It may have been that evening when John called round to talk about something quite different... or the time when Alan was being given a lift home after the Group meeting... or when Pat dropped behind on the hike to chat.
'I don't seem able to persuade the Executive to get started on organising next year’s expedition...'
'I have had another row at home. I think it's about time I moved out...'
'My husband says I'll have to give up Cubs...'
Many leaders will readily identify situations like these in which similar statements or questions have been put to them. Sometimes they will have been made directly, perhaps introduced by a phrase such as 'By the way...’ or 'Can I have a word about...' At other times the issues will have been raised indirectly or obliquely; indeed the first question asked may not have been the real issue at all. It may have come informally from an individual, face to face or in a group.
Such impromptu moments are a real opportunity for the leaders. How they react, what they say, and their attitude determine whether or not they will be of real help to John, Alan, or Pat.
Who will help?
We all need help, young and old, men and women, successful and unsuccessful: help to build relationships, to explore and understand issues, to make choices, to decide on action, and to live with the consequences.
Children are given a circle of people who can help: parents, relatives, teachers. Adults choose a circle of close friends and use it except when they need specialist help, perhaps from a doctor or lawyer. The adult chosen to help will usually be someone who has been found to be genuinely interested in them as people, friendly and easily available, a careful listener and someone believed to be actually helpful in practice.
Help - through advice?
Some adults consider that they have a responsibility to be direct and give advice - 'What you ought to do is...' They believe that from their experience of life or their ability to see issues clearly they are in a good position to make judgements and pass them on - 'if I were you, I would...'
There may be situations when there is little alternative to this approach; for example, in a crisis or emergency or when the other person is so obviously incapable of thinking things through because he or she is so upset.
However, situations like this are rare. In general, adopting a position which says or implies - 'if I were in your shoes, I would...' presents many difficulties. We are not in their shoes; there may be hidden personal factors which they have not revealed. We cannot be sure of all the feelings and issues involved. Advice is always second-hand and as a result may be unsatisfactory or indeed wrong. Even if it is sound the other person will not feel motivated to act upon it because they have not worked it out for themselves.
Advice and opinion from several sources, such as colleagues, friends or employers, may lead to comparing the value of different opinions of people, rather than considering the advantages of different courses of action.
When receiving advice individuals are being stopped from solving the problem for themselves and are actually encouraged to develop a dependent attitude, perhaps even come to rely on the adviser. In short, giving advice will not help people become mature and responsible, capable of working out realistic decisions for themselves.
Another way - through counselling?
An alternative way is to avoid imposing solutions or giving ready-made answers, but instead to help the other person to look at the situation from every point of view, to understand their own feelings, to weigh up alternatives, and to make their own judgement about the action to be taken.
Helping a person to look at situations fully and honestly, to think them through and to make their own decisions is known as ‘counselling’.
The word 'counselling' is used in a variety of senses, but the principles involved are generally the same. The ideas which follow are an introduction to the topic and an outline of some of these principles.
We are not thinking here of helping people who may have severe problems or personality disorders and thus need specialist help, but rather as a kind of 'personal first-aid'. People sometimes need the comfort of a good listener and a chance to sort out their ideas in the presence of an emotionally uninvolved adult. We can be that adult, by providing time, space and an uncluttered mind.
When to counsel?
There may be two main types of situation:
The other person is confused... John does not know what to do, he is worried, undecided. He does not have the facts or he cannot interpret the facts he has. He is uncertain about the different things he might do.
Jenny has made a snap decision about an issue... When she is worried, angry or confused she is likely to make a hasty decision. She does not consider alternative things she might do. She fails to consider the consequences of her plan or actions and she jumps to conclusions.
You may be asked directly for help, or you may feel that it is necessary. Create the climate for this to happen by being available, approachable and by observing clues, such as sudden changes in a person's attitudes, moods or behaviour.
Where to counsel?
The kind of 'first aid' counselling being described here does not involve discreetly lit rooms with couches and a psychological approach! It is just as likely to occur on a hike or in a corner of your headquarters; nor do people always make an appointment for a session! Equally, many people respond intuitively and counsel successfully without fully appreciating that they are doing so.
If it is an individual matter, get the person aside to a place where your conversation will not be overheard or interrupted. Try to make them feel at ease and relaxed.
Obviously each person is different; some people will be quick to talk about their problems, some will be strong in their statements; some will be straightforward and come to the point at once; others may wander around the issue. Each problem and each leader will also be different. This makes counselling hard to do, something which cannot be done 'by numbers'. The principles which follow are general guidelines but they must be adapted to the person, the situation and yourself.
Some principles of counselling
It sounds easy but it is often hard for most of us to put into practice.
Think of your own experience - you have probably talked to someone and had the feeling that they listened to you and understood what you were trying to say. On the other hand, you have probably talked to someone who gave you the feeling that they did not really hear what you were talking about, or didn't understand you. You probably left feeling rather resentful.
What are the things a person does which makes it hard to talk? Perhaps they were busy or not interested, and let you know by shuffling their papers or talking to somebody else at the same time. Perhaps they told you how to run your life or made sarcastic comments about what you said, or told you your problems were not very important and that all you ought to do was 'grow up’.
They interrupted all the time to give advice or cross-examine you or perhaps the meaning of what you were trying to say was twisted. It was clear that they just did not understand.
So, to avoid this, listen. Give an individual your undivided attention when they come to talk to you.
Let them know you are willing to take the time to hear them out.
Keep asking yourself - 'Do I understand what they are trying to say?’ You will often discover that you do not understand completely, or will not be sure. In this case, you should make it possible for them to continue to talk and for you to listen.
Encourage them to talk on
What you say depends on you, the other person and the situation, but it might include phrases like, 'Tell me about it' or ‘Go ahead' or even 'Uh huh'.
Avoid giving advice
They will probably ask for advice and you might be tempted to supply it. The only thing is, the advice you give is quite likely to be wrong or unsatisfactory for them, no matter how good it sounds to you. In the long term people will be helped best by being encouraged to think things through rather than having answers pushed at them.
Summarise the problem
You may want to do this several times while talking. You will be most effective if you summarise in your own words to make sure you understand. This also helps them to check on what they are telling you.
Give any necessary information
Sometimes a decision cannot be reached because the person concerned does not have all the facts; for example, the resources that are available such as other leaders, or agencies. Find out if information is needed and give it if you can. Make sure that it is balanced and accurate, and that it is information and not advice.
Encourage them to think of different approaches
Ask if there are other solutions. Most of us when we are faced with some kind of issue that is important to us have trouble in thinking. We become confused, settle on one approach and cannot come up with any others. Encourage the person to think; you may be able to suggest some other approaches, bearing in mind it is not your decision on which to use. By looking at several different ways of solving the problem they may not feel so trapped.
For more information on counselling see the Scout Associations’ factsheet – 'An Introduction to Counselling’ (FS310502)