In our culture, there’s a common expectation for therapists and coaches to be ‘wise’. When depicted in the media, we’re usually portrayed as knowledgeable, offering specific advice on everything from relationships to personal challenges. We seem most valuable when imparting wisdom on how to navigate life’s difficulties. The idea of the ‘wise’ therapist or coach has become prevalent because it fits well in media formats like columns and radio shows.
No wonder then that many of us feel that we have to be wise to be potent. The best therapists, we think, are those who can interpret the ‘real’ problem and assign the solution. The best of us, we assume, know our clients better than they know themselves, and with pearls of wisdom leave our clients open-mouthed in amazement.
But this whole paradigm is flawed. You do not need to be wise and can stop striving for it. The pursuit of being wise will only get in your way. Here’s why:
- It has a 90% failure rate.
- It nurtures weird power dynamics.
- It is much less effective.
90% Failure Rate
What does it mean to be considered ‘wise’? Not everyone can be thought of as wise. If everyone qualified for the term, it would cease to exist. The whole notion of wise implies a certain amount of exclusivity. When we think of someone as wise, we mean that they are in the top, say, 10% of insightful people.
If the only way to be a great therapist or coach is to be wise, that’s a 90% failure rate. And what of our clients? Stuck with mainly therapists and coaches who don’t qualify as being worthy of guru status.
Weird Power Dynamics
If I am wise and you are not, then when you come for my help you should shut up and listen – then do as I say. That gives me a lot of power, and takes a lot of power from you. It’s an obedience model.
I don’t mind this from my plumber. My plumber knows things about pipes I don’t even want to learn. But it gets icky when I cede this agency to another about something I do know plenty about – me.
The guru-disciple relationship is fraught with power inequality. If the guru happens to be benign then phew. But if not, it leads to the kind of abuses seen in cults or exploitative personal development programs. Check your Netflix documentaries for plentiful examples. Or just Google the name Jacqui Lee Schiff for a dreadful example from psychotherapy.
Much Less Effective
If we see practitioner wisdom as the source of change, we miss the most significant source of insight: the clients themselves. In emphasizing the therapist or coach as the wise one, we inevitably overlook the valuable experiences and insights that clients bring.
Anyone who works experientially, as I do, will know what I mean. I witness clients hitting upon key moments of learning and discovery daily. Not because of wise things I have said, but because of the client’s own internal explorations. I set up experiences that allow them, as Bruce Ecker beautifully puts it, to “bump into” these insights.
Moreover, their discoveries and lightbulb moments often surprise me. Every time I am surprised in this way, it reminds me how unreliable my own guesses were.
Does that mean I’m not wise? Maybe, but who cares? Instead, I am skilful. I don’t need to be wise.
So, what should we aim for if not wisdom? The answer is skills. Therapists and coaches can stop striving to be wise. Instead, we need to be skilled. Specifically to become skilled at triggering memory reconsolidation.
Memory reconsolidation is the only known brain mechanism that removes trauma response and other emotional learnings. As therapists and coaches, our job is to master this process because it creates permanent change. Once triggered, there is no longer the need for trauma management. Instead, the trauma response is erased.
Take the analogy of doctors: we don’t expect them to be wise to dilate pupils – we teach them the skill of using a light. All doctors have this skill, not just the 10% who are considered wise.
In the same way, your job as a therapist or coach is to master the skills that help the brain do what it naturally knows how to do. There may be a 10% limit to being wise that excludes the rest of us. There is no such exclusion to becoming skilful.
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