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.

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