Please note: This article written by Chloe Foster originally featured in The National Counselling Society's (NCS) June 2021 Counselling Matters magazine for counsellors. To make this educational material more accessible to a wider reach of counsellors The NCS kindly agreed to this being re-published here.
Picture this: you meet a counsellor for the first time, and they don’t ask your name. After the session you can’t stop wondering what stopped them asking and if they’ll ask next time. You think to yourself that maybe you could just tell them your name. But the problem is they haven’t told you theirs. It feels like names don’t really matter to them.
Many clients tell me this is how it can feel to not be asked their pronouns.
It is a social norm to ask and share names without question. But, although pronouns are not names, I wonder why so many counsellors find it difficult to ask and share them in the same way.
My guess is fear.
Counsellors I meet on my workshops are scared of how and when to ask about pronouns, and worry about what to do if they make a mistake. As an avoidance tactic, many convince themselves that pronouns in the counselling room are not necessary or that the client will bring them up if it is important. Many counsellors also tell me that they don’t need to know their clients’ pronouns as they are talking one-to-one.
Does any of this resonate with you? If so, how do you talk about your clients in supervision? Do you not use any pronouns at all, or do you find yourself saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ based on your own suppositions? The reason we might find ourselves doing this is because for many people pronouns match gender.
We are used to using ‘he’ when we meet someone who we think is a man because they have a typically male name and a deep voice. You may never have knowingly met someone whose pronouns don’t match their perceived gender and so you might not have thought about pronouns before.
Generally speaking, ‘he’ and ‘she’ are gendered pronouns, ‘he’ being typically used by those who identify as male, and ‘she’ by those who identify as female. However, people who don’t identify as strictly male or female, such as non-binary people, sometimes use ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns, while many non-binary people use gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’/’them’, as do many men and women.
Basically, what to remember is that just because you know someone’s gender it doesn’t mean you know their pronouns.
I find it saddening when I hear fellow counsellors tell me that they have only asked a client what their pronouns are if they think they look trans. Whilst I can understand where this thinking comes from, it suggests that they think trans people need to look a certain way and that pronouns will be obvious for everyone else.
Recently I met a counsellor on one of my workshops who told me that he had been getting very confused with pronouns while doing phone counselling with a client who was a trans woman. The counsellor told the group how difficult he found it to use the ‘she’ pronoun in supervision because in his head he kept hearing a deep voice. Although it’s pretty common for trans women to use ‘she’ pronouns, through our discussion it arose that this counsellor had not in fact asked the client which pronouns they use.
If you take just one thing from this article today, I hope it will be to remember the importance of not guessing pronouns. By guessing, you are telling the other person how you see them in terms of gender. We can't know what pronouns someone uses just by looking at them, as the way someone expresses their gender doesn't always match their gender identity or their pronouns.
As counsellors we need to be thinking about privilege.
If you don’t have to think about pronouns daily it is likely that this is because everyone always gets your pronouns right. This position of privilege is when people view your gender as matching how you identify. For example, I would describe myself as having privilege in terms of my pronouns. I look and sound female, so everyone uses ‘she’/’her’ pronouns for me without me having to tell them to.
Do people always get your pronouns right?
Thinking back to the example at the beginning of this piece, I wonder if you can take some time to consider how it might feel if everyone assumed your name. What if tomorrow everyone started calling you Mary. People stop asking your name, as they think your name is obvious because you look like a Mary! How do you feel now? I encourage you to consider taking this to your personal therapy to help give you some insight into how assumptions might feel.
I am guessing that you are taking the time to read this article because you have begun to think about pronouns and are becoming more aware of the fact that we can’t assume pronouns. Maybe you are not sure how, when and whether to ask about pronouns and what you might do if you make a mistake. Perhaps you are really scared of putting your foot in it and offending someone. You care and you want to get better at this.
If this describes you, then why not grab your free copy of my free top tips pronouns guide for counsellors available to download here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Your clients and the people around you in your life now, and in the future, will thank you for taking the time to learn and take this matter seriously.