Why Counsellors Try to Avoid Assumptions

When describing a life-problem to someone, does their making assumptions help you… or them?

Thoughts that came from listening to Graham Norton offer advice to someone on the radio.

It’s Saturday morning and I’m listening to Graham Norton on Radio 2 (Listen Now link:

They’re having a ‘tell us your problem’ slot called ‘Grill Graham’.  I’ve not heard this before.  Norton and Maria McErlane (‘a British actress specialising in comedy…’) read out a listener’s problem and then they offer advice.

Advice-giving from two professional entertainers? Interesting… I wonder what are their qualifications or experience for this.

So, the person who has submitted her problem, Helen, is a woman in her early 60s.  She describes herself as very busy, that her father suffered a stroke and that her mother became her father’s carer.  The mother has now become ill and the parents need the Helen’s help and support, but Helen is finding this very difficult (it’s added that Helen is an only child).

Listening, I’m hearing Norton and McErlane expand upon Helen’s details… making the following assumptions (“assumptions” meaning that it’s not read out that the woman has not offering this information – so these ‘I wonders’ appear to be being conjured upon by Norton & McErlane’s imaginations).

  • Being in her early 60s, Helen probably has children – so maybe the children could help their grandparents, even if it’s just a little bit.
  • That Helen and/or her parents probably has plenty of friends, so they could help.
  • Helen’s childhood, being an only child, was probably full of attention (which Norton is saying in a ‘how wonderful, isn’t childhood lovely’ tone) – and now, as an adult, it’s time for Helen to pay back all that lovely attention.

Whilst listening to this, it’s my position that the assumptions being made by Norton & McErlane are actually making it easier for Norton & McErlane to create solutions for Helen… rather than to attend to Helen’s distress directly.  I’m suggestion that this would be more of an unconscious process. Without realising it, I believe that Norton & McErlane are unconsciously picking-up on how it feels to be Helen and their reaction is to try and make the unbearable feelings of helplessness.

Of course, this is intended to be light entertainment (see the Grill Graham page: ‘Norton and McErlane are here to help. Not only that, it helps us pad out a good 15 minutes of the show’). But it’s interesting to notice the more Norton & McErlane create assumptions, the more solutions they’re able to offer in addition to this process is actually helping Norton & McErlane to move away from how horrible it feels to be stuck having no solutions to the problem… just like Helen’s own situation.

This would be a form of [tooltip text='Reaction formation: a defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions/impulses are mastered by exaggeration of an opposing tendency. Example: in order to deny accepting ones homosexuality, a man may overly behave in an exageratedly heterosexual manner.'] reaction formation [/tooltip] and most certainly a form of [tooltip text='Counter transference: the therapist`s emotional entanglement with the client; the therapist`s unconscious response to unconsciously communicated client material.'] counter-transference [/tooltip]

A major difference between this kind of advice giving and how working with a qualified & experienced counsellor can be is that the counsellor would be able to sit with Helen, working within the frustration and or despair that Helen may be experiencing because of this change in her life, without flinching away or trying to make things feel easier for her.  Being alongside someone during a difficult life problem can boost the feeling of having someone on your side, helps a person to less alone/less isolated/less impotent: there’s someone to turn to who won’t turn you away with “oh, just do this and that and you’ll be fine … bye!”

It takes a significant amount of training and experience for a counsellor to be able to stay alongside someone with a really difficult, horrible, want-to-get-away-from-it problem.  Many people listening will automatically go into ‘problem solving’ and hear things that aren’t being said (which are probably coming from their own personal constructs, rather than checking out their assumptions of the person & their problem).  A counsellor can stay with the difficult feelings that become shared between the client and themselves.

There’s certainly a place for advice giving – but whilst advice giving address the superficiality of the problems, the strength in counselling is that you make a deeper connection with another person, and from this can spring your own inspiration allowing you to find your own ideal solutions… when you’re good and ready.

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