Creative Assessments: Using Non-Traditional Methods to Uncover Clients' Hidden Dreams

by Maureen Nelson

Lily [not her real name] came for career counseling when she was at a crossroads in her life. A first-generation American of Chinese immigrant parents, she appeared to have achieved the American Dream: a successful career as an intellectual property attorney, a lovely home and a caring husband and son. But then the life she had built began to crumble. Unable to negotiate a flexible schedule, she quit her job. Now her marriage was ending and the fear of gang influence on her son left her questioning many of her past choices. Her counselor administered several standard assessments. Seeing the results before her, Lily looked blank, despite her counselor's attempt to integrate the information into a meaningful whole.

Luckily for Lily, her counselor, Sharon Stearns, was well-versed in creative assessments - non-traditional techniques that tap into intuition with methods that heighten awareness and reach into vast storehouses of hidden dreams and potential. Stearns teaches a course in the topic in John F. Kennedy University's graduate Career Development program in Pleasant Hill, California.
Stearns says, "School encourages logical, left-brain thinking. Creative techniques engage the right-brain, allowing people to problem-solve using their inner knowing. It helps them break through barriers and strengthens their self-esteem." Not only schools, but corporations want people who can "think outside the box" and offer creative solutions to problems.

Susan Chritton, a career counselor and life coach says, "Using creative techniques gets people to let down their guard. It allows them to let go of judgments and get at more of their own truth." Chritton has taught Creative Life Planning at Intuitive Way in Walnut Creek, California, and currently teaches a Career Counseling class to therapists at the University of San Francisco. In both courses, she relies on creative methods to stir students to reach that inner knowingness, referred to by some as "heart" or "spirit."

What Are Creative Assessments?
Both Stearns and Chritton use a variety of techniques in their counseling work: collage, mind-mapping, guided imagery, and journaling, to name a few. There are variations within these broad categories and a lot of freedom to adapt techniques to the setting, client and goal. For instance, Chritton, who has taught classes using Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way, has students make mandalas - circular representations of themselves, guided by six questions. Stearns has taken journaling to new heights, inspired by two books: Sarah Ban Breathnach's The Illustrated Discovery Journal and Lucia Capacchione's The Creative Journal: The Art of Finding Yourself. Using colors, images and symbols, a journal becomes more than a means of self-expression; it reveals passions and deeply held dreams. It chronicles the life and helps make authentic choices for the journey still to come. Essentially, anything that involves the imagination and requires creative or artistic effort from the client can be thought of as a creative assessment.

Creative Assessments and Multiple Intelligences
One of the most valuable aspects of creative methods is that they respect and draw on multiple modes of intelligence or learning styles: verbal, visual/spatial, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. Stearns was drawn to creative assessments for exactly this reason. Working with high-functioning adults with ADHD and learning disabilities, she needed a better way to engage her clients than the standard printed assessment. Got a kinesthetic client who needs to handle things? Consider modeling clay. Stearns says, "Sometimes making a physical representation of their career barrier can help clients find a way to get around it. They figure it out in the clay first and then apply it in their lives."

Benefits for Both Client and Counselor
Most clients jump at the chance to do something a little different. However, a few may resist because they feel silly or they think they're "not artistic." For the latter client, counselors can emphasize that we are all creative and that these techniques don't require talent. For those who need to be convinced of the value of a "silly" technique, it's helpful if you can vouch for a method's effectiveness in your own life. Chritton uses mind-mapping with many clients, but she also uses it for herself. Mind-mapping consists of writing down a central idea and then drawing branches that radiate outward with related ideas. Each branch divides into smaller sub-branches. Using colored markers, pictures or stickers, Chritton creates a new mind-map each year the way some people write a resolution list. She says, "It's non-linear brainstorming. It allows us to focus on one branch at a time, then look at the whole, seeing the connections. I keep mine on my desk so I can look at it frequently. It's a way of setting intention daily."

Finding "Heart"
So whatever happened to Lily? Stearns suggested she make a collage. It had pictures of Japan, where Lily lived and worked for several years prior to marriage, and of her son -- two explicit interests. But what was most striking was the heart-shaped picture of Mickey Mouse and the photo of Lily and her son in Mouseketeer hats. The counselor had noticed Lily's penchant for all things Disney (t-shirts, bags, keychains), but didn't inquire about their significance until now. Lily explained that when her parents emigrated, Mickey Mouse was one of the first American icons they gravitated towards. To help Lily find meaning in the collage, Stearns held it up and backed away from her. "What do you see?" she asked. Then a look of recognition swept over the client's face and she realized what her next step was. Using her friends in Japan and connections at Disney, for whom she'd done some copyright work, she eventually landed a job at Tokyo Disney Resort as an intellectual property lawyer - with flexible hours!

Integrating Creative Assessments into Your Work
Not sure how to begin using creative methods in your practice? If you've never used card sorts with clients, start there. The advice from Sharon Stearns and Susan Chritton, both of whom are self-taught, is, "Just try things!" Books and websites are good resources on using creativity in professional, educational and therapeutic settings. Don't overlook local colleges or adult education classes to get the juices flowing. A short course in a new medium may inspire you to devise an original activity of your own!
Creative assessments keep things fresh - for both counselor and client. Spontaneous, personal and engaging, they give us an unequivocal way to access our own heart.

Maureen Nelson pursuing an M.A. in Career Development at John F. Kennedy University. She can be reached at (925) 708-7476 or mpn@dorsey.org.

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