(This is a revision of Tip #83, first published in 2009)
Nobody’s perfect. We have all goofed at times and regretted something that cannot be taken back. Some examples:
- You gave the wrong information to a client.
- You double-booked or missed an appointment.
- After a session, you realize that you missed an important piece of education.
- There was a misunderstanding about appointment time, length, fee, expectations or your policies.
- Confidentiality was breached.
- You get feedback that you inadvertently hurt a client’s feelings or offended him.
Humility is wisdom.
Shame is not.
Give me a fruitful error any time,
full of seeds,
bursting with its own corrections.
Professionally handling these mistakes repairs the counseling relationship and helps maintain your good reputation. Relationships do recover from rifts and can even become stronger because of the bump in the road.
Apologies go a long way. Simply and clearly apologize for what you regret doing. A simple apology is enough unless the client asks for more information. No need to go on and on or make excuses or get defensive. “I want to begin our session today with an apology. I am aware that you ran into one of your classmates in my waiting room last week. I know you have not told anyone at school about coming to see me and I knew you two go to the same school. I should have taken care to schedule her on a different day. I will make sure to do that in the future.”
Maybe briefly empathize. “That must have been upsetting when you left my office and saw that girl here.” Often clients will deny that your behavior hurt out of politeness. When a client says, “That’s OK,” I have learned to respond, “Well, it wasn’t OK, and I am sorry.” Sometimes the client’s “OK” means she accepts your apology. It is only your job to apologize and empathize. It is up to the client to choose whether to take in your apology and empathy.
With some clients, it may be necessary to take more care with the repair process. Clients who have difficulty trusting, especially those who have experienced trauma (Tip #78), will find it more unsettling. Taking care to repair the rift will strengthen the relationship and will help the client learn how to develop trust. If your client has a therapist, inform the therapist about the mistake. This can be extremely useful material for the therapy process.
Take Care of Yourself:
A vital part of this process is to recover from the embarrassment or shame you feel. This may mean forgiving yourself for making the mistake. The sooner you accomplish this, the more professionally you will be able to focus on the client and the repair process. If you find yourself dwelling on the mistake, bring it up with a colleague or in supervision. Consider laughing at yourself, “Boy, I am still a work in progress, aren’t I?” Some find it useful to think of quotes such as the ones at the opening of this Tip. Here are more.
Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible, hurtful behavior. Nor is it a superficial turning of the other cheek that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is the finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present, free of contamination from the past.
The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.
Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.
When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.
We may in fact disappoint ourselves, may not meet our own expectations, but we do not cease to be a friend to ourselves.
For some forgiveness may not fit. The shame may remain. In that case, notice it and acknowledge it. Perhaps find a way to comfort the part of you that hurts. Some do this through prayer or meditation or a nice walk in nature, bringing the hurt part along.