If you work in the field of Employment Counselling at some point in your career you may have had a client give you some statement similar to the above. The statement, “You don’t know me at all, so don’t tell me what to do!”, usually comes immediately after you’ve made some suggestion or statement that challenges the person to try something they haven’t been doing up to that point; something that is uncomfortable even.
These kinds of statements are usually defensive posturing, said to protect the person from actually having to take action when what would be so much more pleasing is having you just comfort them and agree they are in a tough situation either without making any suggestion to act or suggesting things they themselves don’t mind doing.
But as the saying goes, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Sometimes you do need to be nudged, pushed, prodded, kicked and jarred into action in a direction that is uncomfortable, challenging, and involves a great effort.
As an Employment Counsellor with over about 35 years of work experience in various jobs all of which involved working with people, I’m quite comfortable with saying that I’m at a point where I can read people fairly well. Oh I’m far from perfect – and no one is – in this regard. But I’ve become good at reading body language, interpreting the reason for clothing choices and what they say about why a person dresses the way the do, picking up on whether they are confident, shy, extroverted or introverted in the first 10 seconds of meeting them, and making educated guesses about things like their upbringing, parenting skills – even mental health challenges in many cases.
Do I have some kind of mystical power? No. And neither do all the other folks out there who have a long history of working with certain populations of people. Like anything else, it becomes easier to identify and make accurate guesses about people when you have seen the same issues again and again that appear to be grouped together. So for example, a single mother on social assistance who is living on her own, talks without making eye contact a lot, and is talking about involvement from a child protection agency has quite often received less than great parenting themselves. And many of these women have been victims of abuse by previous partners, the father of their children, sometimes even family members. That’s quite a leap to make maybe in thinking, but you may or may not be surprised to see how often it’s correct.
This is really just doing the following: taking my past history of dealing with many people, and with a new person in front of me, looking for common traits, characteristics and behaviours that fit with patterns of people I’ve met in the past, and then making some assumptions about the person based on those in the past who tend to match the person in the present. These assumptions are like best guesses, and need to be verified, checked into and validated of course to find out if they are accurate or not.
And you do this too by the way. For example you walk down the street and see a large male walking down an alley, it’s late a night, they are wearing a hoodie that covers their face, and they are coming toward you and you’re alone. So do you say, “Hello nice night tonight isn’t it? What brings you out tonight?”, or do you try to remove yourself from the situation by walking into a store where there are other people for safety or perhaps put your finger closely around your pepper spray just in case? Well everything in the news and on television or in the movies probably has you looking for a way to safely get out of the situation and your alertness to potential danger goes way up. Could be he’s just off to night school to become a policeman, but it’s doubtful in your mind.
As anyone who’s an effective listener will tell you, it’s very important to focus on the one person you are interacting with and give them a chance to tell their story – because for them it’s well – THEIR story and unique to them. Even if you’ve heard 50 other people tell a similar story, that person has a story unique to them. By making all kinds of guesses, you may speed things along, and they might consider you some kind of mind reader, but getting to the place where they are open to help may not be possible until they feel you really KNOW them. And you can’t know them in their mind until they’ve told you their situation.
So this becomes a real key to being an effective Employment Counsellor, and I’d wager, an effective Counsellor in general; listen.
When we listen, the other person feels they’ve been heard. And when someone feels they have been heard, they are much more receptive to seriously considering options placed before them by someone they trust has their best interests at heart. This 3rd person clarity allows them to perhaps move forward in ways that are more meaningful to them. It may not be as fast as we’d like for them, but it raises the chances of real success.