Thinking Out Loud

Communication Styles in Counseling

My early experience in counseling was primarily with children. Working with children requires flexibility and creativity, and through studying the work of Clark Moustakas and Virginia Axline, I learned that communication in play takes many forms—words, behavior, symbols, and feelings. And, of course, there is the primacy of the working relationship. This nuanced and textured experience taught me to listen with my whole body and set the stage for further exploration into the world of individual communication styles.

Through this exploration, I incorporated learning style theory and the theory of multiple intelligences into my counseling approach. Counseling is a form of learning—learning about one’s self, relationships, and life itself. My focus on learning encouraged me to pay attention to the details of how others expressed themselves and absorbed information. Learning styles and multiple intelligences gave me a way to work with these details and explore different ways of connecting to others and listening to their stories.

Related to this exploration were questions about how counselors view human behavior and what choices we make in trying to be helpful (questions, comments, interventions). So, I began questioning observations I was taught to make and the conclusions drawn from them. If someone has difficulty reflecting on their feelings, for example, does it mean they are avoiding something or does it mean they are more intrapersonally oriented and need time and space to reflect before achieving clarity? If an individual has difficult putting words to their experience, is it because of mental confusion or do they think primarily in pictures and find words inadequate to express the richness of their fluid, visual-spatial world?

This led to other questions. Were those who are successful using gestalt techniques rich in imagination and kinesthetic intelligence? How helpful is it for someone more linguistically oriented to engage in this type of therapy? Is cognitive-behavioral therapy best suited to those who are strongly logical and linguistic? Does hypnotherapy work best for those who have strong visual-spatial skills? These questions are absent from the discussion on evidence based practice. In that discussion, a one size fits all model is implied.

I don’t have solid answers for these questions based in traditional scientific methodology. I have, however, used my experience (intuition and educated trial and error) to guide me in exploring these issues with clients. Through this process I’ve learned to be more flexible in my approach and make fewer assumptions, while I explore how to better connect with and use the natural language of those I’m trying to help. This approach provides natural validation to clients, encourages collaboration, decreases pathologizing, and encourages mutual creativity.

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