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Communication and Counselling

By Jurriaan Plesman BA (Psych), Post Grad Dip Clin Nutr

In order to satisfy our basic physical an social needs we need to be able to establish close relationships with people from whom we derive gratification of our needs and values. Without these kinds of relationships life would be meaningless to most people. Having overcome a metabolic disorder that may have affected our personality, having learned to face up to irrational fear of personal criticisms, gained self-confidence and set some goals in life, we are now ready to enter into significant relationships.

All this depends on our ability to communicate the infinite variety of human emotions to others. Much of these skills may have been acquired in our childhood through a process of learning. Communication is therefore an acquired skill and this can be learned through practice and exercise. This ability is also acquired in a counselling training course.
People communicate at different levels, depending on social circumstances. These levels may be described in different ways, but we will illustrate this by references to the following “Pyramid of Communication”:


Ritualistic Communication
Most members of a species in the animal kingdom seem to be able to communicate by non-verbal means – their first greetings to their fellow creatures. It may be hostile or friendly. It is their “Hello, how are you”. The closest we come to non-verbal greeting is SMILING. It is difficult to ignore a smile from strangers, and one sure way of getting people to smile at you is to smile.
At the verbal levels we hear such things as: “G’day, how are you?” “I am fine”. “Nice weather today, isn’t it?” “Yeah, it couldn’t be better”, and so on.
These are ritual encounters setting the stage for the next level perhaps. It is important for shy people to learn ritual communication and to experience the positive rewards or “strokes” from contacts.

In “aboutism” we hear people engaged in conversation and talking ABOUT things. They never talk about themselves, so we can have a lengthy and safe conversation about cars, fishing, golf, cooking, sewing, furniture and homes etc. Communication remains impersonal and does not reveal much about the speakers themselves. People with limited social skills find it difficult to go beyond this level. Nevertheless, “aboutism” is a socially useful level of communication and needs to be mastered. Many people have their repertoire of topics “about” which they can talk and entertain people for lengthy period.

Aboutism + Interest
At this level people start to reveal more about themselves as a person. They may talk politics or religion, or touch upon social issues, their children or other family members. Here people’s hobbies could be discussed. It is clear that the conversation is tinged with some emotions. These discussions may lead to closer friendships when the participants come to appreciate one another’s interests and values. But they can also lead to conflict. This may happen when people use “moral” terms emanating from the PARENT ego as if they were facts. You can talk about “justice” as a matter of fact, without realizing that “justice” means different things to different people. This can be avoided by getting into the habit of expressing one’s beliefs more explicitly by for example: “I believe…..” “I feel strongly…..” etc.
There are many opportunities in conversation to progress past “aboutism” into a more personal plane of communication. When a person says: “I live at Narrabeen” you have a option to talk about Narrabeen or about the person. For example you might ask: “What do you like about Narrabeen?” or “What attracts you to Narrabeen?”

When people operate at the level of intimacy, they communicate at the basic feeling level in the form of: “I feel…..You feel”. Notice that human contact at this level is more selective when compared to the number of people at the ritualistic level. As we move up the Pyramid of Communication we tend to encounter fewer and fewer people. Yet at this level of human contact with others, our basic physical and social needs are met. Also at this level our negative self-image is most vulnerable, because here we need to reveal more about ourselves. Hence the importance of improving one’s self-image as one of the pre-requisite to this course.
It is said that some people have a knack for communicating. They are natural communicators and respond to intimicay. They make good counsellors for they have an ability to listen to people, which is perhaps the most important skill in counselling. This is a special kind of listening, not just sitting opposite another person and staring him in the face whilst he unburdens his feelings. The listener participates in communication by what is called empathy or ‘active listening’. This ability can be learned through practice and exercise. Most members of our group learned to communicate at the level of intimacy. They benefited by learning these social skills in their private lives, but also as volunteer counsellors.

Here is a definition:

EMPATHY or ACTIVE LISTENING is the ability to communicate to another person one’s understanding and appreciation of his feelings.

This is illustrated in the following figure:

In empathy, the listener feeds back to the speaker his understanding of what the speaker means to say. Meanings or ideas are translated into words, which are then decoded by the listener, translated into his words and fed back to the speaker. If it were simply repeating words it is called ‘parroting’. Sometimes clients, who have problems empathizing, or are “emotionally blocked up” can learn by first ‘parroting’ and then graduate to ‘active listening’ by expressing messages received into their own words. Empathy also depends very much on the listener’s own experiences. This is why recovered alcoholics and drug addicts, who have undergone ‘psychotherapy’, often make good drug counsellors. They know from experience how another person feels. Conversely, people with limited life experience, or those from different ethnic or social groups, may have problems empathizing with a particular person.

Empathy leads to what is known as “rapport” in a counselling relationship. It’s jargon for a special kind of relationship between the counsellor and the client. For the client it often means that perhaps for the first time in his life, he meets somebody who listens to him, understands him, with whom he feels relaxed and free to express his feelings.

Empathy should be distinguished from SYMPATHY
Friends are important in your life. They tend to understand you and may have shared the same problems. However, for this very same reason, friends may not always be the ideal people to help you in discussing your problems.

The difference can be expressed as follows:

SYMPATHIZER: ‘I know how you feel because I feel the same way”.
EMPATHIZER: “I know how you feel, because I have been there, but I don’t feel the same way now”.

The therapeutic value of empathizing lies in the fact that an active listener by feeding back messages in his own words, provides an opportunity to the ‘client’ to see his problems in a different light. The listener understands his client, but he feels differently now. The active listener helps to clarify the meaning of what he is trying to say. He may even ask for further clarifications by “W” questions. A sympathizer who feels the same way may have difficulty throwing a different light on the problem. This can be a drawback when an ex-alcoholic counsels another person.

If client and counsellor share the same feelings of distrust towards authority figures – as an example – the ‘counsellor’ is not in a position to confront the client and may even reinforce ‘the problem’ to the detriment of both!!! When two people feel the same they may bring each other down, especially if a counsellor ‘identifies’ with the client. Here the counsellor becomes emotionally involved with the client, because they share the same problem and their association fails to provide an alternative point of view so necessary in therapy.

This may be a problem in some self-help groups. It is one reason why in the AA organisation no group leaders are recognized. However, in such groups some leaders will naturally emerge, who often and unwittingly may foster a inter-dependency among its members.
Despite these pitfalls self-help groups under the leadership of a specially trained facilitator with a clear psychotherapeutic vision are powerful means of bringing about behavioural change in individuals.

The main theme in this article is that in empathy leads to a closer relationship between two people, that may lead to a solution of emotional problems. In advanced empathy, the listener reads meanings into words that the other person seems unable to express. Thus there is some sort of interpretation of meanings. This can be a dangerous game, for it may lead to playing “psychiatry” or mind-reading.

CLIENT: “When my husband looks at other women, I feel jealous”.
COUNSELLOR: “I know what you mean, you may be feeling somewhat insecure as a woman”.

Now this is the kind of mind-reading we have criticized in the Assertive Training Program “On being assertive”. It could well be that the woman saw herself as a confident woman – her femininity intact – and here is a counsellor telling her that she is insecure. Perhaps she has real reasons to believe that her husband is having an affair.

In advanced empathy it is important to express the interpretation in the form of a question that clearly places the responsibility of guessing on the listener and not the ‘client’.

COUNSELLOR: “That must be an uncomfortable feeling. I get the impression that perhaps it could come from a sense of insecurity, or AM I on the wrong track here?”

The counsellor has an idea in his head and he is checking it out with the client. A better alternative would be to ask the “W” questions that could clarify as to why the client feels that way.

There are different styles of counselling details of which can be studied in the literature. There is attack therapy, confrontational therapy, directive and non-directive counselling, psycho-analysis, Gestalt Therapy and so on. Here the emphasis is on ‘supportive counselling’, based on empathy, without recourse to any specific theory of psychology or philosophy.

If we help a person to clarify meanings with perhaps the aid of the “W” questions (discussed in the Assertive Training Program) he/she will soon see a different perspective which will bring about a change of attitude and therefore…behaviour.

The effectiveness of counselling is measured in terms of actual change in behaviour. Armed with TA, improved self-image and assertiveness many options present themselves for a solution to the ‘problem’. This needs to be translated into action. The action program is an agreement between the counsellor and the client as to the best way of dealing with the problem. They may have arrived at the solution through a role playing. The client is then to put the alternative behaviour into action in real life, and report to the counsellor for possible further discussion.

Learning interviewing in a group
Learning to empathize is best done in a group situation with real people.

In our group interviewing took place in the second session – the first session of about one hour was set aside for mini-lectures on Nutrition, Transactional Analysis, Assertiveness Training, Values Clarification and some others mentioned in my book “Getting off the Hook”.
This was the most popular session because it enabled members to establish close relations with other members of the group and to be active particpants in solving problems. The structure of the interview was developed to assist members in their interviewing.

Since the object in this practice session is learning to empathize, the structure centered around the areas of a person’s life which were more likely to evoke emotions. These areas were:

1) Home or place of residence
The home or one’s place of residence is an emotional environment. We share it with family or friends and some conflict is inevitable in a closely knit mini-community. It is important to get the names of the persons – as descriptions such as “brother” “sister” “mother” “friend” tend to be more impersonal. Questions such as to whom you feel close, or with whom you feel in conflict often arouse strong emotions.

2) Schooling and education
Your experiences at school – the first contact with society at large – may have major impacts. The level of education achieved, the way you got on with teachers, whether you feel you missed out on a “education” are all questions that are a source of feelings.

3) Career
This is closely associated with the above. “Does your job give you satisfaction?”, “do you find your job boring?”, “how do you get on with your boss?” and most importantly “with your fellow workers?”, “why are you unemployed?” and “how do you feel about that?”, “what career would you like to pursue?” are emotion-laden questions, because your economic life is the gateway to your life-style in general. It connects to your family life; support for your wife and children, the standing in your community.

4) Hobbies and recreation
Discussion about your hobbies and interests provides plenty of scope for emotional expressions. It would be ideal if your hobby were also your employment. Are these hobbies ‘lonely’ hobbies or highly social hobbies, as when you are a member of a football team. Some people have no recreation at all, some regard it as a private affair. But discussion about hobbies opens up a world of economic opportunities or new directions in life. And of course this topic of discussion leads into the next area.

5) Friends
Your relationship with friends can be classified according to a scale of intimicay. Many friends are no more than ‘acquaintances’, some are close friends and a few are intimate friends. An important question is “to whom could you confide?” Some people have a wide network of friends and it may be interesting to find out what these friends have all in common. “Do you friends include members of the opposite sex?” “Are there any people with whom you would like to be friends?”

6) Medical history
Being similar to a counselling training course, this heading was included. Just as many doctors overlook the psychological aspects of their patients, so do psychologists often ignore the health aspect of personality. It is becoming more evident that many so called “psychological” problems are in fact matters of health. Chronic fatigue, endogenous depression, hypoglycemia, diabetes, hypo- and hyper-thyroidism, coeliac disease are primarily metabolic disorders with psychological components, but that cannot be cured by psychotherapy alone.

7) Love
This final heading of the structure of interview would also be the most intimate of your life. Here ‘love’ may take many forms from sex to marriage. Sometimes people fear to tread into this area with some justification. I remember one interview where a gay person was being interviewed. The interviewer was reluctant to enter this area of privacy. After the interview, when the interviewee gave his feedback to the groups as is usual, he complained that his sex life was not included. He wanted to be interviewed about his relationship with his partner with whom he was experiencing a lot of conflict. And he expected to get some help from group members.

The headings of interview should be listed on the white board, when used in the group so as to give members a clue for their next questions. Dealing with real people the interviews can go into any direction.

The role of interviewer and interviewee rotated in such a way, that the last person interviewed became the interviewer at the next meeting of the group. The person interviewed at the last session was known intimately by other members of the group – he was generally liked – and did not pose a threat as an interviewer. Thus members readily volunteered to be interviewed.

Report writing
For those members who trained to become volunteer counsellors in other organisations the headings of the interview structure provide short paragraphs for a social history sometimes required by these organisations. Counsellors should be able to write short crisp reports and avoid the often verbose and lengthy reports prepared by some psychologists. These reports should have an analytical style – and be nonjudgmental.


a) Open and closed questions are questions that are likely to produce what I call ‘two word sentences’. For example: “Do you get on with your mother?” would most likely elicit a “yes” or “no” answer. You can open up the question by asking: “Tell me, what is your mother like?” or “How would you describe your father to me?”, where it would be difficult to answer by just “yes” or “no”.

b) Reversed interview occurs when the interviewer in his attempt to empathize has a tendency to talk about himself. The result is that the interviewee than asks questions of the interviewer and the roles of ‘counsellor’ and ‘client’ are reversed. This is acceptable in a non-counselling situation, where two people are communicating at the level of intimacy, but not if you are training to be a counsellor. The client deserves to be heard!

c) Blockings, barriers and defenses are often raised during an interview by the interviewee. The ‘client’ may feel: “This is private!….I don’t want to talk about this”. A person who submits himself to an interview must learn to assert his right to privacy. As shown in the assertiveness training program, no person should allow himself to do things against his will. Remember a group can put tremendous social pressure on the individual – a form of manipulation – and the interviewee should always ask himself: “Do I want to do this” or “Do I have to do this?”. When he privately answers the latter, he knows he may be manipulated to do things against his will and he has a choice to comply or not. In a group setting an individual has the right to grow at his own pace. Members were free to agree being interviewed or doing the interview. Some members preferred to be observers, from which they learned a lot. When the interviewee becomes aware of a blocking, barrier or defense he should immediately switch to another question in an unrelated area, thus by-passing the barrier. He thereby preserves his ‘rapport’ and perhaps at a later stage the interviewee might want to talk about it.

Anecdote: A client was ordered by the court to attend our therapy group for at least six sessions as a condition of his bond for the offence of embezzlement. He was a qualified accountant and had stolen a considerable amount of money from his employer to pay off a gambling debt. He told me that he simply came to comply with the court order, but that he did not feel it necessary to particpate in the group activity. I agreed that so long he attended the six sessions he could be an observer. After the six sessions I asked him if he ever got something out of the mini-lectures and interviews. He told me that he enjoyed attending, and he had learned one thing: referring to Trans-Actional Analysis he said he now understands his problem. – he has always reacted CHILD-PARENT to people, and could never be honest and open with them. He is now starting to operate at the ADULT level and is trying to renew his relationship with his wife, who had recently left him. They are now together on a trial basis.

d) There are stages of defenses as follows: Blocked-up ===> Inhibited ===>Exhibited ===> Spontaneous.

When people are said to be blocked up, they are usually not aware of their feelings. When they feel inhibited, they are aware but are afraid to express feelings for one reason or other. Psychotherapy may be seen as aiming to liberate the individual from his blockages and defenses. As a result he may feel exhilarated and overjoyed of being able to express his feelings in the group. This may lead to indiscriminate self-revelation or even exhibitionism. People in therapy often display a frank openness, that could ‘freak out’ some other people, for it often taps into their defenses. The final stage of therapy is where a person expresses feelings spontaneously and at will, appropriate in the social context, with complete control over whether to be open or reserved.

e) If you cannot beat them, join them
Sometimes defensive habits are difficult to overcome. Let me explain this in an anecdote:
A father and son joined the group and they both agreed that their communication was hampered by the father’s habit of finger pointing among others. This derived from is ‘authoritarian style of communication” – the “I am right position” discussed in Transactional Analysis. Fortunately, the father had a good sense of humour made strenuous efforts to change his style – he was keen to re-establish his relationship with his son. When he was interviewing another member in the group it was pointed out to him that he was finger-pointing.
He laughed and said, he cannot help himself. He was then instructed to finger-point whenever he opened his mouth. He was not allowed to say anything, unless he finger-pointed. He complied with great mirth in the group. After a while he asked: “Can I stop doing this silly non-sense now?”, and all had a great laugh.

f) Reverse role playing is a popular technique whereby a person well-trained in assertiveness takes on the role of a ‘client’ and the client acts out the role of his ‘opponent’ or person with whom he experiences conflict. Often conflicts are in the mind, rather than out there in reality. It is the way the client perceives his ‘opponent’ – his father, mother, his boss, husband or wife – that causes problems, and not the real father etc. The image represents perhaps the critical PARENT within the client’s mind against which he has no defenses. Here the counsellor could start off by asking the imaginary opponent (in the client):

“Dad, I am glad to be able to sit down with you, because I feel we have had a lot of problems over the years, and I would like to resolve this. I often wonder what in fact you think of me. Please tell me what you think of me?”

The client, now acting out his father in a way he sees him, would now describe himself from his father’s point of view, which could be indeed very negative. This would start off an conversation between the two and the ‘counsellor’ would show to the client how he would handle the put-downs by reference to the assertiveness training program.
After having acted out the various scenarios, the client would then have a conversation with his father in real life. Again and again the client would report back to the group about his encounter with his father and describe how he had discovered his father to be good friend after all!!

g) Role playing in groups should not be confused with role-playing in social life – referred to in the Assertiveness Training Program. In social life outside the group roles function to provide authority to people, thereby exercising manipulative power over others. In the group roles refer to members helping one another by adopting certain roles and scenarios reflecting events in the outside world. The role of counsellor in the group is merely the ADULT EGO STATE of the members. The object of counselling is to establish an empathetic ADULT TO ADULT relationship and to teach members to remain in the ADULT in their efforts to solve ‘psychological’ problems.

Other popular scenarios are when members go for an interview for a job, and the imaginary employer puts the interviewer down. Various objections are raised by the imaginary employer and the counsellor would show how HE would handle this. Thus members would learn from one another.

After such an interview the discussion would be thrown open to the whole group and everybody would have a chance to participate in the debate.

Other popular tasks were: group members were asked to start a conversation with a stranger – preferably of the opposite sex – and report to the group how they went. Could they have established a more lasting relationship or found a friend?

The purpose of these exercises is to prepare members for actual emotional encounters out there in the real world. The acquired skills will help individuals to live a fuller and richer life outside the artificial environment of the therapy group.

Choosing  a partner in a life-long intimate relationship depends very much on sharing of values. Long-term relationships  endure because of  shared or compatible values. The Values Clarification course helps you to identify values, goals and aspirations in life in yourself and other people.

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