Today I’m in Oxford doing a full-day INSET for school nursing staff and matrons. These staff are on the front line for helping students with any problems, mental and physical. They have both a daunting responsibility and a terrific opportunity to make things better for the individuals in their care. But what I’m going to say in this post applies to all staff working in schools, whether academic, support or pastoral. School librarians, for example, may often find themselves in a position to use this. (It also applies to parents. And any human seeking to help another. All good people, therefore!)
Most of you probably don’t have counselling qualifications, though some of you will have. For your info, I have a Diploma in Youth Counselling and a Certificate in Counselling, though I don’t use them in a clinical setting. But any of you – and I – can find ourselves in a de facto counselling situation, when any young person (or, in our personal lives, any friend) comes to us with an emotional or mental problem. How should we approach this? How do we know what to say – or what not to say?
I think it’s very useful to think about the three “core conditions” for counselling, which seem to apply pretty much whatever variety of counselling you’re doing. This is one of the things that stuck with me most strongly from the course I did and I have often shared it during INSET sessions, as I think it’s a firm foundation and a very good entry point into an appropriate and helpful response to anyone who comes to us with a problem. I also apply it in my personal life. I think it’s the foundation of good listening.
This is very relevant to Mental Health Awareness month, which we are now in.
The core conditions are three things which the counsellor needs to bring to the situation, without which we cannot help the person find their way through the problem. And without which, I believe, we could make the situation worse.
This means that the counsellor genuinely wants to help the person. This genuineness must not only be felt by the counsellor but also displayed so the “sufferer” can sense it. This can be achieved
by things like eye contact (though not too much, as eye contact can also be threatening and invasive), by not being distracted (phone off and out of sight, for a start) and by facial, bodily and verbal cues of concern and warmth. It is achieved by actually giving – and being seen to give – time and attention to the person. This genuineness will also be reinforced by the verbal response but it comes first from an attitude and a feeling.
Appropriate message to convey: “I really want to help you – let’s find a way.” (Counselling is supposed to be about helping the person help themselves, but I personally like to take a more active approach, because that’s what I like to receive. This is one reason I do not plan to be a counsellor in any official sense!)
This means that the counsellor accepts that if the person says that they are feeling X, that is what they are feeling and it is a genuine lived experience. It means that the counsellor accepts the validity of what the person says – even if the feelings and thoughts are ones which we feel are misplaced or causing problems. They may stem from what we might consider “wrong thinking” but they are real and they must be accepted as the starting point. “Oh, don’t be silly – there aren’t any monsters under your bed/the wind can’t blow the house down/your family is not going to be wiped out by a nuclear bomb” will not address the fear and the emotional impact of that fear. In fact, by dismissing the fear as “silly”, we only reinforce the sufferer’s lack of control over his or her life and undermine his or her self-esteem.
Appropriate message: “I can see how afraid/worried/sad/undermined/weak/[whatever] you feel and I can see how it is affecting you. That must be difficult for you.”
This means properly, deeply understanding why the person feels/behaves as they do. This understanding will come through a combination of advanced empathy (being able to put yourself into the other person’s mindset even if that mindset and the sufferer’s situation are different from your own) and human psychology, including any age-specific aspects such as teenage development. Similarly, if you were counselling someone regarding their postnatal depression, you’d need to know something about postnatal challenges and biology. Only with this real understanding will you be able to help the person think through their experiences and feelings with a view to altering them to a more healthy and empowered frame of mind and behaviours.
And it’s that last – understanding – that my work is about. My books and all my talks, whether to students, parents or professionals, seek to share the best possible understanding of how humans work as a species, how individual humans work, and, particularly, how humans work when they are going through the specific developmental period of adolescence.
So, next time someone comes to you with a problem, I urge you to check that the three core conditions are present in your thinking: genuineness, acceptance and understanding. They give you the framework for a response that could properly and practically help the person who needs it.
Meanwhile, thank you to St Edward’s in Oxford for inviting me – inviting me back, in fact! Being asked back is always a nice compliment.