"We Don't Talk Anymore"
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
Have we forgotten how to communicate?
Effective Communication for Meaningful Helping Conversations.
Since beginning a Level 1 counselling course back in September, I've become acutely aware of how bad so many of us are at communicating- myself included. Having spent four months studying interpersonal skills, I've learnt what a meaningful conversation looks like and now often find myself observing ineffective, imbalanced conversations: full of interruptions, one-sided babbling, and neither parties really listening to the other... Don't get me wrong, I'm no master in the art of conversing, I'm actually very shy and socially awkward, but doing this course and training to become a Crisis Counsellor has given me a really good idea of how to converse more effectively, especially when it comes to helping people.
And in a time where we communicate more and more via texts and social media, having a meaningful conversation in-person becomes rather a sacred occurrence. Have we therefore forgotten how to communicate?
The following post details all that I have learnt in becoming an effective counsellor. With that in mind, it applies mostly in a helping scenario, whether that is professional or casual: a friend coming to you for advice; a family member or colleague struggling with something; or someone you are actually aiming to counsel.
"Connecting deeply with others is one of the most rewarding aspects of being alive"
So, it may be easiest to start with what not to do: 1. Sympathy. "I'm sorry to hear about your breakup" / "Oh, I'm sorry that you've been feeling down" = NOT HELPFUL!
What do you even say back to that? "Oh, that's okay...?" Sympathy in this form often makes the recipient feel even worse; like they now have to account for your grief/ pain/ sadness as well as theirs. Empathy, on the other hand, (which I will go on to discuss) is essential. There is a difference.
2. Making it about you. "I know what you mean. When I..." Don't make it about you. If you, like me, have been watching Netflix’s Sex Education, you’ll understand what I mean when I say ‘it’s not about you’. You need to separate yourself from the person you’re trying to help. Sometimes it seems helpful to offer this form of comfort, and sometimes it is indeed helpful to hear you are not alone or that another person has got through what you're going through, but realistically, you can never really know what a person is experiencing as no two experiences will ever be exactly the same, so you should avoid assuming you know how another person is feeling.
3. Closed, leading and 'why' questions. "Are you feeling okay?" / "Don't you think you should move on?" / "Why are you feeling sad?" Closed questions leave you with a yes, no or one word answer. And that can often lead to the end of a conversation, which is pretty unconstructive if you're trying to get someone to open up. Leading questions follow your own agenda rather than the other person's, or it can lead a person to be dishonest in fitting in with your view of things. Instead, try to meet the person where they are.
"Why?" questions can often come across judgemental and accusatory, thus leading a person to become defensive.
4. Give false hope. "Oh I'm sure it'll be fine..." / "Everything will work out." / "You'll be okay!" Although this can be nice to hear, it can be seen as giving false hope, or even belittle the severity of someone's issue, minimising their feelings and dismissing their pain rather than validating them.
5. Give advice. "I think you should..." / "Why don't you just..." / "You'd be better off..." This perhaps applies mainly to an actual counsellor, but the thought process here is that empowering a person to lead them to figure out a solution for themselves is far more effective than simply telling them what to do. Obviously if a friend comes to you for advice, it's not always going to be helpful to be that person that says "hm I don't know, only you can really know what's best...", but, on the other hand, your advice may not actually be entirely helpful either as you can never fully understand the situation. As a counsellor, our role is not to solve a person's problems. We do not have to offer something wise or even reassuring. We are simply there to listen and understand.
So, what do we do?
First up, verbal contact techniques:
1. Open questions. Turn it around and ask some open questions to encourage the person you're speaking to to open up, explore their issue further and come to their own solution.
The 'magic wand'/ 'miracle' question: "If you could have your life any way, what would it be?" or "In an ideal world, if you could wave a magic wand and solve this issue, what would the outcome be?"
The 'guru' question: "If you could ask someone wise about your issue, what do you think they'd say?"
The 'mirror' question: "What would you say to a friend in your situation?"
2. Minimal encouragers. Using verbal cues like "mhmm", "yes" or "ah", along with nodding, is effective in showing the person you're having a conversation with that you are engaged and following what they are saying by reacting appropriately. Due to the unobtrusive nature of these encouragers, the speaker does not feel constantly interrupted but instead they are made to feel like they are being listened to and therefore encouraged to divulge more.
3. Strength IDs. "You were brave to open up about that." / "I can see how compassionate you are in the concern you have for your friend." We use these as Crisis Counsellors to point out positive qualities in a person which we can tie to a visible action. For these to be effective and believable they need to be evidence based.
"It's normal to feel..." / "It's understandable that you're feeling..."
Whereas giving false hope can belittle a person's feelings, validations can affirm them in a helpful way as they normalise, recognise and accept the way a person is feeling. In turn, a person may feel less alone and less disapproving of their emotions.
Next up, non-verbal contact techniques:
1. Body language. It is said that the degree to which we like the person we are talking to depends 55% on body language, 38% on the tone of voice and only 7% on the words used. With this in mind, using open and relaxed body language when you are trying to achieve trust and honesty with someone, or even just build general rapport, is fundamental.
2. Mirroring. I like to think of mirroring as subliminal empathy. It is visible when two people talking to one another adopt the same posture, phrases or facial expressions. People tend to do this naturally, without even realising; this shows they are in tune with one another. In a helping scenario, rather than being forced, it is effective when done with sincerity as a way to achieve greater emphatic understanding.
[...] This is something I have found extremely difficult to utilise but extremely powerful when implemented. It's a shocker, but: you don't need to fill every gap in a conversation! Try leaving a 7 second gap after a person has spoken - they will most likely expand on what they were saying. Silence gives people the time to comprehend their feelings. You can probably tell if a person isn't really finished speaking by their facial expression or eye contact: if they are looking away they are probably still trying to find their words and compile their thoughts. If they are looking right at you, they may be finished and waiting for your response.
What all of these dos and don'ts encapsulate is the difference between active listening vs passive listening, or in counselling, actually listening vs having a casual conversation. The former involves truly hearing what the person is saying, whereas the latter is simply listening in order to speak, awaiting your next cue. With the former comes powerful relationships built on trust and honesty, and in this comes the capacity for change and growth.
The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke of 'three core conditions' which are integral in providing a 'growth-producing climate':
1. Empathy Empathy, unlike sympathy, which is simply feeling sorry for someone, encapsulates the ability to see something from someone else’s point of view, but still remain separate from it. It is integral to building a positive relationship as it ensures people are not judged, but their experiences and views are understood, accepted and valued. Through this kind of relationship, people are more likely to feel safe in expressing whatever they are feeling.
"Empathic understanding restores to the lonely and alienated individual a sense of belonging."
Congruence involves honesty and authenticity: presenting a consistent version of yourself that is genuine. When your words match your actions people become comfortable being their true self and, in turn, a positive, transparent relationship can be formed, where both parties are seen as equals.
3. Unconditional Positive Regard
In simpler terms, UPR embodies acceptance. It is the belief in a person's worth, value and inherent capacity for good. This non-judgemental warmth involves seeing a person as separate from their behaviour and acknowledging their endless ability to grow. Even if you do not agree with a person’s opinions or behaviour, UPR means validating what a person is saying through simply exploring it. This is likely to encourage a level of confidence and security that no matter what a person says, they will not be judged or condemned.
With the rise of mental health, suicide as the biggest male killer, and socio-political conflict at every corner, we live in a time where communication is needed more than ever, and yet we do it less and less. I truly believe that talking is the ultimate medicine when it comes to stress, anxiety, depression and the likes, and yet we are too afraid to open up and wildly unequipped to respond if someone does. With this in mind, perhaps we should all take a little time to brush up on our communication skills, as you never know when a conversation you are faced with could change, or even save, someone's life.