Managing Change Toolkit

People in  Change


On Counselling

Much of counselling involves listening, responding, clarifying, answering queries and questions, giving information, and other social skills which we have been doing for a very long time - and doing very well. The key point is that we can and do counsel every day in many different ways. It is no prerogative of the special few.

Also, we all possess a natural ability to counsel well. As young people we did not have to be taught to listen to others, to collaborate to sort out a problem or to genuinely support someone who was in distress of some kind. Our response was spontaneous and helpful, stemming from a genuine and delighted interest in other people and their well being.

As counsellor, we are acting as a catalyst to enable a session to confront those issues which are blocking the realisation of her or his potential, through genuine support, communicated respect, and a mutual commitment to make things absolutely right in his or her life.

If we make this assumption, what does a counsellor need to do? Basically to listen well. To listen actively with mind and body with the knowledge that the client knows the best solution to the issue and our role is to enable that solution to emerge.

On Listening

An active listener:

  1. Pays full attention to the other person without criticism or judgement. For example by leaving out own opinions and expressions both verbal and facial.  
  2. Shows empathy through facial expressions of interest. For example by smiling, , nodding, eye contact, responding spontaneously Thus understanding, acceptance, delight, expectation  
  3. Shows a posture of involvement For example, by appearing open, leaning slightly forward, no formal barriers (desk, table).  
  4. Asks appropriate and timely Questions. Questions are a way of eliciting more information from a client, and exploring the process further. Basically, they fall into two distinct camps: - open and closed.
    Closed questions

    Usually elicit a yes/no or more limited response, and as such can be of limited value where an open question would be more useful e.g.

    • ‘Is your job challenging enough for you?’
    • ‘Do you want to stay in the Department?"

    - the answer is a simple yes or no.

    Useful for checking facts but do not give much information. 

    Open questions

    They elicit much information and the client can choose how (s)he responds e.g.

    • ‘What do you like about your current job?"
    • ‘How did you decide to choose this particular career?"
    • "Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?"

    They give the other person a chance to express their opinion. The other person has more control over the discussion. Open questions usually begin with "how", "where". An easy way to make sure your questions are open is to put "Tell me about ..... before the topic. 

    Probing questions

    Push the other person to develop their thinking. They can be more difficult to ask because we may become more inhibited about pushing the point. Probing questions can be translated as "Tell me more about ......". 

    Leading questions

    Produce no information at all. They tell the person what the answer is in the question. They can be very irritating and give the impression you are not interested in what the other person has to say. 

    Multiple questions

    Often start out as good probing questions. Sometimes we find it difficult to tolerate the silence so we fill in with supplementary questions. This ends with confusing the other person as well as ourselves.

  5. Summarises
    Another useful skill to include in an interview or counselling session is summarising, not simply at the end to check on agreements and action, but at appropriate points within the session. Summarising again helps both listener and client to check understanding and to reinforce that active listening has taken place. e.g.
    • "Let me check what I think you’ve said so far ....."
    • "If I’ve heard you correctly, what you’ve said so far is"
    • "So to sum up, what we’ve agreed is ....."  
  6. Reflects
    An often under-used technique and yet such a useful one. Much like the allusion to a mirror reflecting means picking up the essence of what the client has said and putting it back to him or her in a short phrase or sentence of your own, this checks that you understand one another and that you the listener, are accurately hearing what the client has said.

    Phrases such as:- ‘it seems that .....‘it sounds like ‘so you feel that ....?‘ ‘so you think that ....?‘ can help to preface a reflective comment.

    And you can’t go wrong by reflecting, for your client will either respond with something like a ‘yes, that’s right .....‘ and go on, or will say something like, ‘well no, actually what I meant was .....‘ and will right it for you, so either way you both win.

  7. Checks Understanding
    This is another important and useful technique to bring in intermittently to the listening process, particularly in the early stages and where there is a lot of information coming from the client.

    Do not be afraid to intervene even though you may feel that you will be breaking the client’s flow. For as long as you are wondering what the earlier point was and are wanting to check on what has been said, your attention will not be with the client. Also, the intervention will probably feel much more awkward to you the listener, than it will appear to the client.

    Phrases such as:- ‘so what you are saying is .....?‘ can help here to fully convey that you have been listening to the client and have accurately heard what (s)he has said, it is worth reflecting and checking understanding two or three times before asking a question, which by its very nature focuses the interview or counselling session in a particular direction.
  8. Encourages
    For example, by using facial expressions and verbal triggers, e.g. "that sounds interesting, can you say some more about that?"
  9. Uses silences well For example, by not filling the space and so allows the client to do so.