Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
Counseling is much harder to do than coaching because the issues involved are usually personal and emotional. The problems brought to a counseling session are typically large: divorce, alcoholism, a kid in trouble, a mid-life crisis, career plateauing, fear of retirement, poor interpersonal skills, and the like. While this kind of subject matter can make both the subordinate and the manager uncomfortable, because these issues often impair work performance, managers need to become comfortable counseling subordinates.
Managers will find that once subordinates start talking about their issues the person being counseled gains a tremendous amount of relief simply because talking transforms a very emotional issue into a set of problems that need solving. The goal of counseling is to help subordinates see choices they couldn’t see before and make better decisions for themselves. The goal of counseling is for people to become better able to solve their issues.
There is little as satisfying as talking with someone who really listens to you. Alas—the experience is rare but it is the heart of counseling. The skills involved in counseling are very specific and they can be learned pretty easily. While these skills won’t transform a manager into a psychotherapist, they will make the manager much more comfortable and effective as a counselor.
Effective counseling uses all of these skills. And, as with all skills, practice makes perfect.
- Establish rapport and stay calm.
Creating rapport involves making someone feel comfortable and in order to do that, you must be at ease. It’s very useful for counselors to master a simple breathing technique that enables people to relax at will and stay calm. If you practice any kind of relaxation or yoga breathing you will find that concentrating on breathing makes you calm. The basis of the relaxation techniques is you can’t be relaxed and tense at the same time. If you are physically relaxed you cannot be psychologically upset. When you master a relaxation technique you will be able to observe emotions but not get caught up in them.
Counselors must avoid any responses that will make the other person defensive. Take your time; don’t rush into the big issues; smile, welcome the person and maintain eye contact. Lean toward the other person so the manager-counselor’s body language says, I’m here for you and ready to listen. You want to create a mood of being connected, in which mutual trust and respect lead to honest communication. When rapport has been established, both people can move to the issues that matter.
- Listen and ask responsive questions.
Counselors don’t solve the other person’s problems. Instead, the goal is for that person to gain a better understanding of what their issues are and what they could do to make things better. One of the least appreciated and rarely taught skills is that of listening. The counselor helps the other person gain clarity by asking questions and really listening to the answers.
- Hear with your eyes and your ears and your emotions.
In counseling you have to be aware of What-is-there and What-is-missing. Be aware of what is not being communicated but you think ought to be present. The consistency or inconsistency of what is expressed verbally and non-verbally is important. When the face smiles but the posture is tense and belligerent, you have an important piece of information and need to ask more questions.
Being sensitive to messages that are sent without words is what is meant by Hear with your eyes, ears and emotions. Intuition, or how something makes you feel, is particularly valuable when something is being expressed but not in words. Intuition makes you receptive to the meaning of a tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Intuition can be thought of as your emotional response to someone else’s feelings. In order to know whether or not your intuition is likely to be correct you have to pose a level 1 or level 2 questions. You might say, “This is what I’m getting. Is that what you’re saying?”
Managers can ask questions to gain clarity but should not probe beyond what is comfortable and appropriate. If the person being counseled seems to need more assistance than you can offer, you can say you don’t feel competent to be of real help and suggest they visit a therapist.
- Stick to what is happening in the situation.
It’s always tempting to dwell on the past. Not only is it interesting, it’s safer because the past has already happened and it can’t be changed. It’s natural for people to bring up the past and it’s tempting to use the past as an explanation for what’s happening now. While the past can be brought up, it should not be dwelled on. The focus must be on what’s going on in the present and how and what the person will do in the future.
Try to steer the conversation to the present, especially to what is going on during the counseling session because that’s what’s most vividly real. And try to keep the conversation specific. When people generalize, they usually exaggerate and become emotional and that’s often unproductive.
People usually talk about their experiences, their behaviors and their feelings. Of the three, it is easiest to talk about experiences because they’re often something that just happens to you. We use experiences socially when we tell anecdotes and we can be funny, charming, poignant or dramatic and not disclose anything at all about ourselves.
But the point of counseling is for the counseled person to gain greater knowledge of themselves because that’s the bridge to better personal decisions. Greater self-awareness requires disclosure which is the reason why when we counsel, we use questions to make the counseled person go from vague to specific observations and from the past to the present. Questions let the counseled person learn how they behaved and felt in specific situations, especially in the on-going dialogue of counseling.