The engagement phase of counselling is where micro-skills are of critical importance (Bogo, 2006). Listening and silence, exploring with questions that are neither judgmental nor leading, and the use of nonverbal body language, are the micro language of rapport building and really hearing what the client is saying.
These are many methods and techniques that combine to assist practitioners such as myself to form an integrated and holistic understanding of a client such as Dianne Brown. From this exercise, I have come to more fully appreciate and understand the engagement process used to engage a client and to explore their issue whilst letting them lead the way to share their narrative.
In this role play the micro-skills required to build rapport were critical, as I just turned up on Mrs Brown’s (Dianne) doorstep, to talk about her child’s absence from school of which she was not aware, and, unbeknown to me, Dianne was already quite worried about Darcy.
In hindsight I am surprised that she even let me in! The embarrassment she must have felt at having to tell me that her phone was cut-off, that she feared school Principles, and that she had difficulty with her writing. This brought home to me the essential nature of micro-skills to build trust and respect (rapport) at the beginning of a session relationship (Cummins, Sevel, & Pedrick, 2005).
I consider that I demonstrated a wide range of the micro-skill, although I could have paraphrased more . At the time, I just wanted to let Dianne speak, as she seemed so in need of having someone to talk to. I relied mostly on my nonverbal behaviour , such as leaning forward when she spoke and smiling when she laughed, even when I did not quite understand her humour, I wanted her to know that I was not judging her in these moments of openness and disclosure.
Overall, I felt that I listened actively to Dianne, and that this communicated a sense of empathy toward her. I draw this conclusion based on the deep trust Dianne showed in sharing with me her fears and her truths, about herself and her family. This bonding between Dianne and I in the therapeutic relationship highlighted for me that when a client feels that they are being understood by the counsellor, that they feel validated and will show trust, revealing deeper reasons underlying choices and behaviours.
It was also clear that my para-linguistic cues worked to encourage Dianne to talk and to feel listened to during our session. My sighs and laughs, for example demonstrated to Dianne that I was actively listening and that I was sincerely concerned about her lack of support and worries about her child.
Importantly, being within Dianne’s home, it was made very clear to me how I must be mindful of the personal circumstances of the client, and how these can influence the therapeutic relationship. For example, at first Dianne was quite guarded and on the defensive. Given that I had just arrived at her door unannounced, this is understandable.
I found the initial stages of our interaction quite awkward. It was not my intention for Dianne to feel intimidated, or that I was there to 'tell her what to do'. Her hesitancy to engage when I first arrived does not surprise me. This situation highlighted to me the diversity present within social work practice and the need to attend to this; to be sensitive to the life circumstances of others that greatly impact on a person’s view of themselves and others (Lum, 2003).
Also, as her phone had been cut off, this must have put her in an awkward position; feeling exposed about a private circumstance, especially with a person she didn't know, connected with her son’s school.
Layered on top of this are cultural factors. Dianne is Aboriginal and Australia’s history of interactions with its indigenous citizens is fraught with misunderstanding, intolerance and grief. It is possible that Dianne felt 'on the back foot' as here was a woman in a position of 'authority', on her doorstep, wanting to talk of about her son's behaviour at school.
Ultimately, it is the place of the counsellor to be understanding and non-judgmental. I can see how the development of micro-skills achieves this. As one must slow down, and being silent gives one the opportunity to put to the side mental chatter that has an opinion on situations; to really listen.
As does the use of active listening; I had to slow down and formulate what I wanted to say in a way that took account of what was being said, and that reflected back meaning without condemnation.
There were moments when a judgement did come to mind, although these did not last long when I focused on the questions underlying the judgements:
How could she not know that Darcy was missing school?
Why did she ignore the letter from the Principle?
By focusing on my micro-skills I was able to 'leap over' emerging judgments to actively listen to what Dianne was sharing with me.
Furthermore, I found using a critical reflection journal to be an activity that I can continue to put into practice. By thinking about what I am thinking, and the choices I am making and the reasons for them, I can become more aware of my thinking style, biases, and theoretical approaches.
I can become more aware of what I do not know, so I have more insight into gaps in my knowledge and application of that knowledge. This gives me an idea of what to build in my personal development for my career. In this way I can better shape my practice as a counsellor (Healy 2005).
For example,when we had a bit of a yarn talking about family, it was a useful way to build rapport and to overcome the discomfort of each of us. For many Indigenous Australians an informal chat and sharing in this way is a cultural norm, before getting to the crux issue. Lynn (2001) suggests that chats like these may appeal to Indigenous Australians, as the conversation feels more natural.
Ultimately, I am happy with the progress that was made in the role play. I feel that my micro-skills developed rapport and engaged Dianne to be open and trusting with me. The role play activity and this critical reflection have helped me to slow down and to really think about where I stand on issues and to identify my therapeutic relationship weaknesses,and how to develop these further in practice.
Bogo, M. (2006). Social work practice: Concepts, processes and interviewing. New York: Columbia
Cummins, L.. Sevel, J. & Pedrick, L. (2005). Social work skills demonstrated (2nd Ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Healy, K. (2005). Social work theories in context: Creating frameworks for practice. Basingstoke, UK:
Lum, D. (Ed.) (2003). Culturally competent practice: A framework for understanding diverse groups
and justice issues (2nd Ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.
Lynn, E. (2001). Learning from a 'Murri Way'.’ British Journal of Social Work, 31, 903 – 916.