5 SKILLS FOR AN EFFECTIVE COUNSELING SESSIONAug 02, 2022
“I want to see someone else.”
“I am requesting a new counsellor.”
This was the 6th message firing me as a counsellor in only a few short months. Ugh…
What was I doing wrong?
I started out my career in the helping profession 15 years ago, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed excited to support others.
My goal was to improve their quality of life and to advocate for social justice issues.
In the first few years, there was a huge learning curve though.
I was fired from 6 clients in a few short months.
I put myself in potentially dangerous situations.
In a desperate attempt to help get people out of addictions and mental health crisis I took risky decisions for my safety.
I had to quickly learn how to communicate boundaries working in the small community that I lived in.
A lot of lessons were learned, I’d say.
And let me tell you, I learned some skills as well.
Introducing, the top 5 skills that I learned for an effective supportive counselling session.
1. WE ARE SUPPORTERS NOT SAVIORS.
“Hello. Thanks for coming in today. How can I be of help?”
This is how I used to start my counselling sessions.
It sounds good, right? I considered myself as being polite, upbeat and welcoming. Offering support and showing my willingness to be of service to their need.
But if I’m truly honest, this was completely self-serving.
It can be condescending and making the assumption that I am the hero that will save the day.
By opening my sessions with this statement, I established a clear line that I was the one with all power and knowledge and they were coming to me for the support.
It diminished the strength they had in God and set the helpless tone for the meeting.
When we approach our work as supporters and not saviors, we see the God-given talents and strengths within them and support them to find their own way out.
We don’t have all the answers.
When someone is coming to seek support it’s usually because they are at a low point in their life. They feel powerless, hopeless and stuck. Our work is often engaging their hope and ability to rise above.
2. KNOWING WHEN TO LISTEN… LIKE REALLY LISTEN.
When people finally get enough courage to ask for help it usually means an issue has been festering in life, or in the mind for a while.
Learning to be okay with them spilling their guts for 30 minutes without saying a word was a big turning point in my work.
In a similar tone as #1, the session is not about you… It’s about them.
As you actively listen, as in being really engaged in their story, without the internal thought of how you can solve the problem, you begin to hear hints of hope.
Rather than asking questions to prove a point or offer solutions, you ask more open-ended questions out of curiosity.
It truly is incredible. When a person takes 20 minutes to tell their story they feel heard and validated.
These few open-ended questions based on curiosity empower and encourage creativity and out of the box thinking.
This sets the stage for hope and possible change.
What was thought to be 30 minutes of rambling, is now time well-spent building the foundation of trust and hope.
3. KNOWING HOW TO SHIFT GEARS.
Just as important as listening is learning how to get the conversation back on track.
This may seem to contradict #2, but this is a skill that will bring counselling sessions from 2 hours down to one.
We have all been there.
When someone tells a story that has five rabbit trails and is about the challenges they are experiencing in every area of their life.
It’s not logical to think that one session will solve all of their problems, but people often feel the need to tell you the whole story to feel understood.
I often use what we learned in our second point, 20-30 of storytelling plus 10-15 minutes of curious open-ended questions and then the conversation starts to focus on a key issue the person would like to address that day.
If the person goes down a rabbit trail then I would listen, summarize what they just said, validate its importance and ask a question that brings it back to the one key issue of the day.
4. BEING OKAY WITH SILENCE.
Much of our role as supporters is asking questions. However, when people are overwhelmed or in a stressful state their processing slows down.
A few years back I was the first on the scene of an accident on a major highway.
A vehicle had hit the median and flipped on its roof. Passengers were out and walking around but they were not able to think logically.
They were in a fight, flight or freeze response. Particularly, the male was in a fight response and the female was in a freeze response. Although, this is an extreme circumstance these same responses occur when someone is in a heightened stressful state.
Rather than the scene of an accident, they are sitting in our offices unable to process logically.
Therefore, when we are asking questions, we have to expect that it may take longer for a person to process the information.
Becoming comfortable with silence is necessary because silence allows the person to process the question and it allows for answers to come.
5. KNOWING WHEN TO REFER.
Knowing our limitations is our ethical response to supporting people.
Understanding where our expertise begins and ends is essential to giving the best quality of care to an individual who is looking for help.
This brings us back to our first point. We are supporters, not saviors.
It is very valuable to connect with others in your region who have different expertise than yours. It may be addictions, grief, mental health, youth issues or couples counselling.
By having a network of professionals that have specialties different than yours allows you to offer the best support to individuals.
There you have it.
That’s my list. What’s in yours?