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“The Difference between Education and Experience”

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The Hope and Healing Agency values the experiences of our patients above our education, licensure, certifications and credentials. This does not mean that those things are not important because they are BUT they only serve as the foundation of our philosophy.  Please join me as I tell the story of how I learned that lesson-the very first one lesson of thousands.  During my graduate work at the University of Detroit-Mercy and University of Northern Colorado, I had several classes on group psychotherapy and how it needed to be run.  These classes consisted of academic lectures and the actual practice of group therapy-the practice one was held over a three day period, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 8 hours a day where there were no lectures whatsoever, just group therapy with my peers.  My first thought was this is going to be easy, all I have to do is sit here, in a circle, on the floor,  for 24 hours over the next three days, write an essay after each session and get my grade.  I could have NOT been more mistaken!!  It was the hardest class I ever had, but I digress.  The cardinal rule was that group had to be done in a circle.  This was stressed over and over-A Circle, A Circle, A Circle.  When I began to practice full time-starting in April 1997, group was always in a circle…not necessarily on the floor, though.  In May of 2001, I was hired as an addiction therapist by the Veterans Health Administration at the Detroit VA Medical Center.  I had been practicing full time for 5 years and group was always done, you guessed it, in a CIRCLE and believed that principle to be sacrosanct… A CIRCLE.  I soon found out that this was not true.  As I walked into my very first group at the VA, I announced “Let’s put all our chairs in a circle”.  A Viet-Nam Veteran (United States Marine Corps) began my first lesson and shattered what I had taught…He does not even address me but begins to speak to his peers in the group.  It went like this (I will replace his profanity with symbols): “I don’t know who this white college boy @#$% thinks he is but I’ll be %^& if I’m gonna sit in a circle with nothing solid at my $%^%  back.  No @#$ way am I gonna do that, #$%^ must be crazy”.  At this point, I had enough sense to not insist on the circle and apologized to him and that I would check with my supervisor.  He smiled and said “that’s ok, man but you got a lot of #$%^ learning to do”.  I proceed to run the group with him and his peers sitting in a square-their backs all to the wall.  I don’t even remember anything else about that group, except that first real life lesson.  When group was over, I went to my supervisor and talked it all over with him.  I was told that I had not realized that there were combat veterans in the group and they, typically, don’t like to sit anywhere without their “six” -their back-covered.  Secondly, I was told that the principle of the circle was not the circle ITSELF but to keep group members from hiding behind other people-so a square, or any other geometric design was fine, as long as no one was hiding behind anyone else.  I went back to the group, told them how much I appreciated them educating me and what I had also learned from my supervisor.  That is one reason why  I value the experiences of patients above my education.

Dennis George Coates, MA, LPC, NCC, ICGC-1

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