“The Ask”: Engaging Fellow Therapists of Color During Turbulent Times By Lambers Fisher, LMFT, MDiv on 7/14/20 - 10:55 AM

The week after George Floydʼs death was significant for me both personally and professionally. Personally, as an African-American father and husband, I wrestled with the potential implications of this and other recent events on me personally, my family, and my community at large. Professionally, as a marriage and family therapist, I prepared myself to be ready to provide emotional support to all my clients, knowing that they differ in their variety of cultural experiences. Interestingly, while I was prepared to support my clients in their various responses, I was not prepared to have to provide emotional support for my professional colleagues as well.

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For some of my fellow helping professionals of color, this event was just the latest of many similar social injustices, leading them to wrestle not only with determining how they should respond, but also how much emotional energy they would allow it to have in their lives — believing that it likely wouldnʼt be the last such event they would experience. And for other colleagues, while they were aware that they lived in an imperfect world with an imperfect history, this event made the inequalities between their life experiences and that of many others — with whom they differ culturally — more real and personally impacting than it had ever been before. In response to this new-to-them revelation, and with a genuine desire to not let that feeling fade away without making a mark on their lives in some positive way, a trend began — a trend that I call “The Ask.”
“The Ask” refers to the trend that I, and many other professionals of color, experienced after the death of George Floyd, where typical casual greetings were replaced by emotion-filled questions such as, “So, how are you doing?” — except with much more meaning that it previously held.

Asking how someone is doing is a common question among professional colleagues, as it is in nonprofessional life. It is generally a casual greeting, a courteous gesture of respect, and an acknowledgement of the therapist as a person, without an actual expectation of a long discourse in response. This is evident when someone says to their colleague in passing, “Hey, how are you doing?” only to be caught off guard when the colleague stops and offers a long personal answer to the question. The unexpectedness of the response reveals the reality that the original question was intended to be more of a casual greeting than a genuine invitation to share. Interestingly, while mental health professionals are often very good at cultivating vulnerability with their clients, we rarely do the same with our colleagues.

Despite the genuineness of the invitation, therapists of color do not always feel they have the luxury to casually accept the invitation to share vulnerably. This is not due to a desire for secrecy, judgment, or to convey a colleagueʼs unworthiness to know; but rather because doing so comes with risks that the therapist may or not be willing to take. As such, when it comes to asking therapists of color to share how they are doing as it relates to their personal and emotional struggles influenced by the impact of social injustices on their personal cultural experiences, it is beneficial to consider a few of the risks they might feel in responding to “The Ask.” Here are just a few of those risks, to get you started.

Risk of Polarization: Accepting the invitation to vulnerably share emotional cultural struggles (including past experiences and fears for the future) risks shifting the rapport between colleagues. Oftentimes, prior to “The Ask,” the therapist of color had the luxury of cultivating genuine neutral support from their colleague, regardless of whether the colleagues shared the same cultural experiences or values. They could practice managing their emotional struggles privately and strategically sharing about their own experiences only when doing so was beneficial for risk-free clinical consultation, understanding, and growth. However, if the therapist of color shares that they personally struggle with an experience or value the colleague has contrasting values and beliefs about, it may negatively influence future conversations. And depending on the colleagueʼs response, both therapists may walk away from the conversation with changed beliefs about and comfortability with each other. For some, this would be considered acceptable and beneficial, as it helps colleagues present their authentic true selves to professional relationships. However, for others, they would prefer the choice of when to take that risk, rather than having the risk thrust upon them.

Risk of Vulnerability: “The Ask” is often a request for someone to be vulnerable in a way that they have not previously been with the person who is asking. It is asking someone to trust that the answer can be received well and will not be used against them. And while it can be easy to take a lack of automatic trust personally, the reason for the caution often precedes the request. Often, previous experiences of vulnerability being rejected, minimized, or abused makes a genuine “Ask” a riskier request than it was intended to be.

Risk of Traumatization: “The Ask” indirectly invites the therapist of color to reexperience something potentially traumatic (whether directly or indirectly). While this may genuinely assist in helping the colleague increase their cultural understanding, the question arises as to whether it was worth the cost to the therapist of color. And while some reasonably conclude that this risk is acceptable because they are asking a mental health professional who is trained to effectively manage these potentially emotionally traumatic experiences, this conclusion minimizes the significant toll such a reexperiencing of trauma takes on mental health professionals who, while trained, are real people with real feelings.
In light of these risks and in order to provide a few helpful considerations regarding how a genuinely interested colleague can show care for therapists of color as individuals, while also seeking to learn from their cultural experiences, I offer the following.

Accept the Unavoidability of Risk. Doing so reduces judgment, shame, and blame in the event of an undesirable outcome such as unintentionally offending the person being asked and straining future professional interactions. While accepting that risks are unavoidable, efforts should be made to show a desire to reduce these risks and potential negative impacts as much as reasonably possible. Sometimes a brief disclaimer before “The Ask” that conveys value and reassures of positive intentions can significantly reduce unspoken tensions. For example, “I know it might be a lot to ask, but itʼs not too uncomfortable, can I ask you something about your experiences?”

Ask Humbly. Asking with a sense of respect and value, rather than entitlement, sets a good foundation for the possibility that you can be trusted with the answer. Humility conveys both confidence as well as respect, making it clear that you know that what you are asking for is a vulnerable, voluntary gift the therapist of color can choose to or not to offer.
Accept & Validate Caution. Remember that present caution often has a past origin (that precedes “The Ask”), so instead of interpreting their caution as a personal sign of disrespect, consider what possible experiences they may have had prior to your encounter that may be making it difficult for them to return your genuine inquiry with unfiltered vulnerability. Itʼs even possible that they may have had a bad experience with someone similar to you in some way, making it unclear whether or not you will behave similarly or whether you will pleasantly surprise them.

Appreciate the Gift. If a professional is willing to share vulnerably despite these and many other personal or professional risks, then show your appreciation for that generous gift by expressing that appreciation verbally. Show that it was worth the risk by putting something you learned into action and sharing such with them. You can also show your appreciation for this gift of risk by not asking for too much too frequently — going back to the well too often can lead to feelings of being taken for granted. If it is unclear how often is too often, or what degree of appreciation is most applicable, initiate a verbal or behavioral offer in which you are comfortable, and follow their lead based on their response.

After spending several therapy sessions navigating “The Ask” with my clients, primarily focused on identifying and meeting their needs and desires for personal growth and understanding rather than my own, I experienced “The Ask” coming from a colleague whom I trusted professionally, but with whom I had not yet been personally vulnerable. Because of a combination of my previously cultivated respect for them professionally and the respectful care exuded by their request, I chose to take the risk and share of my efforts to balance personal and professional cultural experiences during these turbulent times. Although inwardly cautious, I was hopeful that it would be received well. Although the genuine verbal appreciation that I received in response was reassuring, what made the risk most worth it was the acknowledgment that the experiences I shared helped enhance their personal and professional understanding — potentially even helping them to understand experiences their current clients had been sharing about more thoroughly. Knowing that a personal risk could positively impact not only another professional, but also countless clients whom I may never be in a position to support directly, not only helped make that a positive experience, but also increased the likelihood that I might take that risk again in the future.

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In life, both personally and professionally, some things can only be learned through experience, whereas other things we must learn by asking about othersʼ experiences. I encourage you to acknowledge and accept the risks and implications of “The Ask,” including the emotional and relational implications of your genuine curiosity and desire for personal and professional growth. Offer nonjudgmental support if “The Ask” is declined. And express your genuine appreciation for whatever response your colleagues are willing to provide. 




File under: The Art of Psychotherapy