. Both for them, and for me.
They develop their philosophy of change in a way that they can carry with them.
I learn what that is in their own words.
Yalom had to wait months to find out what was truly useful. He must have been barking up the wrong tree a lot of the time.
By asking this question every time, I get to find out while the change is happening.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice