Magazine article Addiction Professional

To Be a Better Counselor, Go Back to Basics

Magazine article Addiction Professional

To Be a Better Counselor, Go Back to Basics

Article excerpt

I'm not as good a counselor or group therapy leader as I would like to be, and I've learned that trying too hard may be part of my problem.

During a recent group therapy session, I realized that my mind was so busy trying to be helpful that I had little time left for really listening to what my clients had to say. Instead of really listening, my mind was full of thoughts such as, "Maybe a miracle question would be helpful at this point", or "How can I develop discrepancy without coming across as too confrontational?"

Luckily for me (and my clients!), I've gotten back in touch with the most powerful counseling technique ever invented: listening. I went back to basics and reviewed the literature on the importance of listening skills, and the practice of reflective listening outlined in Motivational Interviewing (Miller and Rollnick, 2002).

Listening is the most powerful therapeutic technique at a counselor's disposal, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Simple reflections help counselors listen and assure clients that they are being heard. These reflections are statements that simply repeat what your client just said, but to do this you have to resist the temptation to offer advice, empathize, or confront your client.

To really listen to your clients, you have to temporarily abandon any thoughts of identifying hidden strengths, breaking through denial, or assessing if co-dependency is a problem.

Consider this exchange between a counselor and a client: CLIENT: I'm going to kill myself.

COUNSELOR: You're thinking of killing yourself.

CLIENT: Well, I'm not really going to kill myself; I'm just overwhelmed and confused.

COUNSELOR: You're overwhelmed and confused.

CLIENT: Well, I'm not really even confused. I know what I have to do; I just don't want to do it.

COUNSELOR: You know what would be best, but something is keeping you from doing it.

CLIENT: Yes. Well, no. I guess I'm only keeping myself from doing it.

COUNSELOR: You're keeping yourself from doing it.

CLIENT: Yes, I know that if I don't cut it off once and for all with my old boyfriend, and leave him out of my life for good, I'll never be able to move forward in my life.

COUNSELOR: You feel that as long as there's an opportunity to go back to your boyfriend, you won't be able to focus on the things you feel you need to.

CLIENT: Yes. Thank you so much for explaining it to me.

This is a real example of the use of reflective listening. It is one of the most powerful examples of the technique that I know of, but it is by no means the exception to the rule. When reflective listening techniques are used successfully, clients often attribute their success to the skill of the counselor, rather than to their own problem-solving abilities. If this happens, it's important to explain to clients that the credit belongs to their own powers of reason.

Try not to let your view of your role as a counselor prevent you from listening. As the authors of Narrative Therapy advise, "If we think of ourselves as experts on pathology, we will notice, remember, and inquire further, about things people say that sound pathological to us. If our listening is guided by a theory that people must 'feel their pain' in order to be whole, we will bring forth painful stories. If we have a special interest in disempowerment as an issue, we will invite people to tell us stories of how they have been deprived of power. …

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