Once, I invited someone to take my workshop and she replied, “Oh, I don’t need to take your right-use-of-power workshop. I won’t cause any harm because I have good intentions.” I want to talk about how good intentions are necessary but not nearly enough for ethical use of power.
The simplest reason is the profound fact that our impact doesn’t always match our intention. In the example described in this article, the therapist’s intention was to set good and ethical boundaries with her client. The impact on the client, as you will see, was that she felt hurt, abandoned, betrayed, confused, and wrong.
In the paper the other day, I found a letter in the “Dear Abby” column that was a painful example of how good intentions plus lack of skill and awareness of impact can cause more harm.
A summary of the letter: The woman wrote about seeing a therapist for issues of abandonment and trust. They became friends outside of therapy. “I trusted her completely,” the writer wrote. “During our therapy sessions, she shared her life and problems with me to the point that I feel I know as much about her as she knows about me.” The therapist, after several years of therapeutic work, “suddenly decided that ethics had been breached and that she was setting new boundaries.” The new boundaries were for no contact outside the sessions, but during their sessions, the therapist would cry and talk about how much she missed this client. Next, she abruptly decided that she could no longer be this person’s therapist. “Now, she has blocked my number and expects me to respect her demands.”
We can guess that this therapist did the technically right and ethical thing: She set appropriate boundaries, and then when she realized that she was being unethical even in the boundaried sessions, she set another appropriate boundary and stopped seeing the person entirely.
However, although her actions were correct, they certainly were not skillful or compassionate. A skillful and compassionate therapist would have recognized that the client’s issues were about abandonment and trust, which would make the separation process especially delicate. The therapist would have apologized for her behavior in participating in a dual-role relationship and made it clear that this was her big mistake and her responsibility and not the client’s fault. She would then have carefully and personally referred the person to a trustworthy new therapist. It was her responsibility to resolve and repair this misuse of her power. It seems that she thought that setting the right boundaries was all that she was required to do to be ethical.
She seemed to have imagined that because this was a mutual friendship, both she and her client would take equal responsibility for managing their grief and loss. When there is a difference in power, the responsibility is not equal. I call this the 150% principle: Both parties are 100% responsible for the health of the relationship, but the person in the up-power role (the therapist, in this case) is 150% responsible for tracking problems and resolving and repairing them.
When there has been a relationship rupture, there are five things that most people need in order to feel resolved. They may need just one or as many as all five of these things:
- Acknowledgment: They want their experience acknowledged, understood, validated, and empathized. They want to be appreciated for their courage.
- Understanding: They want to know what happened, or what your intention was.
- Regret: They want a genuine apology, or an authentic expression of your sorrow or regret.
- Learning: They want reassurance that you’ve learned or understood something about yourself or how to better care for them. (This one was a surprise to me. People are extremely generous when they feel that their pain has served some good or some learning that will prevent future problems.)
- Repair: They want to reconnect and participate in repair of the relationship or in gaining clarity and letting go. (This one was also a surprise. It is a rare and amazing thing to hear that the person you are in conflict with actually wants to repair and be reconnected. Often just asking that question is repair.)
We all make mistakes. Had this therapist known about the difference between intention and impact, the 150% principle, and how to link power with heart, her client would not have felt so confused, hurt, and wrong; would not have had another abandonment and trust wound, and would not have written to “Dear Abby.” Doing the right thing without compassion and skill can cause more harm.
Maybe there’s some wisdom for you, too, here. Having a good intention is ALWAYS a good thing, but in human connections, your actual impact is what most needs your attention for the well-being of your relationships.
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