Taking notes in therapy: 8 ways of using notes in helping conversations

Do you take notes during the helping conversations you have?

I take quite extensive notes. But what do I do with them?

  • Taking notes helps me to listen attentively: to the words and expressions of my conversation partner.

What ‘s the advantage? This way I can reflect them back (instead of replacing them with my own words). I think it is important to respect the language used by the person who is taking the client position. Regardless of the fact that I, together with so many other colleagues of mine, was taught that ‘parroting’ is inferior to ‘paraphrasing’. Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and Michael White – big names in the world of helping conversations – were careful parrots.

  • Shortly before the conversation, I will read through the notes from the previous conversation. So?

I am quickly up to date with the experiences, initiatives, insights, evolutions … which we discussed in our last conversation.

What the person told me, I can now read with fresh eyes. I underline, circle and box words and expressions. New questions occur to me (which I add to my notes).

  • At the start of our conversation, I will often suggest to go over a few items from my notes from our last conversation. I might also mention something about the questions that have occurred to me in the mean time. Why?

This gives the other person more of an opportunity to take up certain topics. It makes it easier for him or her to remember certain experiences that fit some of those topics.ring-notepad-with-quill-in-vector-design-87190

I keep in mind how my curiosity as to any new steps (following on a first step), or how a certain realization or insight might have been expressed since our last conversation, may add to the viability and further development of certain themes, evolutions and goals in a person’s life.

  • During the course of a conversation, I will go through my notes of the current conversation to find the exact expression used by the person in the previous conversation. Once again

in order to expressly not translate it (into my own language), and

to enable my conversation partner to hear what he said, so that less gets lost for him. As so much gets lost for the speaker, while speaking.

  • Or I rummage for the notes of a previous conversation, because I am reminded of something my conversation partner said in the past.

This way, my conversation partner may experience a common thread between something present and something past: between experiences she has not yet linked together.

  • Sometimes, I will expressly record on paper what the other person is saying: I will then repeat it out loud at the same pace as I am writing. At this moment, I am a clerk, secretary or filing officer, who commits to paper and records important ideas, words, insights or intentions.

This way, I confirm the value of such, and contribute to the authentication of an insight or intention.

The loss of time which this results in is, however, not a loss. Quite the opposite: what is important is not lost in continuous talking; instead, it gets space and time. Like a wine taster, who also does not quickly down one glass after another.

  • During the conversation, I write words, experiences, insights onto the white board. This, we then look at. New connections, memories, ideas occur to us. We keep on writing. Also about contrasting experiences: i.e. a moment of desperation as well as one of tenderness. Or the effects of guilty thoughts as well as the facts that speak against these. We take pictures of the white board, after which I send the photo’s by mail. I got the idea from Art Fisher, a Canadian maggie careygentleman who helps men who employ violence against family members. Maggie Carey, an Australian lady who has continued on the inspiration of Michael White, is also a big fan of working with the white board. I get the impression that this adds many worthwhile aspects:

It creates more possibilities to reflect.

Something about looking at the board together (vs. staring at each other).

Less gets lost.

The possibility to examine very different experiences simultaneously, next to each other.

People appear to enter into relationships with certain ‘pieces’ of the board. They refer to it afterward: ‘then, I thought of … (a sentence or expression on the board)’.

Sometimes, people spontaneously get up to pick up the marker and write, change, make connections.

  • And what do you think about the idea to sit side by side while you are writing, so your conversation partner can keep track while you are writing?


How about you? Do you take notes?

How do you make that work in your helping conversations?

Do you feel the drive to do something with it?

Thinking about it, I feel driven to make the note taking more of a shared undertaking.

P.S. Michael White always asked permission to take notes. He also told the people he consulted that they were the owners of the notes: they are his/her words, after all. I resolve myself to make this systematically clear to my clients.

P.P.S. I am reminded of a lady, who, when our series of conversations had finished, wanted to have and take with her ‘my’ notes. What a queasy feeling 🙂

P.P.P.S. Today, I heard someone explain to me how she uses carbon paper. I asked her if she could write a bit about that for this blog.

Johan Van de Putte