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What is more important first -
knowing more about the person (counsellee) or knowing more about the issue?

How should I counsel a boy sent to me as he was suspected of smoking in the school campus? - Should I straightaway tackle the issue as his teacher expects me to?

Author: Sreedhar MA
(Sharing notes from my conversations with working counsellors.)

With all nervousness, Sheetal (name changed) had joined a school as a School (Student) Counsellor. She was settling into her job when one of the teachers told her that she was sending a boy to her as the teacher suspected that the boy was smoking in the school campus. Sheetal became nervous and called me to discuss how she should deal with the issue.

Image Credit: martinak15, cc-by-2, flickr.com

Students should not be made to feel that the Counsellor is some kind of Moral Authority

Many teachers in most schools are still not well aware of the way Counselling is done and tend to assume that the Counsellor is a person who will easily solve problems involving students. They are often looking for speedy results, too. I told Sheetal to have a word with the teacher and tell her that all changes will take time, not to expect miracles and to send any student to her without telling the student why she was sending them to the Counsellor. It is important to establish right in the beginning that the Counsellor is not a person who is some kind of moral authority to whom students should be sent when they transgress some school code.

Get to know the boy first; don't talk about his smoking at all!

Next I discussed with Sheetal that when the boy came to her she should not talk about his smoking at all but get to know the student. Emotional issues differ vastly from physical issues. The moment you go to a doctor, he can directly go to the root of your physical problem and prescribe tests or medicines for you and the session can be over in a few minutes. This model does not work when we have to address emotional issues. Understanding the person becomes more important first than understanding the issues.

So Sheetal in her first few meetings lasting from 20 to 40 minutes spent time in making the boy talk about himself, his home atmosphere, his parents, his siblings, his friends, his dreams, his favourite sports and so on. This Rapport Building is the foundation of counselling. Without rapport building, trying to 'fix' the problem becomes a mechanical approach and is bound to be a failure. Behind all emotional issues is a human being, not a machine, and unless we understand the human being, we will not be able to help them with the issues.

What Sheetal did after building some trust

Only after some trust was built, Sheetal organized a Group Counselling session for the class boys on health issues. She made them debate over healthy and unhealthy habits, the dangers of addiction, long-term consequences of habits like smoking, drinking, taking drugs, etc. Once the general awareness was done for the class and the boy knew that he was not being singled out and targeted, she managed to get him to talk about his smoking. She is still helping him with constant emotional support to get over the habit.

The sum of this and many such experiences is that even when you know what the issues is, try not to go to the issue directly in the first couple of sittings. Take the issue out of your head and get to know the person. Often when a person finds that emotional support in you as a counsellor, they themselves try to resolve the issue or they begin to trust you enough to work together with you to resolve the issue. Counselling is Team Work, with you and your Counsellee working together to battle the problem. Working together can happen only when there is mutual trust and building trust is what Rapport Building all about.

Please NOTE: The approach outlined in this article is not the only way to address the problem discussed. As a counsellor, you can chart your own way of tackling such issues, keeping in mind the guidelines that we share with you through such articles and our online and classroom courses in counselling skills - guidelines to help you be an effective counsellor.

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