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Client relationships in counselling

There are a large number of different things that can impact upon your client relationships in counselling. Each move that you make should not be calculated, but you must try to make your demeanour and manner of working nonthreatening, calm and reassuring. This requires an understanding of a number of different methods of communication.

Eye contact

This can be a tricky concept because eye contact levels vary greatly dependent upon culture. How much we look at someone when we are speaking to them isn’t something that is usually given a lot of thought. We know when people appear to be staring at us but is that because they are actually starting or are they just fully engaged in what we are saying? Eye contact should be enough to show a client that you are listening to them and that they have your full attention but not so much that they feel uncomfortable.

Facial expressions

Before we start here, go to this website and see how good you are at facial expression recognition: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/ei_quiz/

How did you do? Being able to recognise facial expression is a key skill to have as a therapist because often, a person’s face will display the actual emotion they are feeling rather than the one they are saying that they are feeling because facial expressions often happen instinctively in response to a situation.

It is equally important, however to ensure that you know what message your own face is putting across to your client because, like with tone and volume of the voice, clients can pick up on subtle changes. If you are frowning because you are pondering what they have said, the client might think that you are doing so because you disapprove of it. Keeping facial expression appropriate will help keep the client assured that you understand what they are saying and how they are feeling.

Body language

A topic that is worth a full course of its own but here we will concentrate on posture since this is important at the start of the conversation. An open posture where arms and legs are not folded, is much more conducive to an open conversation as it conveys a non-judgmental attitude. Egan (1986) devised an easy reference system for therapists when working with clients so they would be able to adopt a stance that made their body language as positive as possible so that communication would be enhanced. It is referred to as ‘SOLER’:

Sit squarely
Open position
L
ean slightly towards client
E
ye contact
R
elax

As well as the above, small affirming head nods to assure the client you are still listening and you understand what they are saying, will also help to facilitate communication throughout the session.

Active listening

Listening, in this instance, does not just involve hearing what the other person has said, but shows the client that you are not distracted by anything around you or even by your own thoughts and you are paying complete attention to every word they say. Listening will be accompanied by gestures both verbal and non verbal to assure the client that you understand and that they should continue. Occasionally, you should refer back to what they have said and they should state whether or not you are correct.

Being non-judgmental

Those of you already familiar with counselling will be aware of the importance of this skill. A non-judgmental attitude will help the client to feel as though they can say whatever comes to mind without fear that the counsellor will try and take control of the conversation with their own opinions. In fact, the complete opposite should be happening and so the counsellor should wholly avoid phrases such as these:

  • “If I were you, I would…”
  • “If you want my opinion…”
  • “I would not have let that happen…”

Instead, they should be offering things such as:

  • “How do you feel it should have been done?”
  • “How did that make you feel?”
  • “That must have been a very difficult situation for you.”

When a counsellor leads with an opinionated statement or implies something without saying it outright, this can lead to the client changing their minds about how they speak about something or about continuing with that they were saying for fear of judgment.

Unconditional positive regard

This is another well-used phrase within general counselling, which simply means that the counsellor does not outwardly judge their client regardless of what they tell them, and continues to respect them within boundaries of the professional relationship. This will help the client to feel valued and respected, which is very useful for many clients whose problems stem from issues of low self-esteem and confidence.

The use of specific vocabulary

The development of specialist vocabulary is something, which the therapist should continue as an ongoing process. What is said within a session can resonate very evidently with some clients and so misuse of vocabulary might have a negative impact on a relationship. Specialist vocabulary refers to the type of words that are used in conversation and the kind of connotations that they have for listeners. So, for example, there are words which convey happiness, sadness, anger or fear and these must be used in the correct context by both client and counsellor so as to avoid confusion and miscommunication.

Happy words: Cheerful, ecstatic, elated, pleasure, enjoyment, successful

Sad words: Regret, distressed, troubled, unsettled, difficult, grim

Anger words: Frustration, intimidating, hostile, argumentative, confrontational

Fear words: Panic, anxiety, frozen, dread, uneasiness, terror

A positive experience

It may seem like an obvious thing to say that therapy should be a positive experience for clients but it is worth pointing out the obvious when it is so important! If all core skills are applied during sessions then there is no reason why a positive experience cannot be achieved with a client in all of their sessions. Sometimes, though this does not happen; perhaps the mood of the client is different or maybe they feel distracted and this can lead to a negative atmosphere. Should this happen, it is perfectly acceptable for the therapist to suggest that they take a few minutes out of the session and return to it afterwards – this should help to release any negative tensions.

The taking of notes during a session can be a contentious issue. Many believe it to be an integral part of therapy because the therapist must have an accurate record of what has been said and taking notes at the time of the conversation will lessen the likelihood of something important being omitted. However, others argue that if the therapist is writing when their client is speaking, then the therapist cannot possibly be listening actively because writing notes acts as a distraction. Furthermore, some clients may find it to be very off-putting knowing that the therapist is writing about them and this is especially the case if they have negative thought processes – they will immediately think that everything being written about them is derogatory. There is no right or wrong situation here, you, as the therapist, must do what you believe to be right for each individual client, which might mean writing notes at certain points during the session, perhaps when you are summarizing, and letting the client know what you are doing and why.

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