Since my last post I’ve felt a bit conflicted about posting advice. Conflicting with this conflict, on the other hand, have been numerous instances of people I work with asking me for advice. That’s not unusual, of course. It’s just that my reflections on advice giving really brought these requests to my attention. Perhaps it’s also what reminded me of a cheeky comment made by a long-ago colleague who said something along the lines of, “If therapists really have no expertise or skill, people might as well talk to the neighbour.”
Depending on the neighbour of course, that’s not actually a bad idea. In grad school, I remember reading something (which I looked for, and *cannot* find) indicating that talking with a psychotherapist is more effective than talking with a friend, bartender or hairdresser… but not as much as psychotherapists might like to believe.
I like to think that my professor made us read that long lost article, for the same reason Han Solo yelled at the excited young Luke Skywalker — who had just blasted his first bad guy from the gun turret of the Milennium Falcon — “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.”
Getting cocky is at least as bad for therapists as it is for budding Jedi Knights. Unless you’ve never seen the Star Wars movies (is that even possible?) you’ll know that Luke goes on to be lectured on the theme of restraining cockiness by a teacher much wiser and greener than Han Solo.
Of course! Why didn’t I think of Yoda sooner? Tsk. I could have saved myself a lot of time and angst over the last few weeks, if I had just considered Yoda.
Think about it. If anyone had the right to dish out advice, it was Yoda. Yet when Luke meets him, Yoda is crawling around in the mud, scavenging food scraps and making jokes.
The Humble Expert
I spent a lot of time after my last post, mentally sweating over the dilemma of the built-in condescension in a career as a helping professional. Saying “I can help” is, when you get right down to it, also saying “I think highly of my knowledge and skills.” I might put the first one on my business card; but the second one? Not so much.
But back to the people who asked me for advice. People seek out therapy in part because they’re looking for something more than the neighbour (or friend, or aunt, or bartender…) can offer. “Expertise” is one possible word to describe that something. When I go to therapy, I very much want to know that the therapist has some expertise.
Yet at the same time, many people have told me about negative experiences with a therapist (or other helping professional), which they often describe in terms of the therapist acting “like a big expert” or “know-it-all”.
At first glance, this seems contradictory and confusing. Is expertise desirable, or offensive?
I think getting turned-off by a know-it-all is not about that person’s expertise; but their ego. Some time ago, I blogged about Dr. David Burns claiming that a therapist’s ego must die, in order to be helpful. In less dramatic terms, we could just say there’s no reason why an expert must be egotistical. It’s not a requirement.
An expert can be humble. And guess what? Research has come up with a list of awesome things associated with humility. When you look at these amazing benefits, it seems like everyone – not just therapists – should be hoppin’ on the old humble wagon.
OK, so while death of the ego and humility sound great to me — partly because both are exactly what Yoda would recommend — how exactly does one kill an ego? How does one become humble?
Listen. Really Listen.
In one of those great coincidences which occasionally happen in life, I just happened to talk with a wise person earlier today, who answered these questions for me without knowing I had asked them. The topic of ego among helping professionals came up, and she casually said, “Sometimes we’re busy being the expert, and don’t listen.”
Bam! There it was.
Excited, I quickly begged her permission to use her amazing words. Happily, she gave it.
A know-it-all is offensive because a know-it-all is not listening. There’s no reason to listen because, well… they already know-it-all.
You might be thinking, “Aren’t therapists supposed to listen?” Indeed. But as Dr. Burns (and Yoda) point out, ego gets in the way.
Now in fairness to therapists, listening — really listening — is actually amazingly hard. It is often uncomfortable. Sometimes it is actually painful. Occasionally it can be humiliating. Which is kind of a good thing, because by definition, that’s going to promote more humility.
I’ll end it there, for two reasons. #1: I haven’t posted in far too long, and need to end that particular streak. #2: I’m now fairly pumped about writing the next post, which will be about the difficult task of listening.