Perceiving accurately

7 Apr 2010 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

When you listen to the client's words, don't assume that you know the personal meanings behind them.

When clients talk to you, they use language in their own way. But words can mean different things to different people.

You are likely to interpret what you hear in terms of how you use language, which will never be exactly how they do, and may sometimes be very different.

So taking what people say literally, without checking, or assuming that you must know what they mean and what is important to them, can lead you to misperceive what’s going on.

Some pitfalls to avoid are:

  • Jumping to conclusions: drawing conclusions based on your own life experiences and events, without proper justification or supporting evidence. Remember to stay open to the possibility that what the client says means something different to them than it does to you. Developing accurate empathic understanding – understanding what it’s like to be in their shoes, to experience the world in the way they do – involves feeding back your perceptions and testing your understanding through paraphrasing, summarising, questioning and reflecting feelings.

  • Narrow focus: focussing on a specific aspect of the client’s story or problem and overlooking what else is going on. Be open to pick up on what’s going on for the client in terms of body language, voice tone, choice of words. Beneath the “presenting problem” there may be deeper issues. Focussing on the person’s feelings and exploring those is usually helpful in this respect – if there’s an aspect being overlooked or underplayed, then it may be that you are overlooking signals about how that person feels about the issue. Awareness of incongruence, and the skills and courage to challenge it sensitively can be important here. Helper immediacy – noticing and responding to what is going in oneself and in the relationship – can also help to identify the deeper issues.

  • Focussing on practical problems: as helpers using counselling skills you are not there to solve the client’s practical problems. The focus in person-centred counselling is on emotional support, emotional healing and emotional growth. Supporting the client and facilitating healing and growth may lead to them being better able to cope with issues and to develop the self-esteem or the skills to tackle their problems, but the solving of practical problems is usually a consequence of the therapeutic work rather than the work itself.

  • Selective inattention: ignoring or steering clear of material that causes you anxiety. For example, failing to notice or explore the possibility that the client is angry because of one’s own anxieties surrounding expressions of anger. Self-awareness is important here. A helper who denies her own angry feelings may fail to notice signals of suppressed anger in others.

  • Self-blame: feeling responsible for everything that goes on in a helping session can lead to distortions that prevent you perceiving or exploring what might be going on for the client. A helper who blames themselves for a lack of rapport with the client for example, might fail to explore the possibility that the client might have difficulties maintaining rapport in other relationships. On the other hand, blaming all difficulties in the helping session on the other person may also lead to a distorted perception, eg. “Fred’s terrible at finishing on time – he keeps on talking after I’ve told him our time is coming to an end”. Perhaps Fred thinks that means “we have five minutes left” while the helper thinks it means “We have half a minute left”. Or perhaps the helper is colluding with Fred by accommodating him rather than reiterating the time boundary. Self-awareness is very important here for the accurate perception of what’s going on.

Self acceptance is also crucial here – we can only be unconditionally accepting of others to the extent that we are unconditionally accepting of ourselves. Failure to be self-accepting, and being judgemental or harsh towards ourselves, can be a major distorting factor in perceiving what’s going on in our relationships. Failure to accept ourselves, to love ourselves just as we are, often leads to blind spots when others transgress our boundaries and may lead us to collude in not maintaining healthy boundaries in our helping relationships.

One rule of thumb is that if a problem arises in the relationship with one client, but rarely or never occurs with others, it’s likely that there is an issue related to that behaviour that might be worth exploring with them. If a particular relationship problem becomes a recurring theme with a number of clients (eg. finishing on time) then it may reflect an issue which it is your responsibility to explore and address as part of your self-development.

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