I’m in a counselling session with someone who is on long-term disability leave from a stressful job. We have a limited number of sessions paid for by their insurance company, so I am adopting a solution-focused approach. My agenda is to keep the focus on how their life will be different when the problem is gone and to get them to identify solutions to their problems. However, they want to talk about something else today: “You know, my mother had schizophrenia, and I’m always afraid that I’ll get it too.”
Wait, what? What does this have to do with their job-related issues? Aren’t we here to figure out how to deal with stress at work? Is this person just trying to avoid the “real” problem? Can we afford to get sidetracked and “waste” one of the few precious sessions we have together?
When we cling too tightly to our plan, we may fail to truly listen to what is happening for those we are supporting.
Moments like this come up frequently in counselling and other helping scenarios. We may have a specific agenda and agreed-upon goals that have been worked out collaboratively with the person or family, yet sometimes things seem to stray from the path. What can we do in these situations? Here are five things to consider if you find yourself in this situation:
1. Be willing to let go of your agenda.
When we cling too tightly to our plan, we may fail to truly listen to what is happening for those we are supporting. Letting go can be one of the most powerful therapeutic actions that we take. Giving up the need to control the session can open space to address more immediate or critical issues. I have frequently been amazed at what happens when I let go of my urge to steer the conversation and instead pause to really listen.
2. Be curious.
Ask a little more about the person’s apparent digression. Has something happened recently to bring up this issue? Is there something in this concern that does relate to the overall counselling goal? It may not be as unrelated as it appears. In the example above, the person was having trouble concentrating at work and was worried that this was the first sign of mental illness. In exploring a bit further, it was evident that this fear had to be addressed before they could contemplate any return to work.
Alternatively, something new might have happened that is a more immediate problem. Perhaps the person suddenly brings up the topic of their spousal relationship. A few curious questions may uncover that they are experiencing abuse. The goal and priorities of counselling must change to address this higher-risk situation.
3. Acknowledge the concern.
The worst thing to do would be to brush this off with reassurances or redirect the person back to talking about their job. Even if you feel this is an avoidance tactic, it is essential to acknowledge it.
Be willing to let go of your agenda.
4. Clarify if this is what the person wants to focus on today.
“We were going to talk about your return-to-work plan today. Would you rather talk about this concern?” You could also ask them to rate the importance of the new concern relative to what was originally being discussed: “If you could have only one of these things addressed today, which would be most important?”
Also ask how much of the session they would like to devote to the new issue. You may assume that the whole time has been derailed when all they really want is some information before getting back to the matter that was being discussed.
5. Trust the moment!
Perhaps this is not what you planned to address today, but it is the person’s greatest concern right now. It may in fact turn out to be the key to their presenting problem. In the example above, the fear of job stress “driving [them] crazy” was the roadblock preventing them from solving their work-related issues. The road through that fear ended up being a necessary detour for finding some solutions.
That moment when your well-constructed roadmap takes an apparent wrong turn may turn out to be a necessary diversion. Listening closely and exploring what is happening in the moment will help us determine how to proceed, how far to pursue this road, and how it might connect to the main track. Or we may discover that what we thought was the main track was just the entry point to this new route.
When that moment happens and your counselling session is not going according to plan, keep the overall goal of counselling in mind. As counsellors, it is not about getting the person to change in the way, or time frame, that we think they should. It is about doing our best to listen closely, to be a guide, and to help people find tools and skills they can use to improve their lives. That instant when we feel lost might actually be the pivotal moment.
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