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Advanced Counselling Skills

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The three stages of a counselling skills session are the beginning; here, the ‘ice’ is broken and the listener should try to make the speaker feel at ease. An introduction is made which helps the speaker understand what counselling skills are and the process of using them. Reference should be made to the BACP framework and the speaker should be invited in by use of gentle questioning. The beginning also gives the speaker the chance to introduce the topic they wish to discuss, and the listener to gather together information. It is of vital importance to have an appropriate opening to a session so that a contract can be made between speaker and listener that doesn’t allow for misunderstandings, e.g. the listener thinks that the speaker is going to tell them what to do. The middle; this part of a session is about allowing the speaker to explore their thoughts and feelings.

It can be used to focus on an issue and the speaker might challenge the listener and encourage them to feel safe to take risks. It is used to build rapport and strengthen the relationship between speaker and listener. The end; the end of a session is used for the listener to sum up and check understanding with the speaker. The listener should make the speaker aware that the session is drawing to a close. This time can be used to briefly reflect upon the content of the session and how it might be used; perhaps the listener might suggest some work that the speaker could do before the next session. The listener should always check that the speaker is feeling grounded in the here and now and is mentally and emotionally safe before they leave.

It is important to open a session appropriately with your speaker. At the beginning, boundaries can be set, a contract agreed if need be, the speaker can let the listener know of the limitations of talking therapy and what and how it is used, in addition to how it works and what the process may feel like. It is a chance to break the ice and to put the speaker at ease, if possible. A good beginning will have opportunity for both the speaker and listener to ask questions and clarify their understanding so that there are no misunderstandings further down the line.

The following skills may be used in a counselling skills session; Attentiveness and rapport building; this helps build a relationship with the client to gain their trust. Trust is the key to getting to the root of the client’s problem. Active listening; This is showing the speaker that you have the ability to hear what they actually saying, and can be demonstrated by communicating their words/feelings back to them. Active listening also involves observation of non-verbal behaviour. Managing silence; silence can be used to give the listener space to reflect and feel. It is useful for focussing the speaker’s thoughts and to make them aware that the conversation has them as the focus and not you. The speaker should be sensitive to how long a silence continues and decide whether it is productive or unproductive. Empathic listening; this is similar to active listening and involves setting aside as much as we can of our own “stuff” and entering as deeply as possible into the perceptual world of the speaker.

Effective questioning; this encourages a client to provide more information to the listener. Open-ended questions are best as they obligate the client to respond with complete sentences rather than mono-syllabic answers. Focussing; Using this helps the speaker concentrate on the issue or feeling that is currently going on and helps them to be in the here and now. It provides awareness. Paraphrasing and summarising; this shows an understanding of what someone is saying by repeating their words back to them using your own. Giving a summation of the salient points that the speaker has made also shows that you have understood.

Both these skills help build trust. Immediacy; the listener might use this skill to make the speaker aware of the immediate situation to think about what is happening and how it makes them feel. It can be used to challenge the listener’s perceptions. Working at an appropriate pace; this is important as it will help the speaker guide the ‘action’ and will help them feel empowered. Checking understanding with the speaker; this can be done by the judicious use of questioning, paraphrasing and summarising. It is important for the speaker to know that you are able to enter their world and see things from their viewpoint a little.

The way in which a counselling skills session is closed is significant; a session may leave the speaker feeling emotional and vulnerable. They may also have spent some of the session ‘warming up’ and are just beginning to feel a bit more comfortable and possibly more likely to disclose relevant information. They may have got ‘on a roll’ and sometimes it is hard to stop them from carrying on over the allotted time. One way to stop this from happening is to deal with the ending at the beginning of the session. You could say something like: “Hi there. It’s great to see you. Today we have ½ hour to talk about whatever you want and I’ll let you know when we have 10 minutes left so that we can summarise the session.”

It is extremely important to leave time for a summary at the end of a session as it confirms to the speaker that they have been heard, it demonstrates empathy and understanding, and it allows you to clarify if need be. When ending a session it is important to give the speaker the sense that they have been heard and to wind it down gently so that it does not end abruptly and they are catapulted back into the here and now when they are not really ready. The listener should always check with the speaker that they are feeling grounded and safe to leave. If this does not happen, the speaker might be left feeling vulnerable, unacknowledged, and not ready to face the world. This can have dangerous implications for the health and well-being of the client.

Diversity can be defined in many different ways; “ Diversity is a commitment to recognizing and appreciating the variety of characteristics that make individuals unique in an atmosphere that promotes and celebrates individual and collective achievement”. (University of Tennessee). Examples of these characteristics are: age; cognitive style; culture; disability (mental, learning, physical); economic background; education; ethnicity; gender identity; geographic background; language(s) spoken; marital/partnered status; physical appearance; political affiliation; race; religious beliefs; sexual orientation.

When using counselling skills, the listener should try to recognise and understand the ways in which these various characteristics may influence the way a person sees the world. The listener is not expected to have a full knowledge of all cultures etc., but should have the nous to ask and learn about aspects that they don’t understand to extend their knowledge. Diversity may impact negatively on a skills session if the listener does not make the effort to understand the speaker’s background.

When using counselling skills, the right physical environment is extremely important. Most of us know that the environment has a profound effect on our feelings and behaviours. Creating a warm and safe physical environment is an essential stepping-stone to building a strong therapeutic alliance, where a speaker feels comfortable to start sharing their concerns. It is important to realise that the person may be feeling vulnerable, insecure or in a state of distress, in addition to having to enter an unfamiliar environment which also adds to anxiety. The listener should try to make the place where they are conducting their skills session feel as safe as possible.

I have just watched the DVD and found it very interesting to look at myself and how I come across. It was very obvious at the start that I was a bit nervous; I was looking down and fiddling with my trouser leg when I should’ve been looking up at my speaker. The start of the session was the most difficult part for me as I was finding it hard to engage my speaker, who I will call Mrs A, despite inviting her on more than one occasion. I think I was talking too much for too long at a time and next time, I would say similar things but check in with the speaker more often. I also noticed that at the beginning, my posture was quite closed; I had my leg folded and my arms around my knee. I remember thinking this at the time and changing my body language to mirror hers.

We spoke about a relationship issue that she was having with the father of her child. I tried to put her at ease and build a rapport with her by using an effective question in a humorous way and this loosened her up a bit and made her laugh. Mrs A talked about her background and moving around a lot. At this point I was listening and giving her minimal encouragers by nodding and saying ‘ok’. I took on board what she was saying about her past but did not discuss it any further as we had only just started the session. To me it seemed she was happy to carry on with this but we didn’t have long and so I tried to focus her on her current situation. She then mentioned the floodgates’ and I used her phrase to ask a question and to show her that I was actively listening to what she was saying.

When she spoke about her relationship, I reflected her words ‘good friends’ back to her and this encouraged her to carry on. Mrs A spoke a lot about her ‘dream or ‘fantasy’ relationship and how she thought this compared with the reality of her situation. Because I was a bit cross about her having interrupted me whilst I was doing the introduction, I started to feel quite sorry for the man that she was considering having a relationship with, but looking at the DVD, this was not apparent and I feel that I challenged her quite well on what she considered a good relationship to be. I tried to make her think about her ideas of a relationship as she seemed to have some firmly fixed in her head which I thought was interesting. I suppose we all have these and we don’t always question them. I had a row with my husband the other day because I had pre supposed ideas of how a relationship should be that I had not actually checked out agreed with his!

At this point in the session it became apparent that the situation was not as clear cut as it sounded. I think at this point I could have used the time more productively by more effective questioning but I let it go. I think now it’s because I was feeling a bit uncomfortable to ask her. I also felt that when Mrs A said, twice, that there was nothing to stop the relationship from happening, that I should’ve pointed out to her that she had made it into a joke and dismissed it in front of her friend and I would have liked to ask her why she did this and how she felt about having done so. When Mrs A mentioned ‘pros and cons’ I suggested perhaps she use a tool to aid this process. I was pleased with this. She then went on to speak about being on her own. I actually got a feeling of emptiness from her. I have had conversations with Mrs A on previous occasions and have felt this before.

I am not sure whether I should have mentioned or made more of this than I did as we have discussed it before. I found it hard to bring the session to a close in the way that I would’ve liked as I feel I should have pointed out the time and started to summarise a bit sooner than I did. I have had this problem before and it is a hard one to deal with as I find it strange to have to take my attention away from something overtly, rather than during a natural pause. I did manage to wind it up in the time allowed but it felt a bit like I was shoving my speaker away so wasn’t good. I think that there were quite a few things mentioned during the session that I could have picked up on but didn’t. Not because I didn’t want to but because they only became apparent to me whilst I was watching the DVD back. It was useful to see the DVD and to reflect on what a different experience it is actually being there with a person and being immersed in what they are saying, then looking at it afterwards and being able to pick up on patterns once you have seen the whole thing.

The University of Tennessee Libraries Diversity Committee
Spring 2001; Revised January 2003. (Online). Available from www.lib.utk.edu/diversity/diversity_defination.html Accessed on 03.04.2013

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