Communicating effectively with another person can be difficult at times, especially when strong emotions are present, as they often are in therapeutic relationships. Therapy of any kind involves a client who is experiencing problems, and a helper who attempts to alleviate their pain, making good communication vital in this process. There are a number of ways to improve communication within this therapeutic relationship, allowing clients to feel safe, understood, and able to trust their helper to a greater degree.
Minimize distractions and interruptions
Minimize distractions and interruptions. It is hard to feel important to another person when she appears distracted and only half-listens to what you are saying, or when she allows multiple interruptions to take her focus away. You will find communication improves when doors are shut, cell phones are turned off, phone calls do not constantly interrupt your time together, and other external distractions are eliminated. Your physical and emotional state can impact your ability to focus, so getting enough sleep, exercise, good nutrition, and managing your stress levels will be key.
Engage in active listening
Engage in active listening. Though it may sound incredibly basic, listening is a crucial part of communication, helping clients to feel heard and valued. Direct eye contact, leaning slightly toward the client, and encouraging him to speak by nodding or using minimal prompts such as “mm-hmm” or “wow” are all ways to communicate interest and support. Even your tone can project boredom or curiosity, regardless of what is actually said.
Ask appropriate questions
Ask appropriate questions. Clients are quite perceptive, and can realize when you have drifted away and fail to ask pertinent questions. When you demonstrate that you have been present the entire time, clients are more able to take risks and open up because they feel safe. Asking the right questions provides invaluable information about the source of a client’s difficulties, her needs, any barriers to progress, and the emotions and thoughts that you might otherwise never know.
Paraphrase the client's statements
Paraphrase the client's statements. Because communication can be such a tricky business, clarifying or summarizing what a client seems to be thinking or feeling helps you stay on track. Clients often express a sense of relief when you identify what they are trying to get across, letting them know you are listening and that you care, and teaching clients who struggle with labeling emotions. Even when you do not get it right, clients have the opportunity to correct you, benefiting from the chance to identify their own emotions.
Use “Yes, and...” statements. Most of us have experienced anger, bewilderment, or invalidation when our statements are greeted by the words, “Yes, but...” These responses minimally acknowledge our point, then argue against them as if we had never spoken. A more constructive tactic is to acknowledge the client’s statement, letting him know you have not discounted it, and then add to it. For example, “I realize that Jenny’s unfaithfulness makes you reluctant to trust her, and you will need to work against that impulse to hurt her back to repair your relationship.”
- "Helping Skills: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action;" Clara E. Hill, Ph.D., and Karen M. O’Brien, Ph.D.; 1999