Robert Heasley, PhD, discusses the impression his office makes on his work.
When I started my training as a therapist, I did my internship hours at a community counseling center, one that had a suite of offices. I was assigned to various offices throughout my 2 years at the agency – being assigned to whatever office was available on any one day. Since these offices were used by full-time therapists, and in some cases administrative staff, they were furnished in accordance to the primary office user’s particular taste. I was acutely aware of working with clients in offices not of my liking, and certainly different from the energy I wanted to bring to my work. Among the variety of offices was:
- The room used to store stacks of boxes filled with survey forms and transcribed interviews, along with the desk of the in-house researcher. There were two chairs tucked among the boxes.
- The agency’s marketing director’s office: a cold, sterile room with the usual business desk and small conference table. My client and I would have the session with two straight-back chairs facing each other, pushed away from the table.
- The “designer” office: a plush leather sofa and matching chairs, artistically designed lighting, and beautiful art work.
Over a period of three scheduled sessions, a client could have met with me in a research/storage space, a marketing office, or the designer “suite.” There were other office variations of course, offices with a broken lamp, a noisy neighbor, and a range of average looking and feeling offices, mostly with unmatched furniture, some with only overhead lighting, and others with pleasant but undistinctive characteristics. Such offices gave the impression that no one with a sense of aesthetics had made a decision about how to fill the space.
During this time, I realized that regardless of the space where I met my client or couple, the session itself did not seem to be effected. The clients’ focus was on the issues at hand, not the setting in which the session was taking place. Yet, while the setting did not seem to change the way clients used the session – tears were tears, events in their lives were told with the same pace and reflection, the issues at hand were the issues at hand – my ability to concentrate and even communicate with my client was effected. It took a different energy for me to do the same interaction with the client when I was in the research/storage room compared to the designer room. I went from feeling cramped physically among the boxes and boxes of files in one space while feeling I was an imposter in the spacious leather-enhanced office that was beyond my status at the agency (and admittedly was a stretch given my working class upbringing).. Similarly, the business office with its upright chairs, standard office lamps ], and lack of wall hangings, proved an almost impossible setting to engage with clients on an emotional level without blocking out both the visual and physical aspects of the space.
What I came to realize over the early years of my training was that the space I was in didn’t seem to matter a lot to my clients, but it did matter to me. I worked harder in spaces that didn’t reflect my character, including my aesthetic. The designer office was too grand; the business office was too sterile. When I completed my program and prepared to set up my own office, I gave a lot of thought to space. I suspect many therapists do. This was a time to think about what type of space I could afford, but also and perhaps more importantly about what type of energy and aesthetic I wanted my office to have. From lighting to seating, visual appeal to accessibility, I came to realize the office was about me, even more than it was about my client. I was inviting people into a setting where opportunity for intimate exchanges would be taking place, exchanges that required I –not just my client — would be at ease and have the fullest level of attention. The office was about taking care of myself so I could do my best work in being a resource to my clients.
Since I introduce myself to new clients by my first name, it may not be surprising that I wanted an office environment that was less about my having a doctorate, a license to practice, medical billing systems in place, referral information for those in need of psychiatric evaluations, and now, thousands of hours of practice behind me. I have all of that and clients know it coming in, at least to the extent these matter to them. And while I hang my diploma and license near the narrow desk on the side wall of my office, I created an office that has many of the qualities of the living room of my home – a space that is for me, casual and attractive to my eye. Like my living room, seating for guests is not fixed. This includes having both a sofa and two side chairs where couples can select sitting separately (using the chairs that are angled toward each other) or on the sofa. I may ask them to switch seats if what is being addressed might benefit from changing seats, but the initial location they select is their decision. At times, I have invited clients to sit in my chair if I thought it might help in shifting perspectives and symbolically allow constructive disruption.
I can do my work as a therapist from any location in my office – like my living room, every sofa or chair is comfortable and situated to easily support interactions with others in the room. And I don’t assume my role as therapist is attached to a specific location, nor that my client(s) are limited to only one choice. Guests in my home have no restrictions on where they sit, and while I do have a preference for “my” chair in the therapy office, comfort for clients, like my guests at home, is a high prority. This view of a therapist’s office as a living room will not work for everyone, but for me the analogy works. In this setting, I am at my best because I am the least distracted, the most comfortable. After all, the therapeutic relationship is indeed, about living, so why not a living room?
Robert Heasley, Ph.D. LMFT has a private practice in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania and is co-director of the Men’s Resource Center in Philadelphia. Robert works extensively with couples and also focuses on individual work with men and facilitating men’s groups. His research has focused on the feminist-informed study of men and masculinities, as well as sexuality. Robert is past president of the American Men’s Studies Association. He can be contacted through his website or at firstname.lastname@example.org.