The accidental counsellor

There are far more folk who find themselves in crisis than ever there are trained professionals available to help them. It can take months to get counselling in the UK, but people caught in the immediacy of their own grief, trauma or anxiety can’t really afford to wait. The official advice from the UK’s national health service for folk in crisis is to talk to someone.

So, what do you do if you find yourself the chosen ear of a person in distress? My brother found himself with one of these last week, which is what has prompted me to write today. Most of us aren’t qualified, but we still have to step up. And as a Druid, you may attract the need and distress of others, especially if you put yourself forward by running things. I’ve seen this topic discussed on pagan forums, where the fear of causing more harm than good, or inviting litigation, makes people wary about offering themselves. So, we’re not talking about being a counsellor here, we’re talking about being the person who gets the late night phone call from a friend who doesn’t know how to carry on, or being the one a family member confides to about some horrific experience. We don’t get to choose these, they happen to us. How do we deal with them?

The single most powerful thing you can do for a person in distress is listen to them. No matter how much it disturbs you, or whether or not you are able to believe what they say, listening and giving the space for them to speak is tremendously effective. Unless you feel there’s immediate physical danger to them, or someone else, go for listening. Make sure they know you are listening, by making affirming comments. “I hear you.” Don’t be afraid to acknowledge if you are out of your depth. If you don’t understand and can’t relate to it, say so. A person in crisis will not appreciate you claiming you know just what it must be like, if you blatantly cannot know. If you do know, it can be helpful to share.

In the short term, don’t think about trying to find solutions. Focus on the listening, and letting them talk until they are calm. Avoid any comment that in any way might be construed as telling them they shouldn’t feel as they do – they are feeling it, they need to feel it, if you let them talk it will pass. Ask why they are feeling a certain way, ask how you can help, what they need, and if the answer is ‘nothing’ then just keep them talking.

It’s not your job to find a solution. Any solution to the problems have to be the choice of the person in crisis. Making suggestions may be helpful, but be careful to avoid anything that feels like you taking control of things. Crisis is a loss of control, the person in crisis cannot afford to have more of their right to self determine taken from them. Support them, offer advice, but do not give instruction, or do things for them unless you’re down to very physical issues of preserving life, or making cups of tea.

Giving people food and drink affirms normality. People in distress may also be in shock, so make sure they are warm.

Often what people need is a sounding board, someone to test ideas on while they work out what they need. If that’s what you’re getting, questions like ‘will that work for you?’ ‘what do you need?’ ‘how do you feel about that?’ will help them with the process. Avoid anything that seems like you being asked to choose for them. You can say what you would do if it was you, but make sure it’s on those terms.

Sometimes people just need a witness or a cheerleader. They need someone else to believe in them because they’re having a hard time believing in themselves. Encourage them. Praise their courage and determination, acknowledge their difficulties, affirm that there must be a way through and that they will find it. If appropriate, remind them of things they’ve achieved before, of qualities in themselves that will get them through.

In this way, it’s possible to help and support a person without having to take responsibility for them, and without having to internalise their distress. This protects us from being drawn into crisis with them. It keeps control in the hands of the person who is in trouble. It’s very easy to do, and to remember, and is actually the underpinning of talking therapies used by councillors. Listen, encourage, ask and try not to judge. It’s surprising how big a difference these things can make.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “The accidental counsellor

  • poppythistle

    In the first basic counselling course I took, it was explained that if we made it clear we could offer “listening skills” but that we weren’t counsellors and couldn’t offer that ourselves, then we were free from litigation. As long as the speaker knows what training has/hasn’t been had, as long as the listener is honest, then everything should be fine. We were invited to create and practise a phrase that we could say before the conversation got too “heavy”
    Loved this post 🙂 Unsurprisingly.
    The pedantic part of my brain won’t let me rest till I point out that Councillors are not Counsellors 🙂 It’s like complimentary and complementary!

    • Nimue Brown

      Thank you! And, will go catch the typo, I’m dreadful with those two words not quite the same issues in my own work – can see them in other people’s more often than not though.

  • Kelley

    I agree. I’ve always heard that the best thing you can do for someone in distress/grief is to listen to them.

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