I train a lot of people in various counselling skills. Sometimes I catch myself talking and talking, then wondering: Is this actually helpful?
It’s relatively easy to talk about and even teach counselling skills. There is a lot of material out there to draw from, including plenty of research telling us what people find the most helpful and lots of models and frameworks claiming to be the best tools available. You may be wondering if, as a counsellor, I use these tools – and the answer is yes, often I do. And then there are oodles of moments when I say something off the hip, make something up on the fly, or stumble over the wording of a thoughtful reframe.
But when do I actually feel the most helpful? It’s often a surprise – not when I’m trying an actual intervention, or when I think I’m being the most brilliant. It’s often when I make a mistake or do something very non-counsellor-like.
Like the other day when I had to sneeze.
It was an early morning appointment – a difficult time for me to feel helpful on the best of days. However, the person I was sitting with was engaging and easy to listen to. We had been meeting for a number of months, so I was eager to keep the process moving forward. As they were talking I was forming a clever, open-ended question designed to illuminate some neglected part of the story, when a tickle formed in my nostril and threatened to interrupt this whole process. As I was fighting off the urge and losing the battle, my client paused to watch me contort my face and take a big breath, then another. Then they shifted their focus and began to talk about a neglected part of the story – but not the one I expected.
I didn’t ask, say, or do anything, but this turned into a very meaningful session and an important lesson for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we throw out the models and interventions. Knowing what we are doing and why we are doing it is fundamental to being an effective counsellor or helper. However, we can get too caught up in these set ways of doing things. Often it can be more helpful to just get out of the way and not muddy the waters with our own questions, thoughts, or suggestions.
I often think of that client when I’m sitting with others and I take a cue from them. Rather than trying to do something helpful, I take a deep breath, then another – and I just sit there.
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