A reader writes:
I’m a entry-level development officer at a small graduate school. Our school houses, among other programs, a counselor education department. Yesterday was an important day in the counselor ed. department. The new class of counselors-in-training had their first hands-on counseling experience, which involved meeting with some (paid) volunteers for half-hour sessions.
30 minutes before the counseling sessions were supposed to begin, one of the volunteers backed out. The program administrator scrambled to find a replacement but was unable to do so. When I heard about the problem, I volunteered to serve as a “test subject.” In my rush to help, I didn’t really think through the possible consequences of my decision.
I was instructed to choose a real problem in my life to discuss, but nothing overly personal. I decided to share about a difficult decision I need to make – while I’m struggling to make up my mind, I’ve talked openly about this decision with my friends, pastor, boss, and others. It didn’t seem like it would be a big deal to talk this over with a counseling student.
Either these students are really good or I was more sensitive about this topic than I thought. 15 minutes into my first session I was in tears. Not big choking sobs or anything, but I definitely needed to take a moment to compose myself. Wow – not what I expected! I maintained my composure in the next sessions with different counselors, but barely.
Because this is a teaching clinic, all sessions are recorded and discussed in class. I was aware of this when I agreed to participate. I failed to consider, however, that two of my student workers are enrolled in this class. My student workers are both in the counseling program as part of a significant career change. Between the two of them, they have 20+ years of professional work experience – WAY more than me. So I’ve tried really hard to be professional and competent in front of them as a way to maintain my credibility as a manager. Now I’m afraid that by participating in this counseling and losing my composure, I’ll have undone the credibility I worked hard to achieve.
In hindsight, I now recognize that it’s a pretty stupid thing to agree to participate in a psychological study conducted (in part) by one’s direct reports. Lesson learned! But in the meantime, is there anything I can do to control the damage? Should I speak about this with my direct-reports, or just hope that my case wasn’t discussed in class, ignore it, and move on?
I wouldn’t worry too much about this! Just getting a little teary and needing a minute to compose yourself is … well, pretty damn normal in counseling sessions. Your student workers are in a counseling program, so they presumably know this and are pretty comfortable with displays of emotion. (They might even think it’s admirable that you opened up in that particular context.)
If you really feel uncomfortable about it, I think you could go to the program administrator and explain that you were caught off-guard by your reaction and hadn’t realized that the session would elicit such a strong emotional response from you — and that you’re feeling awkward about your student workers seeing it.
But if you can put it out of your mind, I encourage you to. Keep being professional and competent in your dealings with them, and don’t let this rattle you. Credibility isn’t broken by displaying emotion in the very place where emotion belongs.