Saturday, August 4, 2012

Counseling conference thoughts

I've been super busy the last few days attending a counseling conference for teachers and advisors in Colorado. It's been amazingly powerful. We have been working on the skills that will help me be more than just an advisor ("Let's see how we're going to fix this problem..." "Have you tried...?" "When I was a student...") and moving towards real listening and building deeper relationships that will allow students to feel truly connected and understood. This will sometimes result in them processing through their feelings and coming to a solution of some sort. Sometimes, it will mean that "the relationship is the solution," which is a new idea for me. The conference is run by the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute, and I have a few more days in which to practice these newfound skills.

On the first day, we learned about "real listening," which basically involves me talking as little as possible, only saying a few words or a question here or there to continue encouraging the speaker to go deeper and talk more. The next day, we learned about specific skills that would help us do this type of listening. I am actually thinking of making a small handout to post for myself listing these types of responses until they become more internalized:

  • Summary: a broadbrush overview of what was said, used to convey that you've got the main idea
  • Paraphrase: rephrases what the speaker has said into your own words, this allows the speaker to correct or clarify the listener's misunderstanding (basically, a more detailed version of summarizing)
  • Feeling and source: identifies the feeling underlying the speaker's words and the perceived cause of this feeling (can be helpful in pushing the speaker to dig deeper, but have to be careful not to assume or jump too far)
  • Clarifying question or statement: helps the speaker better understand what he or she is feeling. This is NOT to satisfy the listener's curiosity - the focus is on the speaker and what he or she needs
  • Joining: a statement that shows empathy or shared connection with the speaker's feelings without moving attention away from his or her story (so don't say, "I had a similar experience too," but instead say, "It's really tough when x happens.")
We've done a few role plays channeling students that we struggled to advise over the years, and it was amazing how helpful these techniques were in understanding where the student was coming from and in deepening the listener's relationship with them. I was struck by the difference between this type of relationship building and the type that I usually engage in: discussing common interests, asking kids about their hobbies and athletic pursuits, sharing music or funny videos, etc. These are also good, but they don't promote deep processing and working through issues, which quite a few of my students would benefit from. I also really appreciated the importance of not placating the student or denying their feelings ("I'm sure it's not that bad." "It's okay." "Don't be sad."), which is something I'm certainly guilty of doing. I thought that I was doing a weepy student a kindness by releasing them to go to the bathroom and come back "when they're feeling better and ready for class" (I let them bring a friend! What am I - some kind of monster?), but now I see that I just couldn't handle sitting with their pain and uncomfortable with processing it with them together. This conference is helping me realize that much of what I was doing with my advising and relationship building before was about me, not about the student.

One other thing that I wanted to add that wasn't part of this conference, but that I've been working on for the past few years, is the ability to hear beneath the words that a student or parent says to me rather than interpreting them as objective representations of reality. For example, a student or parent might be upset and angry about a test grade and might start to argue. In the past, I would answer their points logically and maybe even get defensive and upset myself. I've been learning to hear under their anger to the worry and fear underneath (of failure? of weakness? of lack of control) and ignoring their words and dealing with what I'm sensing as their true reality: "I can tell that it was very important for you to do well on this test and that you're worried about your progress in the class. Let's talk about ways that we can work together to help you with that." It was amazing how quickly those types of stressful situations deescalated once we started working on the underlying issues and not the details on the surface. I have to remember that almost all of the time, it's really not about me, but about fear or worry that the student or parent is feeling and doesn't know how to resolve. 


  1. This is such an important post, Anna. Timing is good too as most of us are getting back into our classrooms (and that first parent conference is just around the corner). With the more "difficult" conferences, I have to remind myself that parents are sending their best to us (they're not keeping the good ones at home!), thus it's so key to do "feeling and source" as you say " hear under their anger to the worry and fear underneath" Thanks, Anna!

  2. Great point, Fawn! It's been so helpful to keep the parents' fears and needs in mind when I interact with them and remember that it's not about me. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I would love to hear more about what to do in those times when you know a kid needs some alone time to pull their thoughts together.


    1. One of the other things that I've been learning at this conference is that there is no quick fix, and I don't have to feel like the situation has to be resolved within the current time frame. So if I felt that the student would benefit from some processing time, I would say something like, "This is a lot to think about, and it's important that we really talk things through. I have to go to a meeting right now, but would you be able to come back at lunch so that we can continue talking together?" Another idea is to have the student journal or just write down their thoughts as that can be helpful in processing.