A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation. ~ Mark Twain
While it’s unlikely Mark Twain was considering counselling or psychotherapy when he uttered these words, they certainly apply. It was early in my career as a Licensed Professional Counselor that I realized how important adjectives are to our work and to the mental health of clients. Sure, other parts of speech are important as well, though you’d be hard pressed to prove the importance of prepositions in evaluating someone’s personality. Nouns are important as they often play a role in identity. What a person does (truck driver, computer programmer, dancer) and the roles they play (spouse, parent, student) are nouns; thus, area significant part of their identity. Certainly, nouns are things we need to give attention to when providing counselling services. But the real power and focus of our work are the adjectives.
Adjectives Describe a Person’s World-View
When it’s time to understand a client’s world view, we must pay close attention to how they describe things. It’s not just what they do and the roles they play that matter, but how they think and feel about those nouns. Sure, they are a dancer, and it pays the bills, but how do they feel about dancing? Does it make them happy? Do they still find it to be interesting, fulfilling or difficult and stressful? What about their actual dancing? Do they believe themselves to be an excellent dancer, or just fair, or adequate? Perhaps they describe themselves as a sensitive, loving spouse. However, they feel that their partner is strong, but troubled. Whatever facet of a client’s life is being processed, the adjectives are what we hone in on help us understand where they are. It will be those words that we follow-up on, delve deeper into. It also goes without saying that emotions are integral to our work, and emotions are all adjectives!
A Tool to Get Straight to It
It was this realization about the power of adjectives that led me to create the Describe deck of cards. In Describe, each card has an adjective, as well as three related, open-ended questions. With these questions in mind, over several years, I developed more than two dozen activities and games for individuals, couples, families, and groups that focus on bringing those adjectives out and generating insight. Clients also tend to find it easier to access these words in the context of an activity or game, rather than being put on the spot to search the recesses of their mind for just the right word. With the cards, they can choose an adjective with less pressure. Less pressure means clearer communication and understanding and cutting to the chase more quickly
Often, with newer clients, I have them choose four important people in their lives, then create a stack of adjectives that describes each person, plus a stack that describes themselves. We then process why they chose each card. This selection allows me to very quickly understand their view of themselves and their most important relationships. For example, I may have already gathered from an initial interview that the client’s father is retired and lives a couple of hours away. Through this activity, I may also learn that the father is strong, safe, responsible, and shallow. The door is now open to more fully explore any of those descriptors.
Across Modalities and Challenges
The focus on adjectives is also useful with interventions associated with specific issues. For example, with self-esteem or identity, it’s helpful to have the person choose the adjectives that describe the ideal person they strive to be. Processing those adjectives allows us to set goals and assess where they are, currently. For example, if one of their words is successful, we discuss what being successful means to them and how they will know they are successful. We can even process whether that definition is internal or external. Are they measuring success by their own set of values, or by those imposed by culture/society? When addressing self-esteem, I ask clients to rate themselves from 0 to 5 (with 5 being high) on each of their words. By working with Describe, they were able to get out of their head enough to see they have been doing a good job of being the person they are striving to be, and simply haven’t been giving themselves credit!
In talking with others who have used Describe, I’ve learned that this approach is useful across theoretical perspectives. Whether a counsellor’s approach is rooted in Cognitive Behavioral (CBT), Psychodynamic, Person-Centered, Integrative or others, adjectives play an important role. For example, in CBT, we might note that a client struggles with global judgments or labelling. They may have Automatic Thoughts that they are boring, stupid, or annoying. Those adjectives that need to be challenged and modified.
The power of adjectives isn’t relegated to only individual work. In relationships, families, and groups, examining the words people use to describe themselves and each other can bring interesting and productive results. More than once I’ve had relationship partners choose adjectives to describe one another only to find they hadn’t been expressing many (or any) of the positive ones toward one another for some time. When I hear one of them say, “That’s the first time I’ve heard you say that I’m attractive, intelligent, and funny in months!” I know that we have work to do, but because of Describe, that work is already started.
Describe is currently running a Kickstarter campaign, checkout the video below to support or learn more.
Rob Reinhardt, LPCS is CEO is the creator of Describe, the popular deck of cards and activities that can be used with individuals, families and groups of all ages. Rob is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor in North Carolina (U.S.A), and has been in private practice for over ten years. He is also CEO of Tame Your Practice, and is well known for his expertise in helping therapists choose “best fit” software solutions. He is the author of the Guide to Choosing An EHR, and co-author of Private Practice Preparedness, is a Column Editor for Counseling Today, and co-host of the popular podcast, TherapyTech with Rob and Roy.