At Saturday’s keynote session at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Jessica Pettitt was introduced as someone who “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

Jessica Pettitt gives the keynote address at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco on March 18. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)

Then, shortly after taking the stage, she told the assembled crowd that she has created a career out of speaking about unspeakable topics.

Given these early warnings, the audience could have been excused for wondering what was in store for them. But Pettitt quickly won over the more than 1,500 counselors in attendance with her humorous message that focused in part on accepting ourselves (foibles and all) and others — no matter how much their habits or views might frustrate us.

Pettitt, who has been doing diversity work for 20 years, said that a common theme she encounters is people asking themselves why they are not “enough.” At the same time, she said, we tend to want to change the people around us who frustrate us.

“But we are responsible for being frustrated and feeling divisive,” Pettitt said. “There is a reason why we feel the way we do.”

She explained that each person tends to react to the situations that he or she encounters in one of three ways: with their head, with their heart or with action. “All three of these variables are necessary, needed and in us,” Pettitt said. “The toolset you have is exactly what you need to survive.”

The people who frustrate us most are the people who follow different “patterns” than we do when it comes to these head, heart and action archetypes, Pettitt said. But our frustration comes in our desire to change them, she added.

“I can’t make anybody do anything. If we want to be really honest, I can’t really make myself do

(Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)

anything all of the time,” Pettitt said. “Why on earth do I think I have some magical power to make someone else be different?”

What is healthier is to view the person as being “differently right” and to recognize that “there’s some good happening in there.”

Taking this view is particularly important in this time of divisiveness in our nation, Pettitt suggested. She challenged the counselors in attendance to look inward and ask themselves if they are promoting a true view of diversity, even when it conflicts with their personal views and beliefs. She pointed out that somewhere in the keynote session were individuals who had voted for Donald Trump, which many counselors cannot seem to comprehend.

“This whole conference is about unity. But have we done something to carve that out?” Pettitt asked the crowd. “We’re so polarized [as a nation] right now. What are you doing to make that not true?”

Rather than focusing our efforts on changing other people, we need to take notice of and take responsibility for our own patterns, she said. This also involves identifying the crucible moments of our lives and our incongruities.

But above all, she said, it means recognizing that “I may not be perfect, but I’m certainly good enough. Right now, I’m the best tool that I’ve got, [so] do the best you can with what you’ve got some of the time. … With each connection, listen, hold space for feedback and leave room for edits.”

Pettitt also challenged counselors in their interactions with clients. “Your job is to help them see that they are enough,” she said. “Sometimes we want to be fixers, but what they really need is a listener. … You can listen to someone without already knowing all the answers.”


(Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)



Jonathan Rollins is the editor-in-chief of Counseling Today. Contact him at




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