Not My Job

One afternoon (not terribly long ago) when I was feeling particularly frustrated with my job, I asked my supervisor if she would actively listen to my frustrations. Her response stopped me in my tracks: It’s not my job to actively listen.  At one point in my career, I taught management development skills to first-line supervisors; part of the curriculum was active listening skills.  So, I got to thinking: if supervisors believe it’s not their job to actively listen to employees, whose job is it??

If you’re lucky enough to have colleagues who are trained counselors, maybe you can rely on them.  When I worked in mental health facilities and among counseling professionals, I was fortunate enough to find such folks (burned out as they were).   But for the average Joe or Jane, finding someone who has the time (!), energy (!!) and skills to listen without judgement is a long-shot.

That leaves spouses, partners, children, friends…risky business if you want an objective listener.  Counselors, therapists and coaches are trained to actively listen, to be nonjudgmental, objective and supportive. Sometimes they advise.

A Neutral Third Party

The benefit of using a neutral third party is you get someone’s undivided attention, you have a good shot at getting your needs met and what’s said during your sessions stays in your sessions (no fear of retribution or sharing with others). You get 50 minutes --or so-- to blather if you like, vent, cry, sort out the conflicting thoughts in your head and, perhaps, work on a game plan.  The down-side is that 50-minute session is not free.

State-licensed counselors and therapists often take insurance; coaches don’t. In order to call oneself a counselor or mental health therapist, most states require a minimum educational level and credentialing.  That minimum educational level is a master’s degree in counseling, psychology or social work.  Currently no such licensing is required for coaches.

Counselors and therapists often treat mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, phobias, and addictions.  The methods of treatment vary but delving into past wounds and history is usually part of this process.

Most coaching, on the other hand, is goal-oriented, helping clients with decision making and developing action plans. The ongoing relationship holds the client accountable for taking steps toward meeting his or her goals. Some overlap exists; a counselor may help with goal setting and planning but not all counselors are oriented in this way.

Screening a prospective counselor, therapist or coach is always a good idea. Having been to many therapists in my life, I can say that I immediately bonded with some and never clicked with others. This is not a one-size-fits-all service; style matters. A counselor’s or coach’s approach and style can be very critical in helping the client make progress toward reaching goals.

Screening Providers

Below are a few considerations/questions you may want to explore when interviewing counselors/coaches for selection purposes:

  1. Identify the major issue(s) you would like to address during your sessions. Ask the counselor/coach what experience s/he has had helping clients with similar issues. 
  2. Inquire about time commitments/expectations.  Does the counselor/coach require weekly appointments? Are you able to schedule appointments as needed?
  3. Ask the counselor/coach about his/her approaches to helping clients make progress. Does the counselor/coach let clients direct the topics during appointments? Is “homework” assigned between appointments?
  4. Inquire about the counselor/coach’s specialty; i.e., the type of clients or issues he/she prefers.

Building a Relationship Takes Time

One last word of caution: be patient.

When I was a high school counselor, students would sometimes reveal their deepest, darkest secrets to me.  Because my role was not to provide mental health counseling, I would, when appropriate, provide referrals and encourage distressed students to meet with mental health counselors. Often the students would object, stating they hated talking to counselors.  When I reminded them that I was a counselor, they would say, “You’re different.”  The only reason I was different was they had a relationship with me; they trusted me. 

Building a relationship with a counselor or coach takes time. Whether you decide to work with a counselor or coach for two, three or four sessions before you decide the fit is right is your choice.  Perhaps all you need is a few sessions to get you on your feet again.   Regardless of your needs, you can be sure that a big part of a counselor or coach’s job is to actively listen.