Lark's Counseling Tips

by Lark


I. Introduction:

As Initiates, we take on the role of mentor and teacher for those who wish to follow the Wiccan path. In doing so, we are acting in the role of priest or priestess with all that implies in terms of providing the comfort and counseling expected of clergy in any faith. Unfortunately, most Initiates come to this role without the benefit of formal instruction in how to provide counseling to another individual. That should not be taken to mean that we are not able to meet the needs of our students. One does not have to delve into the deepest Freudian secrets to be a counselor. The following material is designed to give the non-professional some tools with which to approach the task of counseling with confidence, and some warning flags to tell you when professional help may be needed.

Most of us have been approached at one time or another by someone who asked for our help or advice with a problem. Generally what happens in this situation is that the person asked for help tends to tell the other person what they "ought" to do, on the assumption that this will move the counselee to a more positive behavior. This creates difficulty for both people involved, since it denies the counselee the opportunity to work through his problem to a solution which fits him/her, and it creates a dependency on the counselor. The next time the student/counselee runs into a problem, he can only come back to his counselor for help because he has gained no insight or tools which will help him to solve his own problems. Furthermore, whether the outcome of the solution given him is satisfactory or unsatisfactory, the counselee has no part in responsibility for the outcome. Since we are a religion which stresses individual responsibility, this is hardly what we want to be doing. Allowing the student/counselee to find their own way through their problems helps them to grow stronger and better able to handle whatever life throws their way.

Whenever we use titles like Initiate/Student, we activate certain circuits in our brain which suddenly define one as having authority and one as having none. This can interfere with communication and create an uncomfortable atmosphere. To avoid this, discuss early on with your students how you see your role. A positive example might be "I have information I would be happy to share with you." This creates a feeling of being companions on the same path without the overtones of authority.

II. The Counseling Environment:

In order to be effective, counseling must take place in a conducive environment. It is the responsibility of the counselor to establish an environment in which the person being counseled feels safe and protected when bring forth his problems. The following items are essential parts of the counseling environment:

1.Before you attempt to counsel anyone, make sure that they want your help. The counselee always reserves the right to determine what he wants to deal with, how deep and how fast he desires to proceed, and whether he wants your help at all. Don't feel you have failed if the person does not want help at that time, simply let them know that you care and that you are there should they change their mind.

2. The physical setting is important. No one wants to talk about things which might embarass or upset them where others might hear. Chose a place and time where you will not be interrupted or disturbed. Turn off you phone if it is likely to ring. Arrange some comfortable furniture so you can sit close enough to be engaged easily. Provide tissues and something to drink if you like. The idea is to be as comfortable as possible and to assure the person being counseled that you are there to hear what they want to say.

3. The heart of the counseling process is what Carl Rogers called "Unconditional Positive
Regard". This is an atmosphere in which the Initiate makes no judgmental statements, offers no criticisms, makes no evaluation, and rarely asks any direct questions of the student/counselee. Instead, try to put yourself into an empathic mode where you try to look at the problem through the other person's eyes. Suspend all judgment on your part and work at correlating the person's expression of feelings and his statements of his problem in a calm and accepting manner.

4. Finally, the counseling setting must contain time limits. None of us have the ability to spend all the time we might want on a counseling session. When setting up a counseling session, tell the person being counseled when the session must come to a close. That will prevent them from bringing out things which they do not have time to work through in that session. 

III Counseling Skills:

Contrary to what you may believe, it isn't necessary to have a degree in psychology or other esoteric field to be an effective counselor. Most people have the basic skills without even knowing that they have them.

1. The most important skill for any counselor is the ability to listen, listen, listen. Listen to what the other person is saying. This means using fewer words yourself, avoiding interruptions, and not allowing the conversation to be turned back to you. Avoid the pronouns I and me, since using those words turns the focus back on you and not on the person you are counseling. Once that happens, counseling stops. Stop talking and listen, both to what the counselee is saying verbally and how he expresses himself physically. body language such as facial expressions and gestures are all clues to what a person is feeling. Sagging shoulders, clenched fists, tears, all are indicators of a person's emotional
state.

2. As you are listening to the person, ensure that you understand exactly what the person is telling you. You can't work on a problem until both of you are in agreement as to what the problem is. If you are in any doubt, try repeating back to them what you think you heard. "I hear you saying that....." Keep this up until you both agree that you are hearing what he is saying.

3. Work to reflect the emotions of the person being counseled. You will need to look for clues to the emotional feelings in play. In reality, there are only four generally agreed upon sets of emotional behaviors: Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Joy. Anger and joy are both fairly easy to identify since we all tend to use the same behaviors to express these feelings. Sadness and fear may be more subtle. Listen to what the counselee is saying. Does it make you feel sad or afraid...then it is likely it makes the other person feel the same way. Tears are a clear indication. Other indicators may be changes in the patient's daily habits such as disruption of appetite, sleep disturbances, loss of interest in their usual activities, of a change in grooming/hygiene. 

Once you have identified a feeling, reflect it back at the person. "You seem to be feeling sad...." We are essentially creatures of emotions and our emotions often guide our behaviors more than our intellect does. Identifying the emotion behind the behavior allows the person to clarify why they feel angry, sad, etc.; and then allows them to look at that reason rationally.

Sometimes it is difficult to pick up a specific feeling. In that case, sit back, be quiet, and wait.

3. After the person being counseled has had the opportunity to ventilate his feelings fully, it is appropriate to help lay out the possible options and reflect on the outcomes of possible choices. Remember, these options should be explored without manipulation on the part of the counselor, and the person being counseled must be allowed to chose his own path to take. A person is always more committed to attaining his own goal than he is in attaining a goal set by someone else. You may chose to help them work through the process with statements such as:

"I know you must have given some thought to this problem, and I wonder what possible solutions you might have come up with?"

"If you do that, what do you suppose will be the outcome? Is that what you want?"

"You tried that in the past and it didn't work, what other options do you see yourself having?"

"Have you thought about........?"

IV: Goals of counseling:

1. Allow the person to ventilate his feelings in a safe and accepting atmosphere. Sometimes this will be enough to help the individual. For instance, if the person has just lost a loved one, being able to express their sadness and loss in a caring setting may be all that is needed to provide the help they require.

2. Help the counselee to place his problem in the context of reality without his emotions getting in the way.

3. Enable the individual to chose among possible options the one which seems good for him.

V. Confidentiality

Confidentiality of what is said in a counseling session is absolutely vital if the person to be counseled is going to be able to be open about their feelings. Remember always that we stand as priest or priestess, and that the same rules apply to us as in the confessional. Make this clear to the counselee in the very beginning. Tell them that what they tell you will be held in confidence between the two of you, and perhaps shared with the High Priest/ess or another Initiate only if you need assistance in helping them.

The only exception to this rule of confidentiality is in that situation where the counselee threatens harm to themselves or others. In that case, it is your responsibility to bring that statement to the attention of others who can protect the person adequately from their own actions.


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    copyright © Lark 1998. Included by permission of the author
    Last updated July 17, 1998