This is a story about collaboration.
When I was six years old, I spent a few weeks in the hospital for kidney surgery. It was a pretty big deal. This was after struggling literally my entire life with health issues no one quite understood or knew how to manage.
Those years as a patient gave me my laser-point-focus on client care, by the way. The waiting room thing (#10), the introduce yourself on the phone thing (#6)… Most of the posts in this series reflect things I’ve learned as a patient, not as a clinician.
So. Back to the hospital. I was a skinny kid. Puny. Pale. Hospital food and green jello weren’t helping. I wasn’t rebounding after surgery like a hardier kid would have.
My parents were worried. My doctor was worried.
One day my mom told me my doctor was going to do a consultation.
This sounded like a BIG DEAL.
Mary Engelbreit had those wonderful mugs and calendars in the ‘90s. Remember those? The ones with the lady in the hat and the round glasses? She could have been your aunt or your grammie or your best friend. One of my clients way back then gave me a Mary Engelbreit mug that I have to this day. It says, “Let’s put the fun back in dysfunctional.”
My client said it reminded her of me.
Irreverent? Yes. Inappropriate? Maybe. Compliment? Absolutely!
What does that mean? To put the fun back in dysfunctional? I mean, true dysfunction isn’t fun, is it?
Of course not. We hear terrible things in our thoughtfully appointed spaces. Stories of abuse, of fear, of shame, of intolerable memories. But “dysfunction” is a modern concept that applies meaning to someone else’s reality. All families function, don’t they? Maybe they don’t function well, in our view. Maybe they’re wildly chaotic – a veritable goat rodeo, as we say down here in Texas.
So there’s that thing that happens when you pull into the lot and grab your stuff and unlock the door to YOUR office. Have you noticed it? That teeny little flash of pride and self-importance? (*Ouch* Guilty!)
You walk into YOUR waiting room – thoughtfully furnished, hopefully. (If not, see the first post in this series – Your waiting room matters!) You switch on the lamp, straighten the magazines. Start the coffee, or in my case ask Veronica how things are going and do we have teabags? (We always have teabags because Veronica is amazing.) You pull your files for the day. Settle in. And you look around and you think, “I’VE DONE THIS!” I’ve created this great space for people to come talk to ME. And now I’m going to HELP people all day!! Aren’t I just the best thing since biscuits in a can?
Well, you ARE. Seriously. Your clients think so, anyway. After all, they’re PAYING you to come sit in that thoughtfully created space and talk to you.
As therapists, we like to think we’re bringing a lot of heavy gear into the room with us. Loaded up like Navy SEALs. We strap on our educations. We wear our titles like medals. Our licenses like awards. We can toss out book titles. Hand out homework. Whip out our checklists and surveys. Shoot the breeze. Check in.
We listen. We nod. We observe. We reflect. We reframe.
We are loaded up with tricks. Or possibly overloaded with them.
It’s easy to rely on the gear. But here’s a thought. Instead of walking in with the gear, all camo and full metal jacket, maybe think of yourself as Barney Fife. With just the one bullet. Your one bullet being your personhood – your personality. Be the bullet.
You are the sum of what you know. Of what you’ve experienced. Of the things that make you laugh, that make you interesting, that keep you interested. Sure – school and licenses and supervision and experience –
Client care is the art of personalization. The art of treating people like people. People with names and stories. People who deserve to be treated with common courtesy and respect.
A phone call to your office isn’t just a phone call. It’s the act of a person reaching out to you for help.
Go back to the receptionist scenario. You dial your doctor’s office. Ring, ring… “Doctor’s office.” Doctor’s office?? You can’t be more specific than that? Wait, which doctor? Have I called the right office? How many doctors are there in that office anyway? Who is this person answering the phone? Is this the same person I talked to about the insurance thing last week? Or do I need to start over with that whole story? Does this person know who I am? Do I know who I am? I’m sinking into existential crisis… .
The truth is, a phone call to your office isn’t just a phone call. It’s the culmination of the effort it takes for a person to reach out to you for help
A disembodied voice on the phone is disorienting and confusing.
You’ve heard it before. Client care begins with the phone call. Too often we forget about the impetus for the call. The context. Years, typically, of pain, anxiety, frustration, or conflict that motivate someone to call you – a complete stranger – for help. Think about what a big deal that is.
Things have gotten out of hand in someone’s life. Pain overcomes fear of change. So they do a web search. Or ask a friend. And they pick up the phone and call. This is the moment therapy begins. We shape their experience from that first moment they punch in the phone number.
Think about your own experience as a patient. How many times have you called a doctor’s office and asked for an appointment and the receptionist asks for your date of birth? Not your name. Your DOB. “Hi, I’d like to make an appointment with Dr. Fancy Pants.” “Are you an existing patient?” Hmmmm. Hard not to take this as an existential question but you persist.
Think about the last time you went to see your doctor. You take time off work, drive to the doctor’s office, search for a parking place, take the elevator to the correct floor, find the right nameplate in the maze of hallways, enter the stuffy waiting room … and wait … and wait … and wait. All the while checking your watch and wondering why your time is less valuable than your doctor’s. Well, duh. It isn’t. At that moment in the stuffy waiting room, it’s obvious that your time is, in fact, QUITE valuable. Tick tock, doc!!
It’s easy to forget that our clients are paying FOR our time and WITH their time
Now flip the scenario and think of it from your clients’ point of view. As a clinician, you are no doubt aware that clients are paying FOR your time. It’s easy to forget, however, that they’re also paying WITH their time. Don’t take that investment lightly. Wait times should be short.
Think of it as wearing itchy clothing around all day long – except the itching is in your soul and the itching never stops. People seek help when the itching becomes too uncomfortable to ignore. Therapists have the opportunity to make it harder or easier for them to reach out. Take a look around and evaluate whether your environment is awkward or inviting.
Is your office nice? Would you entertain a guest there? If not, re-read the waiting room post (#10) and lather, rinse, repeat. Be a host. Offer everyone who walks in your door a bottle of water or a cup of tea or coffee. Make sure they know where everything is. Keep the tissues handy. Allow them to sit wherever they want. Fluff the pillows. Keep a soft throw blanket handy. Put things on your coffee table that they can fiddle with while they’re telling you their problems. Buy a slinky. It will cheer everyone up!
Every single person who walks into a therapy office feels awkward and uncomfortable.
#10 – Your waiting room matters
Next time you go to your office, enter through the front door instead of the back. Imagine your clients opening the door from a stuffy hallway and entering … your stuffy waiting room.
Take a look at the walls. Do you have faded Monet prints from your graduate school apartment hanging up there? Check the rug. Chances are it could use a swipe or two with the Bissell. Ask yourself – who was President when I picked out this furniture? If it was more than one President ago, it’s time to freshen things up. And I think we can all agree that no one needs to read a three year-old issue of Time magazine. Spend $50 a year on current, interesting magazines (for women AND men – not everyone is enthralled by the virtues of closet shoe organizers). And for goodness sake, NO FLUORESCENT LIGHTS! No one wants to look AND feel bad at the same time!
Your waiting room matters.