Just Sit There! – An Important Counselling Tip

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I train a lot of people in various counselling skills. Sometimes I catch myself talking and talking, then wondering – Is this actually helpful?

It’s relatively easy to talk about and even teach counselling skills. There is much material out there to draw from. We’ve got a lot of research telling us what people find the most helpful, lots of models and frameworks claiming to be the best tools available. As a counsellor do I use these tools? Well, yes – often I do. And then there are oodles of moments when I say something off the hip, make something up on the fly or stumble over the wording of a thoughtful reframe.

When do I actually feel the most helpful? It’s often a surprise – not when I’m trying an actual intervention, or when I think I’m being the most brilliant. It’s often when I make a mistake or do something very non-counsellor-like.

Like the other day when I had to sneeze.

It was an early morning appointment – a difficult time for me to feel helpful on the best of days. However, the person I was sitting with was engaging and easy to listen to. We had been meeting for a number of months, so I was eager to keep the process moving to ensure it was of help. As they were talking I was forming a clever open question meant to illuminate some neglected part of the story, when a tickle formed in my nostril and threatened to interrupt this whole process. As I was fighting off the urge and losing the battle, my client paused to watch my facial contortion, watch me take a big breath, then another. Then they shifted their focus and began to talk about a neglected part of the story – but not what I expected.

I didn’t ask, say or do anything. This turned into a very meaningful session and an important lesson for me.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating we throw out the models and interventions. Knowing what we are doing and why we are doing it is fundamental to being an effective counsellor or helper. We can get too caught up in this however. Often it can be more helpful to just get out of the way and not muddy the waters with our own questions, thoughts or suggestions.

I think of that client often now when I’m sitting with others, and I take a cue from them. Rather than trying to do something helpful, I take a deep breath, then another. And I just sit there.

Vicki Enns, MMFT
Clinical Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.

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