Psychological Counselling Skills Workshop, 9-13 Apr 2012
Report by Meenakshi Rajagopal

Day 1 (April 09, 2012) – Counselling Skills Workshop

Ever since I had enrolled in the IGDCS, I was looking forward to attending this counselling workshop. And finally the day was here. As I walked into the room at 9am, there were already 5-6 people there. (And here I thought I was an early bird!) One thing that struck me was the friendliness of everyone there. We introduced ourselves and chatted away getting to know each other. The slight feeling of uncertainty that I had experienced earlier in the morning disappeared. In the next half an hour, the room filled up with more and more people. Dr. Ali Khwaja and the Banjara team walked in and finally the long awaited session began. I had heard a lot of good things about Ali and I was glad to finally meet him. The Banjara team members introduced themselves and we met Kanmani, Ashaaaa and Ashas! And finally Sreedhar had a face, after being a voice over my mobile and an email id in my laptop for so many months!

We participants then introduced ourselves. I felt happy to meet people from so many different backgrounds – the paediatrician who was different, the software engineers, the counsellors who had come back to attend the course again to sharpen their saw, the college students, the professionals in corporate jobs and the educationists. We ranged from 20 year olds to 60 year ‘youngs’! Each of us talked about ‘Who I am’ and ‘Why I am’. It was interesting to hear and understand so many different perspectives and reasons why we were there today. It was a reassuring feeling that there are so many people with me on this learning journey that I have undertaken. I also felt that I had acquired a room full of friends!

Many of us are students of the online IGDCS course. Some of the mentors were there and the students were happy to meet them face to face. I felt a twinge of regret that my mentor was not present there, however consoled myself with the thought that I am sure I will have opportunities in future to meet my mentor. Ali then shared with us some views on how human relationships are losing importance since we are becoming slaves to technology. This in turn is resulting in various kinds of issues and it is anticipated in future that the need for counselling would increase manifold.

He also shared what counselling is not and the importance of listening and not giving advice to the counsellee. The discussion then moved on to the importance of mental health and the need for preventive, preservative and curative measures for mental health. Counsellors play a vital role in preventive and preservative care of mental health. Examples were shared to illustrate these different roles. A lot of what was discussed was a good refresher for me, since I had covered some of this in the online course.

After this, we broke up into groups of around 5 -6 people and each group had a Banjara team mentor. I was in Ashaaa’s group. Within our group we discussed our understanding of counselling and our expectations from the next 4 days of the workshop. Many of us including me were keen to know more case studies and examples. This group sharing and discussion helped us to bond better and understand each other a little more. During this sharing we discovered a lot of similarities in our thoughts and fears. I felt a great sense of reassurance that there are many like-minded people here and that I had taken the right decision in attending this workshop.

One more member of the Banjara team, Mala joined the group and introduced herself to us. She works as a volunteer at various hospitals to assist people in whatever way possible. She shared some heartrending examples like people unable to afford even Rs. 10/- for treatment at a government hospital and therefore going away without treatment, people leaving behind dead bodies of their loved ones since they did not have money for funeral expenses etc. I felt very humbled on hearing this and thanked God for the many privileges we have in life that we often take for granted.

We then had a break. A lot of bonding happened during this time and we came back recharged after our tea and brunch.

A small presentation followed that provided further inputs on understanding counselling. This part was also a refresher for me since I had covered much of this in the IGDCS.

After the presentation, Asha took us through some exercises on ‘Self-Awareness’. What could have turned into a serious thinking exercise was made light and enjoyable thanks to Asha’s fun and friendly approach. We had to introspect and describe ourselves in a few words or sentences and also identify one single quality that was our USP (Unique Selling Point) or that made us stand out from everyone else. The entire group shared this with each other. The range of qualities that came up in a group of around 25 people was quite impressive. Asha was then joined by Kanmani.

We discussed different emotions and feelings and tried to identify and understand which are emotions and which are not from a list shared with us. We then had to introspect and answer a list of questions relating to our self – ranging from strengths, reasons for why we thought we were lovable, weaknesses, our motivators, values etc. We also had to identify the main emotion that we were feeling and our thoughts at that point of time. Some of us were struggling initially to pinpoint and identify our emotions/ qualities etc. however with support from Asha and Kanmani and encouragement from the group, all of us completed the exercises.

There was also a random feedback session. Some of us gave feedback based on our impressions to someone else whose name was picked out of a bunch of chits. This was thought provoking since we did not know each other that well and most had met for the first time today.

I felt a sense of calm and contentment after finishing these exercises. I felt I had progressed in my learning journey by being able to identify my emotions. Earlier when I had tried to do similar exercises two or three years ago, it had been more difficult. However at the same time, I also felt some apprehension that now that I had identified so many things I had to work on, what next, how do I progress further and take it forward?

Overall at the end of today’s workshop, it was a great feeling of being on the right path and a sense of reassurance that I am not alone in this journey. I am comforted by the feeling that there are others who would be there to guide me along. And I am now looking forward to what tomorrow will unfold ....

Day 3 (April 11, 2012) – Counselling Skills Workshop

We had reached the midpoint of the workshop and the feeling was that the earlier two days had just flown by so quickly.

By now most of us had built a rapport with each other and were chatting away as if we knew each other for a long time. There was an easy feeling of camaraderie and comfort among the group.

We began the day with Ali taking us through the areas of counselling.

Most people still perceive a stigma attached to visiting a counsellor and would do so only in a crisis. Today there is a widespread misconception that one should visit a counsellor only in case of a crisis. There is not much of a realization that counselling can play a major role in preventing a crisis too. Ali shared examples of possible situations and we discussed how we can deal with them.

This was followed by a presentation about understanding what emotions are and the need to be able to identify one’s emotions correctly. What we all need to remember is that ‘All actions are governed by emotions and all emotions by thoughts’. Different aspects of emotions were shared – they are sudden, cannot be predicted, can get combined etc.

While counselling, some of the things to remember were to focus on emotions not on ‘facts’, to avoid giving false hope and to avoid generalizing feelings. If in doubt it was better to say nothing rather than say the wrong thing and worsen things.

The need for caution in specialized counselling and group counselling was highlighted.

Ali made these discussions interesting in his characteristic way using dry humour which entertained us, but more importantly highlighted the learning from the point he was making.

The next session was on Child Counselling. This was facilitated by Genie, who is one of Banjara’s experts with children.

We also had a little visitor to the class today - a little girl who came in with her mother Chitra, who is part of the Banjara team. Her interactions and behaviour gave us a first-hand glimpse into how children normally behave and react.

Counselling children requires certain special techniques and a different approach. First of all, since the child is usually brought by a parent, it is important to also focus on the emotions of the parent and address that first. All information should be collected from the parent separately and the child should be met later. It is very important to first comfort the child and build a rapport with the child. The environment should also have toys that make the child feel comfortable

The body language of the child should be observed and that would help in identifying how to build a rapport with the child.

Genie shared other tips and examples on how to counsel children. The key was to understand the child and bring out their feelings without hurting them. It usually takes more time since children may not open up easily.

And now for the most interesting part of the day ... Enter Bharath.

Bharath is another of Banjara’s child experts. He came across as a bundle of energy and told us about ‘Play Therapy’. These are techniques of drawing out children using small interesting games.

And that’s how all the adult ‘children’ in that room had a whale of a time playing so many games. For one magical hour, all of us were transported back to our childhood and we played and played and played! And not just that we learnt too!

Along with Chitra, he showed us some games and techniques that could be used with children – the mental number puzzle, alphabet puzzle, the idli-dosa game, ‘Ajja-Gujja’ game, paper throwing competition, ‘Lady, Hunter, Tiger’, making paper ‘puppets’ and using them for conversations and of course the innovative dance steps he taught us. Even a ‘two left feet’ dancer like me felt like I was ‘Madhuri Dixit incarnate’ dancing to an imaginary light bulb, water tap and cigarette stub! (And no I’m not going to explain this one. You need to experience this to understand it!)

The hour passed by too quickly and we had to come back to ‘Adulthood’ as we had Sapna waiting for us to take us through ‘Perception’.

The next session was about perceptions that we form and how we tend to form generalizations about people and situations.

We did a few exercises that clearly highlighted how different people perceive the same person or situation differently. We tend to judge everything through our experiences. However, as counsellors, we need to remain non-judgemental.

This was an interesting session as it was completely activity based and we discussed everything from bus drivers to cockroaches! (Ugh!).. there I go with my perception!

After this session, Ali took us through a quick activity to share feedback in pairs and to identify our emotions when we received the feedback.

This was followed by a session on ‘Paraphrasing’ by Nalini.

Paraphrasing was all about understanding the counsellee’s emotions and reflecting it back by using ‘feeling’ words, so that the counsellee also feels understood and important.

Nalini shared a situation with us and played the role of the counsellee. As a group we then practiced paraphrasing and she shared the dos and don’ts of paraphrasing. What was then drilled into our head was not to do problem solving, but to focus on ‘feelings’.

And thus another day packed with tips and techniques of counselling came to an end. By now, most of the group have bonded with each other to varying degrees and there are eager plans to keep in touch as a group and share experiences and learnings with each other. This evoked a feeling of anticipation and hope that we are indeed able to do this successfully.

After listening to Genie and Bharath, I felt a little apprehensive and wondered how I would manage to counsel children, since it did not sound easy at all. (Not that the rest of it did!). I reassured myself that I was being premature in judging myself and it would probably become easier with practice as everyone kept assuring us.

One of the highlights of the day for me was meeting my mentor Rathi, for the IGDCS course. After months of only seeing her photo and reading her comments on my assignments, I was delighted to meet her in person. It gave me a further reassurance that I am not alone in the journey I have undertaken. And now looking forward to Day 4 ....

Day 2 (April 10, 2012) – Counselling Skills Workshop

The first thing one noticed on walking into the room was the change in seating arrangements. The chairs were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe around the room. This was a more friendly form of arrangement and all the participants could see each other across the room.

We had one new person who was ‘younger’ than the rest of the group – Mr. Yuvraj Kadur. He was a volunteer with ‘Helping Hands’ and visited a couple of hospitals every day to do whatever he could to help people there. He had started doing volunteer work after his retirement. He was meticulously groomed and dressed formally as if he was going to office. This drove home to us that ‘Going to office’ groomed well is not necessarily going to a skyscraper with Air-conditioning and wall to wall carpeting. His approach reminded us that whatever work we do and wherever we do, we have a choice to decide our levels of involvement. His words also inspired us. His motto in life is, “Be busy and active, and you will automatically be happy and healthy. Keep giving, whatever possible, even if it is only a smile and be a good listener.”

After this small lesson in living and giving, Ali took us through the stages of counselling.

The three main phases were the Initial phase, the Middle phase and the Ending phase.

Rapport building and bonding was important in the initial phase – indicating that ‘I am comfortable in this conversation’ and ensuring that the counsellee is comfortable too.

The importance of observing each person and identifying what will make the person open up and talk was discussed. We were made aware that most of us Indians have a tendency to mentally categorise people into regional slots based on their name and we feel somewhat incomplete and uncomfortable if we are unable to do so.

It was repeatedly emphasised that as counsellors, we need to keep aside our need to satisfy our curiosity and completely focus on what is important to the other person, only then will the person open up and talk to us.

And all the ladies in the room practiced this by trying to get the ‘most eligible bachelor’ in the room (you guessed right – it is Sreedhar!) to open up and share information about himself. Alas, we were not too successful, though we have learnt a few techniques and would do better next time, I think!

We learnt to distinguish between ‘Curiosity Questions’ (which focus on our need to know more, but would not help in the other person opening up) and ‘Sensitivity Questions’ (which focused on the other person and would help in getting them to talk and share more about themselves.).

And the need for listening without interruption was reiterated. During this phase the counsellee undergoes a catharsis and pours out all the pent up emotions. Only after this is over and counsellee is in control of emotions, should we move to the middle phase.

The Middle phase is all about paraphrasing, understanding at the emotional level and enabling the counsellee to set goals and sub goals.

The Ending phase is about evaluating and reviewing progress, referrals if required, building lasting relationships and finally termination. A brief presentation on the Stages of non-directive counselling was also shared with us and the need to be non-directive was emphasised, as human behaviour does not follow a pattern and what works for one person may not work for another.

Ali explained all of these very well using examples to illustrate them. A very thought provoking story ‘The Window’ was pictorially shared to highlight the importance of not judging someone else.

Some sensitive situations were shared by Nalini (who is in charge of the R V Road centre of Banjara Academy) where the counsellee goes through mixed emotions which are directly opposite in nature and needs reassurance and acceptance more than anything else.

Nalini then led the next session on Rapport Building with the counsellee. We started this session with an exercise where we paired up with another person and practised rapport building with each other.

Post this exercise, the discussion centred on the right way to start the conversation with the counsellee and build a rapport. We then did a role play with Nalini playing the role of a fictional counsellee and all of us trying to say the right things to her to build a rapport with her. The importance of feeling questions, silence, building rapport with children and senior citizens etc was discussed.

A short break followed and we came back energized.

Asha took us through the next session on Empathy. Exercises like the ‘Empathy Walk’, talking about an incident and identifying each other’s’ emotions helped us understand empathy. (And we learnt quite a few new interesting dance steps thanks to the empathy walk!). The essence was to identify and focus on the emotions of the counsellee and reflect it back to them.

The next session was on ‘Listening’ and facilitated by Sapna.

There was a discussion on listening, communication and the barriers to communication. After we had all shared our views, an exercise followed which we did in pairs to judge the other person’s listening skills.

A role play followed with two enthusiastic volunteers (who were nominated by others around them!) who demonstrated listening by having a conversation in a particular way.

Something new that I learnt today was about the types of silences that could be there. I had never thought earlier that even a silence could be classified into different types like warm, cold and neutral! That really brought home the point of the power of silence in so many situations.

An enjoyable round of the tried and tested game of Chinese Whispers followed and sure enough, we messed up! I have yet to see this game played where the message stays the same till the end and does not end up transforming into something else! Our achievement as a group was to transform ‘the principal’ into ‘Princess Marty’!!! And the less said about the rest of the message the better! So much for listening skills!

Some more activities were conducted to drive home the importance of listening, and not just the words, but also the paralanguage and the body language. The five hours spent there were hardly enough to do justice to the concepts and skills we were discussing, however we did get a fairly good overview and the exercises helped to understand things better. And we march on, to tomorrow and beyond ....

Day 4 (April 12, 2012) – Counselling Skills Workshop

It was the fourth day of our workshop. By now going for the workshop had become a familiar routine, almost like going to school!

Ali started the day with a discussion on Mental Health. When someone we know is physically ill, it is acceptable to ask after the person’s health and how they are feeling. However when the same person is depressed or emotionally low, the person may get offended or angry if we ask after their mental health!

Unfortunately such is the stigma attached to mental health issues even today. Mental health is being at peace with yourself and harmony with others, it is not just the absence of mental illness. The discussion focused on what parameters indicate good mental health and what should be done to preserve mental health. Some of the most important things are as basic as retaining one’s sense of humour and developing positive personality traits.

Counselling can play a crucial role in helping people with ‘psycho-somatic’ diseases too, along with medical treatment.

We were made aware that in many real life situations, we ‘play games’ and do not have clear direct communication to resolve the issue. As a result, many issues are left simmering below the surface and someday they may manifest in a harmful way.

Ali then made us do a small exercise where we had to think of an incident that happened with us in the past couple of weeks and then pinpoint the emotions we felt at that time. These repeated exercises of identifying emotions in various situations have helped us become more aware of what we feel.

The next session was on ‘Adolescents’ and the person who facilitated it was Rajdeep. He is visually impaired; however this has not stopped him from achieving so much in life. He is a professor of Commerce and Management and an international award winner of the Toastmasters club. He also has a deep interest in human issues.

Rajdeep came across as very well read and well informed and shared a lot of information with us about adolescence. He spoke of the changes in attention, memory, cognition and processing that take place in this stage of life, which in turn result in behaviour changes. He also spoke of the four dimensions where adolescent behaviour changes drastically viz – self-concept, self-identity, self-esteem and self-actualization.

He was extremely witty and gave us an insight into adolescent behaviour by sharing many anecdotes and examples about subjects ranging from speed dating to social service and cooking to statistics of average time spent by people in front of a mirror! (And we can vouch for the fact that his Award from the Toastmasters club is definitely deserved!)

The next session on Empowering and Positive Strokes was facilitated by Kanmani.

She shared an example and helped us understand that empowering is about enabling the counsellee to find his own solutions by exploring all possibilities with him.

The different facets of positive strokes in the context of counselling were discussed. We practised giving positive strokes to each other. And had a brief discussion on the dos and don’ts of giving positive strokes, the most important being that one has to be genuine while doing so.

We became aware that even acceptance is a powerful positive stroke that can work wonders.

After this session, Mala, who is a Helping Hands volunteer, shared her experiences of helping and counselling at hospitals.

She explained how the whole process works and how the volunteers set up help desks at hospitals and take turns to provide support there. Most of this volunteering work is done at government hospitals which are very crowded. Many people who are below the poverty line come there for treatment. Most are illiterate and have no knowledge of medical terms. Many are HIV positive patients, prison inmates, sex workers etc.

The volunteers guide them to the right department, translate to the doctors in case of a language problem and sometimes visit inpatients in the wards. Apart from this they also visit patients who are terminally ill and in palliative care – their motto being ‘to add life to days’.

Mala shared that in some situations, one cannot accept their attitudes and actions, however the important thing is that we need to accept them as human beings. The volunteers’ body language is the most important aspect to indicate acceptance.

Many of the people there are happy to be respected as human beings irrespective of their poverty or being shabbily dressed.

Mr. Kadur who is a volunteer also shared his experiences.

Listening to so many heart rending incidents touched us and reiterated to us that we are blessed with so many good things in life. My resolve to have more gratitude for everything I have and not crib about small inconveniences strengthened.

We felt awe and admiration for Mala, Mr Kadur and all the Helping Hands volunteers who have taken up this mission to reach out to humanity. May their tribe increase!

This session also gave us insights into another facet of counselling which is not done in a formal ‘desk and chair’ situation.

After that extremely touching session, Asha took us through ‘Setting Goals’. We practiced setting goals with the help of a role play, where she played the counsellee and we had to help her set goals in a particular situation. We were made aware of how important even the choice of words is while setting goals. The sessions today provided us with lot of input and left us in a reflective and thoughtful frame of mind. And on that sober note, we look forward to the last day of the workshop.

Day 5 (April 13, 2012) – Counselling Skills Workshop

As we headed towards Banjara, realization struck that the week had gone by swiftly and today was the last day of the workshop.

The day began with Asha facilitating role plays. We broke into pairs with one person as counsellor and one as counsellee and actually practiced the skills we had learnt so far with the counsellee sharing a real life experience. Asha gave us a time of 5 minutes for the role play. Once we started, we lost track of time and were so engrossed in our conversations that we went on and on. Finally Asha asked us to wind up after around 25 minutes! I feel this session was the best learning in the entire workshop, where we actually tried implementing our learnings.

At the beginning of the interaction, I felt a little nervous and apprehensive especially since the other person was going to share a real life experience and I wondered if I would be able to do counsel her correctly. However I found that when I paid complete attention to what she was saying, it automatically became quite easy to respond to her appropriately. I felt happy at the end when she shared that talking to me did help her sort out her confusion to some extent.

Asha shared some of her feedback and tips on the dos and don’ts of counselling based on her observations.

The next session about the qualities of a counsellor was led by Sapna. As we discussed the various qualities of a counsellor, the discussion also veered towards transference and counter transference i.e emotional attachment that may be formed by a counsellee towards the counsellor or vice-versa. The important message driven home to us was that a counsellor always needs to be Self-Aware and keep reflecting and understanding the situation so that appropriate action can be taken. The key was to be ‘process oriented’ and not ‘outcome oriented’.

We then did an exercise in pairs, which helped us understand whether what we think and what we reflect to others are the same. It gave us food for thought as to why this is not the same always.

Kanmani and Reema, who is another member of the Banjara team shared tips and answered our questions about the various aspects of counselling (the questions seemed to be never ending, I am sure we could have gone on and on with dozens of questions!)

Ali then facilitated a discussion about difficult situations in counselling and how to manage them. One of the important things we were asked to remember is that we should never counsel someone with whom our own emotions are intertwined. The issues of transference and counter transference were discussed some more.

Mr. Ramaswamy, who is a volunteer in many hospitals, shared some of his experiences and some tips on how to build rapport with strangers especially in a hospital scenario. It was inspiring to meet Mr. Ramaswamy, who is a man of action, unlike many of us who talk about issues but don’t act on them. When he believes something is important enough to warrant action, he simply acts on it!

We then had a break for a mini lunch and came back for the wrap-up session.

Each of us shared our experiences over the week. I felt a great sense of bonding with the group (and so did many others) and it was touching to realize that we felt very connected with each other in a short span of just five days. Each of us came from different backgrounds and had different expectations when we had walked in five days ago. To hear each one’s perspective and the innumerable learnings left me feeling very touched and happy. We had all learnt not only from the wonderful Banjara team, but from each other as well. We felt reassured that we were not the only ones afraid or apprehensive of so many things. We were all humans facing similar fears and apprehensions and that awareness itself could give us strength to face our fears.

We then did a couple of exercises to understand how we are perceived by others and how we perceive others. The learning would come from reflection, discussion and understanding why these perceptions were formed and what the unknowing signals we were sending and receiving were.

And then finally, we were awarded our certificates. We all passed in advance without giving an exam! This was actually the beginning of our exam! It would be a lifelong process where we constantly practice and revisit our learnings and sharpen the axe to ensure that we are able to get up and continue even when we stumble.

This was a very memorable week in my life and I will cherish the memories. I learnt not only about counselling, but also about myself. I came away feeling happy. I look at this as the beginning of a long association not only with the Banjara team, but also the wonderful group of people that I had the good fortune to meet.

My heartfelt thanks to every single member of the Banjara team for making the week so memorable – Ali with his dry humour that makes us chuckle away, Asha with her childlike energy and veteran wisdom, Sapna with her calm and reassuring demeanour, Kanmani with her beautiful warm smile, Nalini with her simplicity and quiet level-headed wisdom, Mala with her very large and loving heart that hides behind her beautiful saris, Sreedhar with his ever patient and helpful ‘smile even through the phone’, Genie and Reema with their soft spoken approach, Bharat with his livewire energy and playfulness, Rajdeep with his encyclopaedic knowledge and oratory skills that hides the spirit of a fighter (only against life’s obstacles, not a real war!), Chitra, Ashaaa, all the mentors and volunteers who shared some tips and experiences with us and the office and support staff of Banjara who took care of us. (I hope I haven’t missed anyone!)

And a very warm thanks to each and every person in the group, I have a roomful of friends now.

Until we meet again ....

Meenakshi Rajagopal
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