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Why I Like Making Mistakes With My Clients

May 18 why I like making mistakes
Image by Debbie Digioia
Here’s a true story about a very good day I had at work. First, a client arrived when I didn’t expect her and kept apologizing for getting the session time wrong. I told her to come on in (the benefits of having a home office) because I happened to be free. Then, when we went to schedule our next session, I saw right in my appointment book that she’d arrived at the correct time and I had misremembered when her session was. After her, I had a difference of opinion with a client about owing me money. Knowing how notoriously poor I am in math, she patiently walked me through the amounts she’d paid, with check numbers and all, until I finally saw the light. A very good day, indeed.
Why on earth, you might be asking yourself, would I consider making two bloopers in one day a good thing? I’ll tell you why: Possibly the most important lesson I can teach clients is that it’s fine to make mistakes. Almost all of my clients want to be competent, clever, wise, and right about their choices—in short, they wish to be perfect. And, because they’re just as human as you or I am, they fall completely apart when they make mistakes or don’t do things as well as they wished they had.
The client who was right about her appointment time is too quick to apologize when things go wrong. She’s so careful, that mostly when someone is at fault it really isn’t her and that’s too bad, because then she never gets to experience failing and failure. The client who corrected my math was responsible for keeping her alcoholic parents functioning and taking care of five younger siblings. She got screamed at for making the tiniest mistakes and was blamed for everything that went wrong in the household. To this day, she feels at fault for most of the bad things that happen in her life (or in the world) even though she is a kind, caring and generous person through and through.
My biggest gift to these clients is showing them that making mistakes is no big deal. I go out of my way to apologize whenever it’s appropriate to show that it’s normal and natural and that it’s not a painful ordeal to be wrong or make mistakes. I try to model how I would like them to be. Many of them have never met anyone who’s fine with being wrong or not good enough. It’s a shock to their system that I, of all people—in their eyes, the wise, know it all and comforter of misery)—make mistakes. My apologies go a long way toward re-educating them and correcting the impression that it’s not okay to stumble and fumble. I laugh at myself and encourage them to laugh along with me.
If I met you, I have little doubt that you would be like many of my patients, struggling so hard to be good or the best. A far better choice: to just be human.