Note Taking - Can Get a Little Messy!

Note taking (link to Intentional Interviewing & Counseling: Facilitating Client Development... by Allen E. Ivey, Mary Bradford Ivey, Carlos P. Zalaquettby) is the practice of writing down pieces of information, often in a shorthand and messy manner. The listener needs to be discreet and not disturb the flow of thought, speech or body language of the speaker.

Note taking is a mixed blessing. It can keep you on track, but it can also be distracting for the client. Also, it can interfere with communication if you are tempted to rest your eyes on the pen and paper, or take copious notes.

At the same time, if you don’t take notes, how will you be able to remember what happened last session? If you are away, how will the alternate counselor know what is going on.

There are also the institutional requirements of the place you volunteer for, are doing a placement at, or work for. They may very well provide a form with strict guidelines.

You can get the “data details” (name, phone, source of referral, emergency contact, etc.) at the beginning of the session.

When the person is actually conveying her/his situation and concerns, you may want to take minimal notes – writing down a few words for each major area – as a memory jog. The real note taking comes later. I encourage you to write up your notes immediately after a session. I like the SOAP method which is used in health care.

In counseling, it becomes SAPO.

Subjective – What the client is describing?

Assessment – What was the ensuing discussion?

Plan – What is the action plan? Remember, there are 23 hours in the rest of the day. Most of the work of counseling is done by the client outside of office hours!

Other – What do you need to do in order to be prepared for the next visit? Is there any info you wish you had gathered or given? If some information is crucial you can always phone or email the client.

Note: While everything you write is confidential, the court may have the right to subpoena your chart(s).

In Class Homework

Note Taking Exercise: 10 minutes of active listening and brief note taking and 5 minutes of feedback

Listener: Get ready with your active listening skills, encouraging body language and tone, and a notebook and pen that works. Be prepared to take minimal notes, barely looking at the writing materials.

Speaker: Talk about something that bothered you within the last week or so. For example, getting a bad report, a cranky child or parent, getting cut-off in traffic, etc.


1. Did you find it difficult to listen and write?

2. Did you find it easier to keep on track this way?


1. Did you find the note taking distracting?

2. Did you feel more or less attended to in this session?

Out of Class Homework

If you don’t already, start writing “laundry lists.” This is when you put in short form what you are going to do on a particular day. Only, try to do this without looking at the page. It’s an art!

An example of note taking gone bad…

A new business was opening and one of the owner's friends wanted to send flowers for the occasion. They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card; it said "Rest in Peace".

The owner was offended and called his friend. His friend assured him it was an error and called the florist to complain. After he had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how embarrassed he was, the florist said:

“Sir, I'm really sorry for the mistake, but if you think you feel discombobulated, realize this: somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying 'Congratulations on your new location'."

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