Today I restart my work as a counsellor in schools. It’s the end of the holiday period and normality (or at least routine), whatever that is for each of the young people I work with, returns. I found myself turning the radio off going in and driving in silence, preparing myself for the day ahead, wondering what Christmas had been for each young person.
I am starting with many new clients this term and this also leads me to reflect on what I bring to the room to someone new. Always the question is where do you start? For me it starts with one thing…
It’s all about their story.
Our story is everything. It tells of who we are. It gives reference to why we are who we are and why we do what we do. Bar our fingerprints, which do nothing other than identify us, our story is the most unique thing we have to offer. If is our history, our experience and our life.
To give a young person space to tell their story is the greatest gift we can give them. You would not believe the numbers of young people and adults who have worked with professionals that have shared that they didn’t feel listened to. The basis of every positive relationship that is built with a young person is started when they perceive that you are there for them.
The biggest skill I have learnt is the ability to create an environment that helps someone to tell their story and it starts with one simple thing. Listening.
Listening is something we all do unconsciously and we all have the capability and ability to do it better than we do already. It is really important to get a grip on the knowledge and practice of listening.
Listening starts before we even enter the room. It starts with our attitude our mindset and our willingness. Without this in place and without making the decision that you are about to spend time listening you WILL find it hard to do so effectively.
So what’s needed? The starting place for me is the basis of phenomenology. This is an interesting look at how we approach Young People in which we focus on three related principles:
Where we put aside our own beliefs, assumptions prejudices and expectations and we force ourselves to explore the experiences of the young person as if the first time of encountering it.
Where it is not for us to interpret the young persons experience but to paraphrase. Putting in your own words their experience.
Where it is important for us to not choose what we think is the most important part of the young persons story.
These three things are really huge in shifting our mindset to be there fore the young person in their world or their story.
So when I have a young person in front of me I have to see them as if this is the first young person that I have ever come across in my life. Of course I have the toolkit of years of working with young people but I cant make the assumption that this young person in front of me is anything like the last one. Even if on the outside they appear to be wearing the same clothes or using the same words.
To this we add Empathy. Empathic understanding is primarily a subjective experience on the part of the listener. It means having the ability to perceive the young persons world as the they see it; to grasp it from their frame of reference, and being able to communicate that understanding tentatively and sensitively. Demonstrating empathy means:
- Being able to step into the young persons shoes, and being able to step out again
- Being able to stand back far enough to remain objective, rather than standing too close and risk becoming enmeshed in the young person’s world
- Being close to, yet remaining separate from – it doesn’t mean we become the other person.
Finally to this we add the ability to hold an Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) for the young person, where we put aside everything to help the young person feel that they will be accepted for who they are regardless of our own beliefs or assumptions about their life and story. Generally we can call UPR “Acceptance”. True acceptance is directed to the needs of the “other”, rather than to the listeners own needs. Acceptance recognises the potential of the young person to have the answer with in themselves.
So we start with all these skills to create an environment where the young person is given acceptance and freedom to tell their story and be listened to. This is where we start to build a meaningful relationship where we can help them understand, grow and develop.