No author listed, Pxhere CC0

Source: No author listed, Pxhere CC0

Over the years, a small but growing percentage of my clients work with me partly, or even mainly, by exchanging emails.

Typically, we’ll have one or two standard sessions by phone or Zoom and then decide to try an email exchange to supplement or even replace a session. Of course, sessions allow the visual and auditory interaction that is instructive and builds the bond between us, but email exchanges also bring major advantages:

  • Both the client and I have time to reflect on what to say.
  • We tend to be more focused and concise in an email than in conversation, so the essence is more likely to quickly emerge, which saves the client time and money, and makes it easier to review and remember major takeaways.
  • We gain time flexibility: Sometimes, the client or I need take maybe 20 minutes in crafting an email, other times just a minute or two. That stands in contrast with sessions, where we need fill an hour or at least a half hour.  
  • The exchange is asynchronous—We email whenever we want—so we can do it when motivated and convenient. For example, sometimes, the client has just had an experience s/he wants to share right away. And sometimes I feel like responding immediately, other times I can’t or simply don’t feel like it. It does feel important to follow the usual rule about email: Respond within 24 hours.
  • Email provides a permanent record that the client and I can review.
  • The email exchange serves as the main part of my notes. I do still add a bit to the client’s file if there’s something I don’t want the client to see, for example, a hypothesis as to what’s going on beneath the surface, or what I might want to ask about next time.

Colleagues have asked me about how I get paid for email exchanges. I keep track of the time I spend and when I’ve reached an hour, I charge the client’s credit card at my usual hourly rate.

Here’s an example of an email exchange I’ve just had with a client. I change irrelevant details to protect my client’s anonymity.

The client is a counselor who is having doubts her competence and finding a place in her field. Here’s a distilled version of our email exchange.  

Her, Jan 6, 2021 3:47 PM

 I’ve been reading a book that discusses deliberate practice as being the most efficient way to become an expert in a field. What have you done Marty as “deliberate practice” to become an expert? What would you recommend for my path to becoming an expert?

Me, Jan 6, 6:07 PM

1. Read just a few good articles and one, at most two, highly rated books. Write nuggets in a Word file. Review them and perhaps later integrate them into an article or talk.

2. Watch a master practitioner(s) in action

3. Have them watch you.

4. Get lots of experience, retaining an experimental mindset: Try out strategies and tactics, revising them based on what works and doesn’t for you, and what you find fun.

5. Teach others your best practices–whether speaking and/or in writing.  Even if you’re not yet a great public speaker, practice that. It’s learnable and important for maximizing your impact as well as for your own career advancement.

What’s your honest reaction to all that?


Her, Jan 6, 6:14 PM

(The client’s numbering refers to my numbered items above)

1. How do you determine what are the best articles and books?

2. (Watching master practitioners) seems simple enough. I can do that with seminars at my field’s annual conference.

3. (having a master practitioner watch her conducting a session) Holy shit—that’s terrifying!

4. (in response to my asking her to try out various tactics) I don’t have many defined tactics.

5. I think public speaking or writing is the biggest challenge. I think we all fear stepping out and putting forth what we believe is our best information. I think everything that I’d recommend is just common sense or just my own personal experiences that might not have scientific backing.

Me, Jan 6, 6:32 PM

(My numbering refers to the numbered items in my client’s previous email.)

1. Start looking for on-target articles by googling terms that you care about—-One possible example: oppositional behavior in adolescents. Or go broad and simply google “behavior disorders” and scan the top few search results(not the articles), to identify two or three that intrigue you. Start reading those two or three articles, and if one turns out to be too basic, advanced, or otherwise feels off-base, stop—So many more articles are available. In reviewing those few search results or articles, you may come upon a search term that could trigger a more granular, on-target search term, for example, “oppositional behavior in gifted adolescents.”

Regarding a book to read, I just visited Amazon and searched on “behavior disorders.” Two highly-rated books emerged. It was easy to find them because Amazon lists them based on ratings and popularity: One is more authoritative: Casebook on Behavior Disorders. The other seems friendlier: Creative Interventions with Challenging Children.

2. Regarding another source of input, don’t limit yourself to your professional association—It can be a silo, an echo chamber. Certainly consider trainings, articles, and conference sessions led by people respected in your field. But you might want to supplement that with sources outside the silo. For example, support groups for the parents of behavior disordered kids might draw a wider range of speakers offering practical advice.

3.  It’s understandable that you’d feel nervous about a master watching you. But along with asking clients for candid feedback, the most potent way to improve may be to have a master watch you and providing feedback in a debriefing session. Just pick a mentor who is not just expert but kind—No need for the person to be harsh with you. But remember that you’ll survive even tough criticism. it might well be worth it. And if you reject the person’s input, that’s fine too. You needn’t accept all input—of course, including mine.

4. You ask how to acquire a quiver of tactics. Use those that you get from this email’s items 1 to 3 as well as what’s worked and not worked for you when you were teaching behavior-disordered kids. Plus, future experience will ever generate new and better ones.

5.  I understand your reluctance to present ideas that don’t have scientific backing. Unfortunately, all social science fields aren’t yet very scientific. Of course, you don’t want to overstate certitude but it’s fine, for example, to say, “In my experience, I’ve generally found….”  But yes, defer sharing your expertise until you’ve learned an article-worth or session’s-worth of not-common-sense but worthwhile strategies and tactics to share.

What are your honest reactions to the above?

Her, Jan 6, 7:58 PM

My honest thoughts:

1.   I should refine my search, to get, as you say, “more granular” in what I’m searching for, like “behavioral disorders in adolescents.”

2.  I feel most comfortable in the silo but I’m working on branching out. I’ll find others.

3. These days, I’m focusing more on sifting through the BS. I’m less likely to take what my professors said as received truth. I’m also trying to be more honest with my self-feedback. I do believe that I’m my strongest critic.

4.  I’ll work on developing tactics. Experience is the best teacher.

5. How do you create so much content? Also, how do you not get bothered if someone’s comments are unfair? By writing and speaking publicly, it seems like you have nothing to gain and everything to lose. By the way, I|’m wondering if getting a Ph.D is required to fulfill my ultimate dream. I picture having a private practice on my own in some rural place in the mountain states.

Corresponding with you has forced me to do envision my end goal.

What do you think about my responses?

Me, Jan 7, 8:34 AM

I reproduce the questions you listed in item 5, followed by my responses in italics.

How do you create so much content?

The honest answer: It mainly comes naturally to me. I’m what they call “ideationally fluent.” But some of it is that I go through life thinking, “What could I write or speak about that’s important and not obvious?”

How do you not get bothered if someone is unfair in the comments?

I do get bothered but  I accept that as the price for being able to share my ideas with lots of readers and viewers so I feel I’m making a difference.

I’m wondering if getting a Ph.D is part of my ultimate dream. I picture having a private practice on my own land in a rural area in the mountain states.

Corresponding with you has forced me to do envision my end goal.

Some dreams are worth pursuing, others not. It’s important to evaluate, clear-eyed, whether the dream is worth the cost in time and money compared with what you could otherwise do. In doing that, consider the shoestring competitors, for example, being a consultant or coach rather than a Ph.D-toting psychologist. I’d think that people would pay you to work one-on-one with their behavior-disordered kid if you’re good and you market yourself reasonably. Of course, it would be harder to get enough clients in you live in a sparsely populated area—That’s the sort of work that is better in-person.

What do you think about my responses?

I like them, and I have found that email exchange is a productive and underrated form of mentoring.

The takeaway

Whether you’re a helping professional or a client, consider adding email exchanges to your options, even after COVID fades.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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