Counselling

The Art of Writing Therapeutic Letters

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As a therapist, I have been using therapeutic letters for well over 20 years. Although they do take some extra work, this simple exercise has greatly enhanced my practice and is well worth the effort.

Letters have a lasting impact.

When was the last time you received a physical letter from someone? Like an actual, personal letter – not a bill, charity solicitation, or piece of junk mail? 

Not long ago, my mom gave me a package of letters sent to me as a child from my grandparents who were living overseas at the time. Reading these letters 40+ years since they were originally sent brought a smile to my face. Themes of love, encouragement, and thoughtfulness were found throughout. These letters from all those years ago continue to impact me.

This is what I appreciate about letters – there is lasting beauty and influence found in the written word.

This is what I appreciate about letters – there is lasting beauty and influence found in the written word.

Why use letters in therapy?

As practitioners, we are required to document our work. Historically, this documentation has been kept to the realm of professionals, but why not also use it to the benefit of the person we’re working with?  

Therapeutic letters can serve both the documentation requirement and be part of the intervention. As practitioners, we are often required to justify how we are spending our time – letters can be used to quantify our therapeutic interactions.

Letters also have a strong benefit to the receiver(s). In fact, it has been shown that a  therapeutic letter has the value equivalency of 3-5 counselling sessions. There is influence in a well written letter.

A therapeutic letter can serve both the documentation requirement and be part of the intervention.

Types of Therapeutic Letters

Therapeutic letters can be used for many purposes:

  • Introducing yourself and the therapeutic process

Using a letter to describe what to expect during the first meeting can ease apprehension. They can also influence reluctant clients to better engage into the therapeutic process.

  • Highlighting successes

This is the most common way letters are utilized. When there is progress or learning, we want to capture and galvanize the achievement because problems tend to be quite influential and have the tendency to overshadow successes.

Anchoring progress through the written word can leave a lasting positive influence. Not only that, but the letters can be shared with others – good stories grow with good audiences. I was reminded of the lasting influence of letters a few weeks ago when a former client reconnected with me. During out first meeting, they took out an old letter I wrote and shared how meaningful it had been over the years. 

  • Inviting others into the process

When a person has declared a goal or preferred direction for themselves, letters can be sent to important people in their life so they can reflect and share their observations. This is also a chance to highlight progress outside of the counselling room.

  • Closing

Counsellors are often required to write termination summaries. If we are going to the effort of writing anyways, we may as well have it benefit the person rather than remain stagnant in a file.

  • Checking in

It’s not uncommon for people to “drift” during the counselling process. This may be for a variety of reasons (e.g., they are doing better, other resources are in place, they’re not feeling connected, etc.). Writing a letter to check in sends the message that we are thinking of them and that the door remains open to reconnect if and when they wish to do so.

It has been shown that a  therapeutic letter has the value equivalency of 3-5 counselling sessions.

Letter Writing Tips

  1. Ask for permission to write letters and document it. Don’t assume a letter will be welcomed or even safe for the person to receive (this is especially important in cases of ongoing abuse/violence).
  2. Take detailed notes during your meetings. It’s beneficial to use the person’s own words, images, metaphors, etc., when writing a letter.
  3. Keep the letter informal and bring your experience into this. Part of the intention around letter writing is connection, and we can do this by sharing our own experiences. For example, I often find myself starting a letter with something like, “On my walk home, I found myself thinking more about our meeting, so I thought I would jot down a few things that stuck out for me today.”
  4. Use lists. This is particularly useful when there has been an accomplishment or learning. Bulleted lists are an easy, concise way to highlight the person’s successes and ideas.
  5. Keep the letters relatively short. I try to keep my letters to a couple paragraphs or about a half page because less is often more. The exception is a closing letter of the work together – a longer reflection is warranted in those cases.
  6. End the letter with a question or point for further reflection. By doing so, the letter’s influence will continue to grow.
  7. Be disciplined. Try to write a letter every one to three sessions or so.
  8. Look at sending actual letters, not just an email. We live in an age of electronic connection, which has simplified things. However, there is something special about receiving a physical letter. Consider handwriting the letter for maximum impact.
  9. Letter writing will be more labour intensive when you’re just starting out. However, with repetition and discipline, the exercise will become more time efficient.
  10. Seek feedback. After you send your first letter to someone you’re supporting, start the next meeting by reviewing what you wrote and their experience of receiving it.

Therapeutic letters are an effective way to connect, highlight progress, and promote further reflection. This has significantly benefited my practice, and I am certain it will benefit yours too.


For another way writing can be used in the therapeutic process, listen to our podcast: Journaling for Client and Counsellor Wellness. For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author

John Koop Harder

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

John is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights – Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. This book is available on our website.

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© CTRI Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (www.ctrinstitute.com)
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