In a word, yes! From time to time I have had people say to me “Why do I need a counsellor when I can just talk about my problems with a friend?” It’s certainly true that if you feel you don’t have overwhelming problems and are getting all you need from close connections with family or friends, then you probably don’t need to see a counsellor. But if your anxiety, depression or confusion continues despite this support, there is a lot a counsellor can offer.
Firstly, before getting into the methods of counselling, it’s important to appreciate how valuable it is simply having someone listen to us; and how rare it is for people to find this outside the counselling space. Being listened to can be very powerful: it helps us to feel valued and to feel our problems are worth solving; and it gives us a sounding board to see our problems in context and realise they may not be quite as overwhelming as we first thought. In essence, being heard makes us feel less alone. However, ‘real’ listening is a skill which few people possess.
So if a counsellor is a trained listener, what are the ingredients of good listening? Aside from concern, patience, attentiveness and genuine caring, a further important ingredient of listening is empathy. This is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and see the world from their point of view, without judgment. It is the ability to be emotionally and existentially present with the client, and to reflect this back to them so they can feel it. Empathy can be invaluable for clients who struggle with a sense of self worth. After all – if this person is taking so much time and effort to understand me, this means I must be worth understanding and I must have value.
In contrast, we can usually tell when someone acts like they’re listening, but their mind is really on something else, or they have an agenda (e.g. are trying to ‘fix’ us or our problems). Friends may, with the best of intentions, jump in with their own solutions, or steer the conversation away from issues they themselves find difficult. They also have their own needs: for instance the need to talk about their own problems, or the need for those around them to always be sunny and positive. Being in the presence of this type of listening can make us feel demoralised, undervalued, unworthy and uncomfortable. It may make us feel a sense of guilt or shame that we can’t be ‘OK’ for the listener and can’t ‘get over’ our problems, despite all the advice and help they’ve given us. This can make us feel burdened. However, true listening, in contrast, removes our burdens and makes us feel lighter. It does not make any demands that we change to suit the listener. We do not have to do anything but be ourselves. Being accepted in this way can give us a sense that we deserve this space to talk about our experiences and we are worth being heard – no matter what the subject matter, no matter how stuck we are, and no matter how it might personally affect the person listening to us.
This raises another important factor in good listening: that of self-awareness. One thing counsellors are trained in is keeping their own ‘personal baggage’ out of the room. For example, if the counsellor grew up with an angry parent, it would be essential for them to be aware of this when listening to a client expressing feelings of anger toward his or her child. If the counsellor has not dealt with their own childhood experiences they are likely to bring prejudices into the counselling relationship and judge the client for their angry feelings. If this happens they are not truly listening but are rather listening through their own, unclean filters. Their own experiences must therefore be put aside (or even better: explored and processed through their own counselling) in order that they can hear the client’s unique experiences ‘cleanly’ and without prejudice or opinion. Counsellors must also be sufficiently resilient to withstand personal challenges or criticisms from the client, and be able to tolerate strong feelings such as anger directed towards them, without becoming defensive.
There’s a whole lot more that could be said about listening. In fact many books have been written on the subject. For now we will go on to look at what other skills the counsellor uses and how these can help clients.
Effective listening is not just sitting in silence whilst the other person speaks. It is important for the listener to feed back to the client, allowing them to feel they have been heard. Feeding back the meaning or essence of what has been said is called paraphrasing; feeding back the emotional substance is called reflecting; and feeding back a combination of factual content, meaning and emotional substance is called summarising. Counsellors are trained to do this accurately and empathically. They are also trained to watch clients’ body language and other unspoken languages (e.g. what may be going on unconsciously, under the surface), and ‘hear’ these as clearly as spoken language. This is important because only a fraction of what is communicated by the client is spoken consciously in the room. The unconscious signals they emit therefore provide very useful, additional information about the client’s experience (of which even the client themselves might be unaware). The counsellor uses a combination of their learning and intuition to read these signals and communicate them back to the client if and when appropriate.
A related skill counsellors use is to listen for clues about the client’s experience by noticing discrepancies (known as ‘incongruence’) in clients’ stories of themselves and their lives. This can help clients discover disowned or buried feelings, thoughts or behaviours which are causing them problems in living well or feeling ok. We all experience unpleasant feelings at some time e.g. sadness, anger or shame. For most of the time these are experienced and worked-through; so over time the feeling fades. But for some people a painful feeling is not worked through because it becomes buried. This could be for various reasons: e.g. it feels overwhelming, or because a childhood injunction dictates that a particular emotion is not allowed. In many ways it makes sense for our psyches to do this, because ‘shelving’ difficult feelings can enable us to get on with our lives and function well. However, when we numb ourselves to one feeling we often end up numbing ourselves against a range of other feelings. Also holding down an emotion like this can cause tiredness and anxiety when the buried feeling tries to re-emerge.
Take for example a client who comes to counselling reporting tiredness and depression, but who also feels her life is going well and that she has nothing to be depressed about. Over the first few sessions her counsellor notices that when she talks about some of the cruel things her ex-husband has been saying to her, she reports these in a matter of fact way without any sign of anger. The counsellor therefore explores the client’s experience of anger with her, and it emerges her mother always told her it was wrong to get angry. No-one in her family ever got angry, and if she herself ever did she would feel ashamed. Once she realised, through the counsellor’s gentle and non-coercive questioning, that she had cut herself off from this feeling, she was able to explore it further in a safe and non-judgmental space until she was able to integrate it back into a more complete repertoire of emotional experience. She was then able to learn new ways of dealing with her ex-husband and became more assertive; and her tiredness and depression ceased.
I hope I have explained why counselling is more than just a chat. Counsellors must be able to put themselves in another’s shoes, without agendas; listen for unspoken as well as spoken clues; and keep their own baggage out of the relationship. They must also help the client explore unacknowledged emotions in a safe way, and ‘contain’ them within the counselling hour – bringing the client back safely to a manageable place before they leave the session. When done well, each of these skills combine to provide a safe space in which clients not only feel heard, but are also able to understand themselves more fully, and thus move towards wholeness and resolution of problems. It would, of course, be rare for a friend to be able to provide the same service.
- How to Get the Most Out of a Counselling Session
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