The Countenance of a Counselor
The first impression a counselee will receive from you, and the impression that may stay with them for some time, lies in whether you are warm and personable—not casual and unprofessional, mind you, but simply human and accessible. While attorneys and surgeons may have the option of being cool and remote, pastoral counselors do not.
Everything rests on your counselee’s sense of whether or not they can open up to you, whether you are trustworthy or not, whether you prize them or not. I remember watching Carl Rogers counseling a volunteer counselee at a weekend workshop. It wasn’t what he said that moved me, as much as how humanly present he was with this woman. There was the hint of a smile on his face and in his voice, even though he was conveying thoughtful reflection about what she said to him.
I thought to myself, “Dan, you’ve got to lighten up with your own counselees. You’re too poker-faced. You’ve got to convey more warmth.” Indeed, I had been trained at the University of New Mexico that counseling and psychotherapy is a serious profession, and that by giving counselees a look of objective neutrality throughout the session I would help them to concentrate on their inner material. It took years to get over that aspect of my training, and to replace that blank look with facial expressions that flowed from whatever the counselee was confiding.
Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and other master counselors whom I’ve observed in person helped me discover that good counseling involves human-to-human communication. Inspirational teachers and coaches know this. They’re not afraid to greet you with a smile, pat you on the back when you’ve achieved something significant, or frown when they are perplexed. So when you invite each counselee into your office, enjoy giving a warm smile and a firm handshake. This sends the message: “I respect your courage to come in for counseling; now, how can I help you out?”
Your Body Language Matters
While we’re on the topic of a counselor’s body language, let me mention three more cues. Watch your hands the next time you are counseling. Make sure they are not fidgeting or locked together in an ironclad grip. Use selective relaxation to connect the occasional smile you offer during a session with a relaxed pair of hands. Then look at your legs. Is one of your feet bobbing up and down like a cork in water?
Mouth, hands, legs, feet: all are visual cues that convey attention or inattention to your counselee. Opt for a relaxed body in which you are breathing easily and making natural gestures when you speak. This conveys relational connection.
Beyond this, you can use the style of communication with which you are accustomed. Some counselors have a dramatic and histrionic style. Others are more calm and composed. This is fine. But do become aware of your body language so that you can maintain an accurate picture of how the counselee is seeing you.
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