“You have really pretty hair.”
This was not the statement that my friend expected to hear at that moment. Not from her therapist. Especially not in the middle of a rather emotional counseling session.
Sometimes it can be very difficult to know how to respond to a consumer (client, patient- they are all the same, but for my purposes I will be referring to them as consumers or cons throughout) during a particularly emotional session. But as counselors, therapists, and social workers, we have been trained on how to be empathetic to our consumers’ needs; even if that response is just a non-verbal one. We strive to help our consumers feel as if they are in a safe environment, where they can open up and be heard. And while there are some situations where a consumer might try to take advantage of that empathy (some cons with borderline personality disorder come directly to mind), as professionals we seek to respond to these situations in a manner that will hopefully allow the cons to become more open and honest with him or herself. This alteration allowing the cons to process the root of their issues, rather than just the issues they continue to create.
So while it is often human nature to freeze-up or become verbally inept when confronted with emotional or confrontational situations, it is important for us to remember that there is another human on the other side of that exchange.
So when this professional therapist interrupted my friend and her emotional disclosure to give an out-of-context compliment of her hair, it lead my friend to wonder if that therapist even knew what empathy meant. With one little phrase, that session, and any future sessions with that therapist, was effectively over.