This is a simple three stage approach to counseling. This process is for when someone comes to you with a problem or wanting to talk about something.
It is for the ‘normal neurotics like you and me”, not for dealing with people with serious psychiatric conditions.
It avoids giving advice (a trap for any counseling approach). If you stick to this approach you will do no harm and will probably do much good.
Stage One: Listening
Listening means understanding the content and the feelings that go with it.
Cerebral understanding is not enough.
Never make a statement that defines the issue or the other person’s feelings; ask instead. Not, “You’re feeling . . . ” but instead, “Are you feeling . . ? “. Not, “The issue is . . .” but instead, “You think the problem is . . .” or, “The way you see it is . . . “. At this stage it may be enough to say “uh-huh” or nod your head.
This stage ends when the person starts talking about the issues behind the problem. You will know you have done well when you get agreement to your suggestions of what the issue is and the feeling behind it.
Stage Two: Exploratory Listening
When the person talking to you feels heard they will move on to deeper things. At this stage you can start asking exploratory questions. Asking if they have felt this way before; What they have tried to do in similar situations – whether it worked or not; Whether there are other thoughts and feelings that are going on for them. You can, if you see something clearly, offer observations of what you see. Things like, “You seem happy/sad/angry . . .” and so on. Even here it is probably better to ask a question than to make a statement.
The critical issue at this stage is to stay in touch with their feelings at the depth they are feeling them.
If you can’t do this, let them know; don’t fake it. You can something like, “Sorry, I can’t handle this right now.” They will appreciate this more than pretending (and they’ll always know if you are just pretending).
This stage ends when the issue is seen differently, a new insight is achieved.
Stage Three: Doing Different Things
Once they see things differently they can start to do things differently, or at least plan to.
The temptation when anyone comes to you with a problem is to try and jump to this stage immediately. This is a mistake. What is needed is the time to explore what is going on and to see it in a new way.
At this stage you can make suggestions of what has worked for you.
Don’t get trapped into playing “Yes, but . . .”.
If they give reasons why your suggestions won’t work, don’t argue. Instead, ask what they have tried, why it didn’t work, and what they can do differently this time.
You may want to organise that they can check in with you so that they monitor how they are going with their new way of doing things.
This stage ends when they try out new behaviour with you or when they have a plan of the new behaviour they want to try with others.
This process is almost entirely about listening.
The other person always knows more about their own situation than you do.
Never offer advice about what they should do. In the third stage you may wish to say what has worked for you if you have dealt with a similar issue yourself.
With a little practice you can get quite good quite quickly at this process. You may well become someone people come to ‘for advice’. As long as you do stick to this process, and don’t offer advice, you will do much good and help many people.