Tick Tock, Tick Tock: What’s Up With Your Counsellor’s Clock?

Have you ever been to a counselling session and noticed that your counsellor has one, two or maybe even three clocks in the counselling room? (Full disclosure: I have two). What does this all mean? Is your counsellor a clock watcher, a clock aficionado or something else?

Maybe you’ve never even noticed the clock thing or even cared for that matter. Then, this article may not be for you. But even so, understanding why there’s usually a clock or two around, and how its relevant, may help you get even more out of your counselling experience.

Back in my student days, I was trained by a two-clock therapist. It was actually one of the first things I noticed and asked about. I remember the counselling room well: on the wall where the client faced, at seated eye level was a big wall clock. I recall thinking that it looked out of place because it was down so low and it was so, um, prominent. I had to ask about it.

It was explained to me that the clock had a dual purpose: to help the counselling client know how much time was left in their session and to help the therapist pace the session in such a way that the counselling session had a natural progression and conclusion. I’d like to talk about these factors in this article.

Me as a Counselling Client

I’ve been a counselling client for good parts of my life, mostly individual therapy but some group therapy too. All with great therapists. I’ve been supervised (and continue to be supervised) in my professional work too and there’s one thing I can say that all these therapists have had in common: they’ve all had clocks. Big, small, one or two: clocks have been present. And in one office, where a clock stopped working consistently over several sessions, it was disorienting and weirdly stressful because it was messing with my client experience.

Before I started social work training and become more cognizant of the role of clocks, I didn’t think a lot about them, although I was aware enough to refer to them to help me know when my counselling was starting and coming to an end (and if the therapist was running late, or if I was taking more than my time, for that matter).

Direct Benefits For Clients

Reflecting on my experience as a counselling client, I note that clocks can…

  • Inform how much time is left in the session
  • Guide the client to
    1. Pace what topics are being raised in the session
    2. Prioritize the most important issue(s) for the beginning or the session and
    3. Decide how much time to spend on the issue(s), given the goals for the session
  • Up the ante for clients to take responsibility for raising issues that are important to them given the fact that counselling sessions are time-limited

How Counsellors Use Clocks to Benefit Clients

When I became a therapist, I developed some additional insights about clocks. They help to:

  • Match client needs with the session length (many counsellors offer several different counselling session length options)
  • Pace a session to ensure session flow to reflect:
    1. The beginning (where priorities are set/important issues identified)
    2. The middle (where such issues are explored in more detail)
    3. The end (where points are brought together/summarized and plans are made)
  • Pace in more depth, especially with how to know how many questions to ask/how much to explore in the time that is available
  • Remind the therapist to help bring the client back on track if they have lost focus
  • Keep the counsellor running on time for their clients’ sessions, which:
    1. Avoids undue wait times for clients in the waiting room
    2. Prevents a “domino effect” whereby being late with one client trickles down to all subsequent clients (many of us have been in this situation in doctors’ offices)
    3. Ensures that clients receive the time that they have paid for
    4. Shows respect for all clients’ time and prevents anger and frustration

When time is NOT used to pace the flow of counselling sessions:

  • Sessions can become lopsided and unbalanced
  • Clients may feel or be rushed or alternatively, feel like they/the counsellor are spending too much time on one topic
  • Clients may report feeling “off-kilter” or scattered

What Counselling Clocks Are Not About

There was a time when I found clocks useful but a little intrusive: I wasn’t sure why they had to be so obvious and I wondered whether therapists had them to “send a message” to their clients.

I cannot speak for other therapists (as there is diversity in any population of people) however, in my experience, clocks are not about:

  • Therapist boredom with what the client is saying
  • An attempt to insult or slight the client (a thought that can sometimes arise if the counsellor glances at the clock)
  • The therapist hating their job or being otherwise burned out

How to Clockwatch Smartly in a Therapy Session

  • Clocks should not cause alarm – they are there to guide, not pressure; your counsellor also has a role to play in helping to keep the counselling session paced and on time
  • Take the initiative to identify what it is you want to talk about and lay that out at the beginning of your session – leaving it to the end will feel rushed and incomplete, or worse, leave you feeling unsatisfied that you did not talk about what you wanted to talk about
  • Let the therapist know if you think the conversation is not what you want to be talking about, or is otherwise not meeting your needs
  • Consult with your therapist if you have multiple issues that feel pressing and seek their guidance as to how to best pace and address them in your session
  • Choose a session length that meets your needs: many of us prefer a standard counselling session length (i.e. “the 50-minute hour”) while others know that they feel more relaxed and less rushed with extra time. Talk with your counsellor if you’re not sure
  • If you feel like your counsellor is unnaturally clock/time-focused or alternatively, if they are consistently running late, talk to them about it, if you feel emotionally safe doing so. Most concerns between client and therapist can be resolved successfully and the therapeutic relationship even improved as a result.