Many youth pastors do not know how to counsel youth through the touch issues they face, how to help youth navigate the battleground that was once called home, how to help youth who are slaves to addictions, etc. It is essential that youth pastors learn how to counsel and care for youth.
Effective ministry is achieved as youth pastors meet the real needs of youth by spending time with them, listening to them, supporting them as they struggle through the transition from childhood to adulthood - these are skills that the youth pastor as counsellor can and must learn. This article will present six basic skills for counselling youth together with practical guidelines on how to develop each skill.
The counselling relationship is one where the counselee and counsellor work together at problem solving. It is a complicated process that cannot be reduced to a few simplistic guidelines to ensure effective people-helping. However there are several basic skills that a counsellor should develop that will work through their character to facilitate effective counselling.
The counsellor must give undivided attention to the counselee. Daydreaming, fatigue, impatience, preoccupation, or restlessness will render the counsellor ineffective, as they hinder the counsellor from giving full attention to the counselee.
Improving Your Attending Skills
A. Eye Contact
As counsellors look counselees in the eyes, without staring, they communicate that they are concerned and understand the person and their situation.
The counsellor's body language should communicate that they are relaxed and not tense. This will help to put the counselee at ease. It is helpful to lean slightly towards the counselee.
These should be natural without being excessive or distracting to the counselee.
Loving people involves accepting them as they are. Jesus demonstrated this in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), the woman who anointed Him (Luke 7:36-50) and with the woman at the well (John 4:4-26). Acceptance of the person does not necessarily imply approval of what they are doing. Selwyn Hughes mentions a counsellor friend who keeps a stone and a rusty nail in his desk: the stone is a reminder of the passage that says, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her," and the nail reminds him of what Jesus did for him on a hill called Calvary.
There is no real relationship between two individuals until they relate to each other on the level of feelings. When a counsellor identifies with a counselee's hurt feelings, they are showing empathy. Empathy is deeper than sympathy, it involves getting into someone's shoes, seeing things from their perspective and feeling with them.
Improving Your Loving Skills
The way to emphasize with people's feelings is to first identify what feeling they are experiencing, ie. frustration, anger, disappointment, etc. Then draw out those feelings and reflect them back to the person. This will help the counselee feel understood and communicate that you love and care for them as a unique individual.
True listening is the giving of undivided attention, without any preconceptions, to what the person is saying, verbally and nonverbally. It means more than just hearing what a person says. Hearing captures the words a person speaks, while listening captures the meaning and the feeling that lie beneath those words.
Gary Collins, Christian Counselling (Page 43), speaks of listening as an active process that involves:
* Setting aside your own conflicts and biases to concentrate on what the counselee is communicating.
* Avoiding subtle verbal or nonverbal expressions of disapproval or judgment about what is said.
* Using both your eyes and your ears to detect messages that come from the tone of voice, posture, gestures, facial expressions and other nonverbal clues.
* Hearing not only what the counselee says, but noticing what gets left out.
* Waiting patiently through periods of silence or tears as the counselee summons enough courage to share something painful or pauses to recollect his or her thoughts and regain composure.
* Looking at the counselee as they speak, without either staring or letting your eyes wander.
* Realizing that you can accept the counselee although you may not condone their actions.
According to counselee's there are ten common characteristics that convey that a person is listening:
1. Looks at me while I am speaking.
2. Questions me to clarify what I'm saying.
3. Shows concern by asking questions about my feelings.
4. Repeats some things I say.
5. Doesn't rush me.
6. Is poised and emotionally controlled.
7. Responds with a nod of the head, a smile, or a frown.
8. Pays close attention.
9. Doesn't interrupt me.
10. Keeps on the subject until I've finished my thoughts.
Improving Your Listening Skills
A. Evaluate Your Present Listening Skills
Think of a recent counselling encounter. Reconstruct the conversation as accurately as you can. What verbal or nonverbal expressions did you notice? How well did you respond? Did your response show that you heard what the person said? Evaluate your verbal responses. Were they "answer centred" - ie. Did you provide answers to questions raised? How quickly did you perceive the "real problem" and seek to steer the person towards its solution.
B. Learn the Role of Feelings in Counselling
In most counselling, feelings and not issues are central. When the counsellor interprets the situation merely in terms of "problem" and "solution" they miss the feelings that the counselee is expressing.
C. Practise Expressing to the Person What is Heard
The counsellor should identify what feeling the person has expressed and check with them whether that is what they are feeling.
D. Allow Counselee's to Express Their Feelings
Counselee's need to express pent-up feelings to experience release from their stranglehold. Often these feelings may be targeted at the counsellor, rather than at the real source, ie. anger at God or bitterness towards a parent.
Doug Self, in Mastering Pastoral Care (Page 99), suggests four guidelines for effective listening:
* Defer judgment about the person or their situation.
* Preempt preoccupations with things that may distract attention - be totally present with the person.
* Avoid premature solutions to the person's problem and deal with their feelings and thoughts.
* Absorb accusations without becoming defensive against the person.
When you stop listening and start digging depends on how well you know the person and on when you sense they are avoiding the issue. The purpose of digging is to get people to open up and discuss their problem. There are several techniques used: leading, reflecting, questioning and filtering.
Improving Your Digging Skills
Here the counsellor gently directs the conversation in directions that will give useful information. Use brief questions, "What happened next?" or "Tell me what you mean by . . .?" Especially when people run into a block, leading can help them proceed.
This is a way of letting counselee's know that you are with them and understand what they feel or think. Do not reflect after every statement; do it periodically. Use statements such as, "You must feel . . .?" or "I bet that was frustrating." A brief summary of what has been said helps to reflect and stimulate more exploration. Dr. Keith Olson mentions three types of material that the counsellor reflects: First, the counselee's verbal content as a way to check out and communicate the counsellor's understanding. Second, the counselee's feelings and emotions that are nonverbally expressed to help them recognize, accept and understand repressed material. Third, the interaction that occurs between the counselee and the counsellor or another person who is involved. For example, when a counselee is reluctant to open up with the counsellor - this can be expressed to the counselee and a blockage removed.
The best questions are those that require a sentence or two to answer. There are a number of different types of questions that can be used in the counselling process:
* Ask open-ended questions - questions which cannot be answered with a "Yes" or "No". For example ask, "What are some of the ways in which your parents have influenced you?" rather than, "Do you feel your parents are part of your problem?"
* Avoid either/or questions - these are questions that present two alternatives. The person responds with their preference and the discussion stops.
* Ask indirect questions - these are questions that inquire without seeming to do so. For example, "I wonder how it feels to have one's marriage break up," is better than, "How does it feel to have your marriage break up?"
* Avoid a series of questions - it is better to ask one question at a time rather than stringing a few together, as this tends to be rather threatening.
* Ask "why?" sparingly - "why" questions sound judgmental and keep counselees from exploring their feelings.
* Ask both subject-changing questions (to nudge the conversation to spiritual concerns) and subject-probing questions (to discover background, feelings, attitudes, interests and needs).
While counsellors should not disbelieve everything they are told, they do need to mentally sort through the counselee's words. The following unspoken questions should pass through the counsellor's mind, "What is this person really asking?" "What do they want from me?" "Are there problems other than the one they are presenting?"
One aspect of filtering involves distinguishing between cause and symptoms. Smashing crockery in the kitchen is a symptom of unresolved conflict or frustration. Nail biting is a symptom of anxiety (which is the cause). Counsellors should take the symptoms and work out what the causes are. A second aspect of filtering involves evaluating a person's level of need. Human problems can be categorised into five clearly defined areas (the way the counsellor should respond is indicated):
* Problem - a question or difficulty that has a solution. (Give advice)
* Predicament - a difficulty with no easy answer. (Listen and express concern)
* Crisis - a predicament that needs urgent action. (Help them think through the issues)
* Panic - a state of fear when people become irrational. (Help them regain control)
* Shock - a dazed or numb condition. (Get the person medical attention and stay with them)
The goal of the counsellor in responding to the counselee is to help them gain insight. The extent to which counselling is effective depends on the balance that a counsellor shows in the responses that are made to counselees. Responses should be balanced in the following areas:-
A. Directive vs. Nondirective Techniques
The two broad aspects of counselling are directive and nondirective. In nondirective counselling, it is believed that people should not be told what to do. If they understand why things have gone wrong, they will change - insights supposedly leads to changed behaviour. Directive counselling attempts to teach people better ways to fulfill their needs. Both have weaknesses: Too directive counselling is ineffective because only decision based on personal convictions will last and counselling that is not directive enough confuses counselee as there are insufficient guidelines for them to follow. Christian counselling is most comfortable with an approach called indirect-directive. The counsellor recognises the counselee's problem and then guides him or her in solving it. Christian counselling is biblical when it helps people solve their problems according to the will of God and to grow spiritually. This approach is also indirect, as the counsellor uses indirect techniques such as questions, listening and suggestive statements, to help the counselee reach appropriate decisions.
B. Past vs. Present
Two extremes are possible: blame the past for present problems, or avoid the past and focus entirely on the present. Christian counselling tends to deal with present behaviour, but it is also necessary to do something about unresolved issues from the past. Although the past is forgiven (1 John 1:9), guilt may still haunt an individual consciously or unconsciously. Where this is the case, the past must be dealt with properly.
C. Feelings vs. Behaviour
Both are important. Counselees should ventilate and talk out their feelings to help them cope with internalised anger which causes depressions. However, it is important to move beyond feelings and deal with the behaviour of a counselee. To change behaviour, people may need to develop new interests and activities. To change feelings, it helps to reprogramme the mind by studying the Scriptures (Romans 12:2).
D. Spiritual vs. Psychological
Jesus was effective at majoring on spiritual aspects without neglecting physical and psychological aspects (John 5). Paul shows a similar balance in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, "And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone." Some people are to be admonished, or treated with a matter-of-fact approach, some are encouraged and others are helped in a friendly and supportive manner.
There are several techniques that counsellors employ to respond to people, such as: supporting, confronting, informing, interpreting, teaching, self-disclosing, evaluating and silence.
Improving Your Responding Skills
Right at the beginning of the session, support and encouragement helps people burdened by needs and conflicts to gain courage and strength to proceed with counselling. Support involves guiding counselees to take stock of their resources, encouraging action and helping them with problems and failures that may result from such action.
This is different from attacking or condemning the person. Confrontation involves presenting an idea to the counselee that they might not see otherwise. Counselees may be confronted with sin, failures, inconsistencies, excuses, harmful attitudes or self-defeating behaviour. They may respond with confession and experience forgiveness. However, they may also respond with resistance, guilt, hurt, or anger.
This involves giving facts to people who need information. People respond best to information that is most relevant to their immediate situation. Counsellors should be aware that giving advice may help the counselee become dependant on the counsellor. To overcome this, have counselee's think through the advice for themselves, adopting it as their own thoughts.
This involves explaining to the counselee what their behaviour or an event means. Avoid introducing interpretation before the counselee is ready to handle corresponding emotions. Interpretations should be presented in a tentative way (e.g. "Could it be that . . .?") allowing time for the counselee to respond.
The counsellor is an educator who helps the counselee by instruction, example and guidance through learning experiences. Counsellors are most effective when the teaching is focused on a specific situation ("How can I control my temper when my parents criticize me?") rather than on vague goals ("I want my life to be happier"). It is helpful to get people to commit to paper how they will deal with the problem. Have them list advantages and disadvantages of possible actions.
There are two types of self-disclosure that are used by counsellors in counselling. The first occurs when the counsellor tells the counselee about something which they experienced in the past that is similar to what the counselee is presently experiencing. The goal is to convince the counselee that the counsellor understands. This form of self-disclosure is not as effective as a second: when the counsellor expresses relevant, current thoughts and feelings to the counselee. When this form of self-disclosure is used the counsellor must ensure that they only disclose that which is designed to help the counselee.
When a counsellor expresses judgment about a counselee's thought, attitude, feeling or behaviour, an evaluative response is being given. There are two broad type of evaluative statements that are used, with positive or negative examples of each possible. First, there are qualitative statements which evaluate feelings, attitudes and behaviours, ie. "You did well by saying 'no' to your boyfriend last week." Second there are comparative statements that make a judgment about some aspect of the counselee's functioning as it relates to other people, external behaviour, or the person's own previous behaviour. For example, "You seem to be more responsive than other teenagers your age."
Most people associate silence in a counselling context with feelings of awkwardness, disapproval or rejection. While some counsellors identify "work" with talking, it is often during the moments of silence that counselee's gain their most significant, life-changing insights. Counsellors have identified three occasions where silence is the most appropriate response from the counsellor: First, a deliberate pause to add emphasis to what has just been said or done. Second, an organisational pause that is intended to facilitate transition from one issue to another. Third, a natural terminating pause that is used to bring a particular issue to an end. The counsellor should be sensitive to how long the silence should continue and decide whether it is productive or unproductive. If the counselee is thinking, reflecting, clarifying internal feelings or accomplishing some other task during the pause then the silence is considered productive.
While these various techniques for responding in counselling all have great value, the key is to know when it is appropriate to use them. Dr. Keith Olson, in chapter 6 of Counselling Teenagers, discusses the techniques and indicated during which stage of the counselling process they are appropriate or inappropriate. He stresses that of all the techniques, listening is the backbone - it is essential through every stage. During the middle stages of the process the counsellor is very active: interpreting, probing, confronting and encouraging. The final stages are marked by a drop in the level of counsellor activity, where the counsellor listens, reflects, uses silence, self-disclosure and encouragement.
Ending a counselling relationship is as important as any of the other basic skills. There are several guidelines that will help counsellors become successful at terminating counselling relationships.
Improving Your Terminating Skills
* The relationship should not end suddenly, but as satisfactorily as possible. People come for counselling because of relationship problems - often those that have ended badly.
* From the beginning, the counsellor should look to the end by making it clear to the counselee that they have a contract for several sessions. Periodically, evaluate where you have got to and what you have achieved. Prime the person that the goal is to end the counselling!
* When you feel it is time to end, look at what you have achieved and start finishing off! Talk about ending. If there is a pattern of broken relationships, talk about the pattern and spend time ending.
* Leave the door open for follow up, ie. In a months time or whenever the need arises.
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