I often teach on the subject of basic counseling. It is one of my favorite topics and one that seems to get a lot of interest as well. As I begin this post I want to emphasize the word basic. These ideas are just a starting point and will by no means qualify anyone as trained or qualified counselor. However, these are very valuable skills to have and will certainly enhance your ministry, your marriage, and pretty much every relationship you have.
My context happens to be adolescents (typically 12-25yrs old). When specifically dealing with this age group the key thing to remember is they are most likely struggling with identity crisis. We all know this term. We’ve all experienced it to some extent. Identity crisis is trying to find the answers to those big questions like: Who am I? What am I supposed to with my life? Who loves me? What defines me? Certainly, we all struggle with those questions most of our lives, however we deal with them the most during our adolescent years. I can remember from my own adolescent years trying to figure out my own identity. Did it come from my grades? Or my performance in sports? Or my peers and party life? During our adolescent years we are all desperately trying to figure out who we are. This is one of the very reasons that sharing christ with young people can be so powerful. We have an opportunity to help them understand that they have a true identity in Christ. That they are loved, redeemed, and made with a purpose despite what the world may be telling them. Using these basic counseling skills can be a powerful tool to gaining the trust of young people in order to share that good news.
Skill #1 – Create the right environment
We begin with creating an environment. As a long-time backpacking and outdoor guide I am constantly aware of the environment that I am in. I’m always watching the weather and the terrain and adjusting what I can to optimize for safety and learning. Similarly in counseling, creating a good environment is crucial. Studies have shown that there are three key elements to creating an environment that makes for an effective counselor.
Warmth – Total and complete acceptance – “if the counselor cares about me, maybe I am valuable” There is no need for them to win our approval.
Genuine – Teenagers can sense phoniness a mile away and you cannot fake it, they will know.
Empathetic – putting yourself in their shoes. Not being sorry for they way that they feel but actually trying to understand it.
Here are a few Questions to ask to help maintain these qualities –
- Do I honestly accept this adolescent with out requiring change?
- Do I value this person in spite of his thoughts, feelings or behavior?
- How would I act, think, and feel if I were in this adolescents shoes?
- Do I understand him so accurately that I have no desire to judge him?
By having warmth, genuineness and empathy we are creating the best possible conditions for growth because they will feel: They are accepted unconditionally, They are with one who is trustworthy and real, and that they will feel like they are deeply understood.
Skill #2 – Active listening
The heart of counseling is Active Listening. In fact it is so important that I created an acronym for it.
L – Lean in – What is our non-verbal response? In other words what is our body language communicating? Be mindful of your facial expressions, body posture, and eye contact. Can people tell by watching you that you are genuinely engaged?
I – Interested – We need to be genuinely interested. Young people can spot a fake from a mile away. By consistently listening to a speaker, you are conveying the idea that “I’m interested in you as a person, what you feel is important to me. I respect your thoughts and even if I don’t agree I know that they are valid to you. I’m sure that you have a contribution to make. I’m not trying to change or evaluate you. I just want to understand you. I think you are worth listening to and I want you to know that I am the kind of person that you can talk to.”
S – Slow to speak – This is wisdom from scripture. Be quick to listen and slow to speak -James 1:19. He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame – Prov. 18:13. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything but your statements can be more reflective in nature. One of the most annoying things in life is when someone hijacks your thoughts and rants for ten minutes on something completely off topic. Focus on what they are saying. Try and grasp the facts and feelings behind what they are saying.
- Examples of reflective statements could be:
- I’m sorry that you had to go through that.
- That must have been really tough.
- I can see how that is a still struggle for you.
- NOT – that sucks, when’s dinner?
- NOT – Me too!
- NOT – Wow, Amy just told me the same thing
T – Test your understanding – Test your understanding of that person by restating aloud the previous point, position and meaning of the other person to make sure that it is grasped. Do this for reflection and clarification. You are trying to gather more information and help explore the issue more thoroughly. Again, try and grasp the thinking and feeling behind the message.
E – Empathy – Attempt to see what the speakers is trying to convey from their point of view (putting ourselves in their shoes). Actually try and feel what that would be like to be in their position. Ask questions to better understand their point of view. Open ended questions are very helpful.
N – No pressure for advice – This is probably one of the most important things to remember. Often when we are engaged in a counseling type conversation we might panic and think this person is expecting us to drop some serious wisdom bombs on them and fix all their problems. The reality is transformation is more likely to take place through self-discovery rather than being told what to do.
- Ask lots of questions that dig in that direction
- I’m not saying we should withhold advice but sometimes advice can be given to soon. For example they may not be ready for it and they will think there is no way that they could follow your advice and give up entirely.
- In addition it is important to convey what scripture says about a certain issue. Instead of revealing what we think we can reveal what God thinks.
- Validate their feelings. Allow them to respond, be ok with silence they might need time to process.
Creating the right environment and Active Listening is key in beginning the road to healing and discovering who we are meant to be. Remember, especially amongst adolescents, there is a deep sense of searching for true identity. What an amazing opportunity we have to step in and guide them towards their true meaning and purpose! One cautionary remark before I close. Be careful to know the laws in your area. In most states you are required to report any suspicions of abuse. If someone asks you if they can tell you something but you have to promise never to tell anyone else. It is wise not to fully agree to that. You can respond by saying something like “I’d really love to hear what you have to say and I will keep it confidential unless your safety is in danger, than I might have to ask someone for help.” Almost every time they will still tell you what they were going to anyways.
I’ve taught this many times in context of youth ministry but many times people have come up to me saying something like “this works great in my marriage too!” Hopefully this helps where ever your are and please let me know if you have any questions!