To Err Is Human Turning Our Mistakes into Useful Interventions

Dave M. Cooperberg


"You're my therapist and you forgot my name!" Some people in particular seem to need to see us as infallible-the One with the Answers. So what happens when we inevitably do make a mistake? This can be particularly difficult for the new group therapist whose sense of his or her own competency may not be as firm (Van Wagoner, 2000). How therapists handle their own, inevitable mistakes can define how well the group proceeds from there.

By mistakes, I am focusing on errors visible to the group that therapists make, not internal ones in our thinking, nor the ones the group members themselves will make. This could include anything from forgetting something significant about a member like their name, misinterpreting a member's expression or feeling, expressing a judgment that one or more members find hurtful, or even loudly passing gas. When a therapist makes a mistake that is obvious to the group, whether it reflects an objective or realistic countertransference to clients' personalities, or our own subjective transference to the client (Ormont, 1993), it still presents a useful opportunity if it can be worked in the group.

Therapists compound an error if they rush into putting it onto the members using verbiage such as, "And how do you feel about that?" without taking some personal responsibility. It is part of our job to help people be in touch with their feelings, but not when we use it as a defense. A public mistake creates an opportunity to role model healthy ways of dealing with errors and embarrassment, as well as revealing what issues are triggered for different members.

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