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Wisdom for herbalists.

or tips, hints and wise words for herbalists who are just starting to see clients.

1. Clients are experts on what ails them, and if you let them, they will tell you.

Your job is to be there, to listen, and to offer advice and herbs. Don't interrupt. Take notes instead, and ask your questions once the client has finished what he/she's going to say.

If they talk about one or the other diagnosis you've never heard about before, ask them about it. They'll tell you; you're a herbalist, after all, not a doctor. You're not supposed to know all that medical terminology.

2. Don't focus on the diagnosis, focus on the person and their symptom picture.

For instance, doctors have about 100 different diagnoses for rheumatism. I think there's about five different causes for rheumatism. I see all the multitude of diagnoses as a medical way of saying "I have no idea why you have rheumatism so I'll make a list of all your symptoms instead".

3. It's a very good idea to have an intake form.

I use Michael Moore's (found here: Herb Manuals -> Intake Form, pages 1 and 2), but any form that will let the client mark various bodily functions and their irregularities will work as a starting point for your conversation. It's even better if you actually know what those various irregularities mean, in terms of physiological imbalances.

The intake form will help you get important information from your client before you shoo them out the door, happy to have been of help. It's a teensy bit awkward to hear things like "Oh yes, and my leg will be amputated next week" or similar, while you're saying your good-byes.

4. You should absolutely count treating family and friends as herbal experience.

Friends and family shouldn't tell you their most private secrets, which might hamper your treatment plans somewhat. (Clients should tell you their secrets, though. And you should keep mum about all of it.)

But your friends will tell you if your herbs helped, and they'll be honest about it, too. They'll also tell their friends about you, and you'll get clients.

5. If you do your job properly, you might never see a satisfied client again.

You do get clues that they're satisfied, though: they will tell their friends about you, and the friends will come to see you. Or they'll call you, years later, to say "you did so well on that, now I have so-and-so problem, when can I come to see you?".

(I detest practitioners who string their clients along; my own aim is to help my clients get better, as soon as possible. Which means that one two-month run of herbal tea just might do the job.)

6. The rule of thumb is, it's two months of herbal treatment for each year the client has had his problem.

I've usually managed with half of that: five years of chronic cystitis (including a few kidney infections), right, we'll aim for ten months you seeing me every two months, but might be all done in five months.

Annette writes: "I was always taught 1 month per year which I find generally works."

7. If you manage to cure the ills of a gossip or two, you'll have an unending stream of clients: they'll tell everybody about you.

The drawback is that they'll tell everybody how abysmal you are if you didn't manage to cure their ills ...

Some gay men are the best gossips ever. Way way better than washerwomen.

Unfortunately, most straight men won't discuss their problems with their pals, so no gossip referrals there.

(In case you're wondering, no, this one isn't really sexist. Ask somebody who's gay for their opinion on it.)

8. Whatever you do, don't ever laugh at a client.

They have come to you for help, not ridicule. Give them absolute top-notch treatment instead.

Of course, you should give absolute top-notch treatment to all your clients. That's what professionals do.

9. Clients have invested quite some effort in order to a) find a herbalist, b) book an appointment, and c) turn up for an appointment. AND they'll pay you.

Respect that.

They might also have gone to fifteen different doctors before they found you.

They're interested in changing their lifestyle in order to get better. They'll listen to you and they are quite likely to follow your advice, provided you can explain it to them in terms they understand.

Annette writes: "Often yes, but there are still patients who are very resistant to change. That's often because they are 'attached' to being ill / their diagnosis which is a whole different ball game! (These are often the people who have 'done the rounds' of every conceivable type of therapy.)"

This is an advantage we have over doctors: there, people usually just want the magic pill that'll take away all their problems. I've had one (count'em, 1) client ask me to give her the one magic herb that'll take away her problems. I told her I don't do those; and there's the door if that's what she's after.

10. Don't treat symptoms, treat the cause.

I love the detectiving, especially if I do find the reason behind one or the other set of particularly vexing symptoms.

11. Herbalists are stubborn individualists, one and all. That's what it takes to become a herbalist.

Don't piss them off, or they'll piss right back at you.

Some of us like to laugh and don't see the point in long-term anger, though. If you piss us off, we'll wish you painful hemorrhoids and get on with our lives.

12. People who use long syllables where simple words work don't know what they're talking about, and are trying to hide the fact from you.

Recognize that in your teachers: which hide behind scientific terms?

Recognize that in your books: which writers have no clue?

And avoid complicated words yourself, where simple ones would do.

13. It takes a few years to find your legs. Ask for help if you feel out of your depth.

14. Don't be too perfect, and don't expect your clients to be too perfect.

You should have at least one vice, be it tobacco, coffee, or something else. If you don't, you can't ever expect to understand normal human beings (= your clients).

It's a good idea to try to kick that vice, too; that, too, will help you to better understand mere mortals.

One of my longer-term students was a strict vegan who did his yoga every morning at five, exercised religiously, didn't smoke, didn't drink alcohol or coffee ... and he was way too perfect to ever make a good practitioner.

15. Never ever take away the last joy in the life of somebody. If your client says that they've given up smoking and drinking alcohol but won't even consider giving up chocolate (or coffee, or bisquits, or whatever), don't argue.

Instead, work around their particular life joy.

16. If you don't think that it's fun to be a herbalist, you should change the way you work.

Do more gardening, less gardening, more of your own picking, less of it, more medicine-making, less of it, more teaching, less of it, more clients, fewer clients - whatever it takes to make things fun for you: do them.

17. Teaching is a good way to get clients, but count on only about 1 in 100 coming in to see you.

It's easy to speak in front of people if you know what you're talking about: take enough time to prepare your talks so well that you can field the odd stray question about your chosen theme.

When I started out lecturing (in 1984 or so), I needed one week to prepare for each one-hour lecture. I was quaking in my boots at the very thought of standing in front of 30 people on Tuesday evening, four weeks in a row.

In 1999, it took one month to prepare for a one-week teaching session. I was a bit apprehensive. (Keeping up the stray evening and weekend lectures.)

In 2000, I wrote some lecture notes for my five consecutive weeks worth of teaching, and just jumped in. (Keeping up the stray evening and weekend lectures, and the week-long ones here and there.)

These days, I shake my sleeves to see what comes out, about 15 minutes before I start a lecture. I do have good lecture notes, but that's mostly just to keep me on track.

Practice makes perfect: I absolutely love to teach now, and I teach a lot.

18. It is called practising herbal medicine. Nobody knows everything about it; you can make mistakes, and you can admit your mistakes, even to your clients.

Learn from those mistakes. Don't hide them. Good mistakes are nice to pass on, too, so that other herbalists can learn from your experience.

19. There's always somebody somewhere who uses one or the other herb in utterly unexpected ways.

Like the lady who wrote on a forum that she uses nettle salve for joint problems, but that it doesn't do anything for skin troubles. Like, wow! An infused nettle oil? Lovely!

(I've since learnt that an infused nettle oil and salve works wonders for wrinkles!)

20. Do write down the main problem your client came in to see you for. Don't neglect that one, never mind what else pops up during your chat. They came in for that one. Do something about it.

You can start in on the rest, if you so like, but they're not as important to your client.

21. It takes about three years to get financially stable, if you keep working full-time as a herbalist.

It helps to have more than one leg to stand on. I have several: I see clients, I teach, I have photos (I started taking them for my lectures) (the photos were way more important as an income source before digital cameras and camera phones came along), I write articles for glossies and newspapers, I make salves (mostly because people like to take something home, after a lecture), I write books, and quite recently I acquired some (Finnish) distance students.

Every little bit helps. Other things to contemplate are weekly (or monthly) market stands, picking herbs for sale, growing herbs for sale, or making and selling tinctures, syrups, vinegars, powders, soaps, herbal honeys, snuff (lovely idea, that!) or whatever else you can think of. Do remember your local laws for selling internal and external remedies, and for selling things containing alcohol.

(My website is a hobby. I do it in order to get quality herbal information out there as a counterweight to all the herbalifers and similar. Like any proper hobby, it's a time and money sink, but, well, who cares? It's great fun!)

22. Rebekka writes: "Start of with simples: (one herb at a time, no fancy recipes with gazillions of herbs) to really get to know your plants, what they work for and what not, and who they work for and for who they don't.

it is very tempting at first to put in as many herbs for that patient of yours as you can think of.using one or a few herbs can be quite scary at first. but if your tincture contains say 6 herbs and it works, you never know which one did the job."

23. Rebekka continues: "Even if you are not a hands-on-herbalist-person per se, do some hands-on working with plants anyway to get an eye-to-eye relationship with some herbs, you learn so much more that way than you ever can from a book or a lecture (and i love my books and lectures mind you :-)"

There, that should give beginning herbalists (and herbalists who wonder if they're in the right profession) some things to ponder.

Oh, and luck! And remember to have fun, else, what's the point?

:-) Henriette, herbalist, Helsinki.

Facebook comments

From Beverley M-B:
Lovely words of wisdom that just made me readjust my focus in the midst of all my exam angst and reminded me that I do actually enjoy the subject as a whole :-) Thank you - I really needed that!!!
6 May at 16:36

From Susan Marynowski:
Yes, brilliant! Wish someone had told me all of this about 10 years ago... ♥
6 May at 17:52

From Karen Broyles:
Great advice . . . not just for herbalists. My favorite is number 16.
7 May at 21:04

From Kiva Ringtail Rose:
Definitely not just for beginners, in fact, it might be even more applicable for those of us who've been at it for a while... especially if you're feeling a bit burnt out or directionless.
7 May at 04:19

From Valorie Jean:
‎#11 cracked me up and #12 is particularly good. Another great note from Henriette.
6 May at 17:44

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(Published earlier in Plant Healer Magazine and (somewhat shorter) in Herbal Thymes, a journal for herb students in the UK.)