Pronouns – what’s the big fuss?
Updated: Mar 29
Talking to other counsellors about pronouns I am often faced with the same questions and confusion:
– Do pronouns really matter that much?
– Do counsellors need to ask clients their pronouns?
– What do I do if I make a mistake?
– I’m confused about why some people use ‘they’ pronouns
I hope this article might help dispel some myths and help you become more confident in asking clients what their pronouns are, and in using them.
What are pronouns?
Firstly, a quick grammar lesson: what are pronouns? Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. We use them to avoid repeating the nouns they are referring to. Some examples of pronouns include: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs. There is also an ever-growing list of gender-neutral pronouns that are more commonly used online than in person.
We don’t naturally speak or write without using pronouns. Look at this sentence:
Sally takes her sunglasses with her every day in case it’s sunny; she also carries her umbrella in case it rains.
Without using pronouns here, to talk about Sally – where the only other option is to use Sally’s name – the sentence would be hard to make sense of. It would seem very convoluted and clunky, as if you were trying to avoid using Sally’s pronouns:
Sally takes Sally’s sunglasses with Sally every day in case it’s sunny; Sally also carries Sally’s umbrella in case it rains.
Why would I need to know pronouns as a counsellor?
As counsellors, we need to be mindful of 3 main contexts for pronoun awareness. These are:
· in supervision, when discussing clients with supervisors
· when clients use specific pronouns while referring to others
· when clients are relating to something that has happened in their past, referring to themselves,
e.g. When I spilt my milk, I heard Dad shout at my Mum ‘why did he spill his milk again!’
In a counselling context, when we are talking to clients about other people – rather than objects or places – we refer to them in the third person, using pronouns. With our supervisors, we refer to our clients using pronouns. When you know what your clients’ pronouns are, you can use them in supervision, when you will inevitably be talking in the third person about each client.
Should I ask about pronouns if I think I know?
As a counsellor (or in other situations, for that matter), it’s important to get into the habit of asking people what their pronouns are. This is important in situations (such as counselling) where you greet people and share your name. However, if the person you meet is merely in a passing encounter, such as someone you are ordering a coffee from, this wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate. Asking each client sensitively and routinely when you meet will make the client–counsellor relationship feel more comfortable for you both. To avoid making assumptions, it is important we ask every client, as we can’t know their pronouns just going by how they present their gender.
If you make a mistake, that’s OK. Just recognise it, apologise, and move on. Clients who experience people getting their pronouns wrong (which is called misgendering) repeatedly report they prefer their counsellor to not make a big deal of their mistakes. This is also true in other areas of life, but is especially the case in therapy as the focus can then shift to the counsellor’s discomfort and away from the reason the person is seeking therapy.
What about ‘they’ pronouns?
Sometimes I hear people say that ‘they’ is a plural therefore it doesn’t make grammatical sense to use it for one person. Yes, it can be plural, but it can also be singular and has been used as a singular pronoun since the 14th century. Shakespeare and Austen texts have examples of its usage. If you think about the way we speak, we often use ‘they’ when we don’t know the person’s pronoun, and we do this without even thinking, for example:
Someone has left their bag; I think I'll wait here in case they come back for it.
If you only work with individuals you might be thinking that you wouldn’t be likely to be talking in the third person about a client to the client themselves. This is true; however, other people do often come ‘into the room’, as clients often talk about their partners, friends and colleagues, and it is important to be sensitive to the pronouns used for them too. A good tip is to listen out for the pronouns of the people your client speaks about and use what you hear. If it is unclear, or you miss this information, or they haven’t yet used a pronoun as they are speaking, you could ask – or alternatively use ‘they’ pronouns until and unless you hear differently.
It is important to recognise that they/them does not refer to a gender and using these pronouns doesn’t mean that the person is necessarily non-binary (although many people who use these pronouns are). See them as safe words that give you that neutrality you would have with other gender-neutral language such as ‘people’, ‘everyone’, ‘siblings’ and ‘parents’.
If, as a counsellor, you can harness this ability to use ‘they’ pronouns, then this will go a million miles when even one client hears you use them.
Why is it important to try to get pronouns right?
Remember: clients are often exhausted with whatever issues they are facing, so the last thing they want is to have to worry about whether their counsellor will respect their pronouns.
Pronouns are just tiny words, but to many people it makes such a big difference when you show that you are making an effort to be inclusive.
Clients make many changes when in therapy; sometimes this might include a change to their name and pronouns. When this happens, ask, and use the pronouns and name they give you, and update your records. Keep listening and learning, and embrace any changes.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for trying to build your confidence in this area in your work. I wish you well in making positive steps towards continuing to make therapy more accessible.
If you want to learn more I have a free guide on pronouns. To download it click here.
Want to learn more?
I also run online training workshops for counsellors, therapists and supervisors on sexual and gender diversity. For more details click here.
Please note: this blog post was originally posted on Therapy Minded and has been reproduced here with their permission.