Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Counselling: empathy, core conditions and micro skills

I don't know that I can teach empathy. I don't know how I developed the ability to see things from the perspective of another so easily, but it's something that's been with me for as long as I can remember. It's in my nature to listen, observe and do my best to understand.

It's the same with the micro skills, and the use of silence in the counselling session. These are things that I just do. What I have to ask myself, then, is whether there's something about my approach to counselling which makes these things easier for me. Is there something about the way I see the counselling process?

If there's an overriding principle I use in my practice, it's that what I say isn't all that important. The temptation is to go into a panic, to believe that we have to show our skills by constantly reflecting, paraphrasing, summarising, using open questions and so on. What we are going to say next becomes our focus.

Is what we say next, or what the client says next, more important?

When I put my focus entirely on the client, and step into their inner world, I find that the skills come to me much more easily. If I'm obsessing over my response, then my focus in on me, rather than where it should be, and it serves as a block to listening.

Just as important is resisting the tendency to make assumptions. We're supposedly non-judgemental in our practice, but there's always a danger that we might start identifying with a client, and interpret their experience through the lens of our own experience. This is where those open questions become important: we ask the client about what the experience is like for them, rather than thinking about what the experience would be like for us.

Good examples of those open questions:
  • What does [something the client said] mean to you?
  • What was that like for you?
  • How do/did you feel about that?
I could use many more examples, but the point is that we have to get to an understanding of the way the client sees the world, and the issue they have brought to the session in particular.

What about silence? Again, if you're staying within the client's frame of reference, and trying to get an understanding of what they are experiencing, or have been experiencing, then why would you interrupt? Better to leave a little silence, so that they can continue, should they want to. It also gives both the client and counsellor a chance to think about what has been said already.

Become comfortable with silence. Become comfortable with not knowing what to say. Reflect, paraphrase, summarise or leave a silence: these things show that you've been listening, or are considering what has been said.

Focus on what the client is saying.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Lights! Music! Beer! Confidence!

I walked past her, and almost carried on walking.  I'd gone over to the far side of the hall, to talk to someone I knew, and ask if she was okay.  She hadn't looked like she was feeling too good when I'd danced with her earlier, and I was concerned.  She replied that she was fine, and I said she could always talk to me, if she needed to.  I wasn't expecting the hug that followed, but I appreciated the sentiment behind it.  After a few minutes, a song she liked started to play, so she asked her boyfriend to dance with her.  I decided to walk back to my seat.

I'd had two pints of lager and lime by this point, and it was getting towards the end of the evening.  I couldn't feel my legs.  To be honest, the lager and lime had taken me by surprise: the combination of lager and a little lime juice tasted much better than I remembered.  Maybe it was at least partly to blame for me walking past her, and having to turn back.  I'm not a big fan of alcohol, and had told myself that I wasn't going to drink anything alcoholic.  Things didn't turn out that way, though.

I arrived at the venue at a time when I thought the class leading up to the social dancing would be almost over.  As it happened, I had another half an hour to sit and think about everything that was going on in my life, and I started wondering whether the huge amount of courage it had taken to get me through the front door of the venue had served me well.  I decided that a pint or two of fermented hops and barley might help me get to a state where the evening made sense.  The lime juice was an afterthought.

I saw people from the salsa class that I attend most weeks, but I'd already sat down when I noticed them, and some arrived after I did, only to sit at other tables.  An inner voice congratulated me, sarcastically, for my continuing commitment to displays of social ineptitude.  I'd told myself that I'd go there feeling confident, and at peace with myself, despite actually feeling like I might fall apart at any moment.  In reality, I'd parked the car, sat crying for a while and then paused at the entrance to the venue, summoning up the courage for that final push to get me through the door.

As the class came to an end, I hadn't had much of the lager and lime that was sat in a pint glass in front of me.  I was still feeling that being there might be a mistake, and considered that I might walk out again - after finishing my drink, of course.

My thoughts turned back to my sister, and how ill she'd looked when I'd last seen her.  I felt the tears forming, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone familiar approaching.  We talked, briefly, and she asked me to dance.  I told myself that I'd leave after dancing with her, and I should have known better.  I felt so good after the dance that I went back to my table with a smile on my face.

I followed this by asking a few other ladies I know to be great dancers if they'd dance with me.  All thoughts of leaving had gone by this point.  I even found the courage to ask a few ladies I didn't know so well if they'd dance with me.

I almost walked past her, though.  As I said, I'd been talking to someone I know, and was on my way back to my table.  Well, I did walk past her, in fact, but turned back.  I recognised her from being at one of these events previously, and remembered dancing with her.  I asked if she'd dance with me, and led her to a relatively safe area of the floor.

"It's [name withheld], right?"


Her smile told me it meant quite a lot to her that I'd remembered her name.  I decided not to spoil the moment by asking if she remembered mine.  I caught the rhythm of the song that was playing.  It was a fast one.  There would be little time to think, and that would turn out to be a good thing.

I know relatively few moves, or at least I don't know as many as I'd like to know, but I made them work for me.  As I pulled her to my right shoulder, she turned her head to keep her focus on me; as I moved her in front of me to my left shoulder, she turned to look at me again.  I'd seen this in salsa before, but had never experienced it myself.  If I'd been entirely sober, it probably would have freaked me out.  Her smile was gone, replaced by an intensity that was quite surprising.

The few moves I'd practised again and again came together in some sort of sequence.  She followed everything I did perfectly, adding her own style into the mix.  I felt that the smile on my face was more subdued than usual, and I was making more eye contact than I normally would when I dance.  There was a strange kind of flow to what I was doing, and I barely thought about what move would come next - they almost seemed to happen by themselves.

What was it that I was feeling?  I had an idea of what it was, but the idea was so strange to me that I doubted it at first.  In the end I had to accept it: what I was feeling was confidence.

Her smile came back as the song came to an end - a big, beaming smile - and then her arms were around me.  Another hug.  We thanked each other for the dance and I returned to my table.

I watched on as, at the far end of the room, another man asked her to dance.  I watched as he went through the larger number of moves at his disposal, and linked them together in sequences that looked impressive.  I looked at her, and she smiled for him, but I detected something else.  She looked bored, and I didn't understand it.  I still don't understand it.

I had a few more dances, mostly with ladies who were quite new to salsa, and told them they were doing well.  The last dance I had was with someone I've danced with a number of times, and we just don't seem to connect, and this dance was no exception to that rule.  The song came to an end, the host thanked everyone for coming, and wished everyone a safe journey home.

On the way home, on a dark, quiet part of the road, I thought about my sister, and how much I missed my fiancĂ©e, and started crying again.  I hadn't consumed enough alcohol to be over the limit for safe driving, but I knew that, if I didn't control myself, I wouldn't be able to see properly.  I couldn't let my feelings overrule the rational part of my mind, although it seemed like I'd had just enough alcohol to make it more difficult to hold back those feelings and be rational.

Suddenly, I understood how that dance had been so good.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Thought for the day: helping

I'm starting to question what I do. Even when I'm not volunteering, a lot of people tell me about their suffering, or ways in which life, and other people, have been cruel to them. I don't have to tell them what I do, and usually I don't: somehow, they just feel that they can talk to me. When I went on holiday to Croatia last year, a couple of people I'd never met before talked to me, separately and at great length, about how life hadn't been fair to them and how they felt about it.

I try to treat people with kindness. In my own small way, I try to compensate for the fact that the world is often cruel and unkind to those who least deserve it.

That's all I have to say for today.


Last night (Thursday), I danced kizomba with a good friend.  It's far from being my favourite style of dance, but something strange happened.  I hadn't tried to present a good frame; I forgot about being technically perfect for a moment; I danced with a friend, and it just felt good to dance with a friend.

She followed everything I did, effortlessly, without fault.  That doesn't surprise me.  As much as she seems to want to credit me with being a good lead, she's an excellent dancer, and that makes things so much easier for me.  I didn't have to wrestle with an uncooperative partner; I didn't have to correct a partner who had wrongly anticipated what I was going to do.  I could just dance, because I trusted in her ability as a dancer.

I've heard people talk about dancers having a connection, and I think I understand what they mean.  The nervousness that I usually feel on the dance floor had gone.  It felt like a dance that might happen spontaneously, in an informal setting.  Though I stuck to the basic moves I know well, it felt like I'd known them for a lifetime.

The way I dance is very much affected by how I feel.  Without going into a whole load of psychological theory about cognitive functions, I operate via how something feels to me, or how I feel about it, more than most people would.

In a corner of the room, towards the end of the evening, with my legs already feeling like they might stop working as they should, it felt good to dance.  Actually, it felt great.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Who do I talk to?

As I start to write this, it's eleven o'clock at night, and I've just got back from a bachata class where I sat through a number of songs without getting up to dance.  You wouldn't know it, but I'm sat here crying, desperately trying to maintain my focus on the screen, and generally feeling quite emotional.  At the same time, I feel it's wrong to be this way, because I was born into a time when we were told that men didn't cry.

I hugged a friend earlier.  We don't have the kind of friendship in which that kind of physical contact happens, but she told me something that made the hug feel appropriate.  Actually, if I hadn't responded in that way, I would now be cursing myself for not responding in the way I should.  The hug was a very honest expression of what she means to me as a friend, and an equally honest response to what she had to tell me.

Unfortunately, a hug isn't just a hug for me.  I hide a lot of what I feel from the world.  I waited until I was alone before I cried.  I waited until I was alone before I let the full weight of my feelings hit me.  In public, it's like I'm wearing a mask which hides what I'm feeling.  A hug can send that mask crashing to the floor, where it shatters into a million pieces (I also wrote that last bit in a response I made to a question on Quora - I think the imagery sums it up nicely).

So, I'm sat here, overwhelmed by emotion.  This is the part of me that no one sees.  I've heard from a number of sources recently that I should be more open, and I'm trying my best with that.

A good friend asked me, just last week, who I would talk to if I needed someone to talk to.  It's a question I've been asked a number of times.  The answer is that there are people who get little snippets of what's on my mind, but I'm still quite protective of my inner world, as it were.  Instead, I do things like sitting here, alone, and just trying to come to terms with the fact that I've allowed myself to become an emotional wreck.

Do you want to know something?  Being an emotional wreck seems to be just what I need right now.  I'm alone, so I don't have to feel embarrassed about it, and so much has happened over the last number of months that any one of those things could have seen me feeling like I feel right now.  There's a sense that I need to feel like this, that this is some kind of release.  Maybe if my friend could see me, she'd wish she hadn't told me her news at this time, but I actually should be thanking her.  Maybe she'd get another hug.

I'm releasing a whole load of repressed feelings, and to my mind, that's healthy.  This seems to be my way of dealing with things.  I'm sorry if this post is disjointed but, considering what I'm feeling right now, to me it seems surprisingly eloquent.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Thought for the day: introversion

When someone says I'm the quiet, reflective type, or the strong, silent type, I know what they're talking about. Sometimes, I wish I could be different. I often question whether, if I'd had a more outgoing nature, I'd be spending quite so much time alone now. The world seems to favour those who are more open, vocal and better able to promote themselves.

Sometimes, the loneliness affects me more. This is one of those times. A week ago, I was still with the woman I love. The key point is that being around other people doesn't always cure the loneliness. Sometimes, being a part of the crowd can feel like the loneliest place on Earth. Yeah, it's the old cliché about being alone in a crowd. The happy medium is talking with someone, one to one, who gets it. The nature of this thing is that you often still find yourself listening more than you speak, but having someone there who understands is beyond value to you.

A lot of people don't understand. They talk, and talk some more, and become frustrated by the lack of response. There's no question that I'm listening, but I suppose the defining quality of this thing is that we don't JUST listen: we carefully consider what's been said (and, in my case, a load of stuff that hasn't been said) before we even think about formulating our own reply. I'm not saying that other people don't think before they speak, though it sometimes seems that way, but us quiet types probably spend more time considering what's been said and how to respond. In conversations where people interrupt each other, cut each other off and talk at the same time, we don't stand a chance.

Some sources compare introversion to the battery on a mobile phone, and say that an introvert's energy quickly drains in social situations. That's true to a point, but I'd say it depends on the type of social situation. I know a few people who don't drain my energy. Sometimes I need to disconnect and take time to think about things, but some people allow me the space to think, as though they somehow understand how much it's needed.

If there's too much noise, too much external stimuli or other environmental cues, then I'm more likely to feel drained much more quickly. I'll probably leave, if that's the case, but I'll wish I didn't have to leave.
I hope I've explained this well.  According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I'm a particular type of introvert, known as an INFJ, so others may experience introversion in a different way.  My hope is that what I've written helps someone, though, whether they're an introvert or someone who is trying to gain a better understanding.

Friday, 28 October 2016


Sometimes, you find yourself outside your comfort zone. Sometimes, you've stepped so far away from your comfort zone that you can't remember where it is any more. At that point, it's all too easy to focus on that uncomfortable feeling, rather than give yourself credit for the courage you've shown.

I don't ever forget how terrified I was, walking into that first modern jive, salsa, bachata or kizomba class, though. I don't forget because, honestly, I've just become better at hiding it as time has gone on. What gets me there is the fact that, much against my expectations, I love to dance. Also, the people I've met and got to know are so nice that, when we dance, or if they come to talk to me, the fear goes away for a while. A few have even managed to break through to the point where I dare to ask them to dance. So, when one of those people invites me to a Halloween party, there's the sense that not going along would be letting them down. Knowing that the proceeds from the event go to charity, I'm even more likely to attend.

If I don't go, the thought that I might have had a good time will play on my mind. After all, a number of people that I quite like will be there. The worst case scenario is that I turn up, and sit alone, not having the courage to talk or ask anyone to dance. Actually, the worst case scenario is that I feel completely overwhelmed and have to leave early. It's a very real possibility, and I don't expect anyone will understand. Maybe they'll think I'm weird, because I showed up to a party but wasn't really there in any way that was meaningful.

Thankfully, this being a Halloween party, I have the option of covering my face, and that helps: it'll get me through the door, anyway. I have to accept that my courage may fail me at some point, but that's okay.  There's a good chance that I'll actually have a great night.