If your friend comes to you asking for advice, chances are he doesn't really want to be told what to do; he really wants you to listen to him. If you have prepared yourself to be a person who can be trusted by learning to be a counselor, people will love to come to you to get things off their chest and just unload.
Counselors are primarily listeners. Don't underestimate the great positive affect of listening to someone who is having problems. Listening and responding appropriately help the troubled person to identify his dilemmas, explore the options, and come away feeling refreshed and that something useful has happened.
You, the listener, have the responsibility to remember the smallest details of the conversation. You have to convince your friend that you are really listening; this means you won't have to ask your friend more than one time the names of his relatives or any other important fundamental information.
While counseling your friend, all your attention should be focused on him and on what he is telling you. To let him know that he has your full attention, you should give what is called "minimal responses."
These minimal responses are what we naturally do when we are listening more than talking. Counseling is the art of listening constructively, so learning this art of minimal responses is essential.
Such responses can be non-verbal, like a nod of the head, or expressions such as "Aha," "Uh hum," "Yes," "OK," and "Right". Your friend will be doing most of the talking so from time to time you must reaffirm that you are listening to what he is saying.
You must be wise when you use these minimal responses; for example, if you give them too frequently, they will be distracting. If they're too infrequent, your friend may think you are not listening. At the same time, you must empathize (share the same feelings) with your friend. Your speed of talking and tone should match that of your friend. For example, if he is telling a sad story, a bright cheery "right" from you would be inappropriate.
Minimal responses can also be a subtle way of communicating other messages. These messages may be used to show that you agree with your friend, emphasize the importance of a statement, or to express surprise, disappointment, and so on. A message is carried to your friend through the combination of your tone of voice, accompanying non-verbal behavior, facial expressions, and body posture.
Phrases can also be used, for example, "I hear what you say," and "I understand." You can also match your friend's non-verbal behavior. If he is sitting on the edge of his seat, you could sit in the same way and mirror your friend's posture.
This makes your friend feel you are close to him because you do not sit back like you are in a superior position, listening to and judging what is being said. If you match your friend's posture, your friend will feel more at ease.
If you mirror your friend's posture and non-verbal behavior, it is most likely that your friend will match your behavior. In this way, you can bring about a change in your friend's emotional state. For instance, if your friend is anxious and breathing heavily and you match this to some extent, then ease off, chances are your friend will relax too. Slow down your rate of breathing, speaking speed, and sit back comfortably in your chair. This change should be done slowly and naturally and never interrupt your friend's train of thought.
Keeping steady and natural eye contact is also important, also don't stare too much but it's fine to look away from time to time. It is most beneficial to be friendly and real than to appear competent. Do not feel uncomfortable with silence — allow your friend to think in silence, without pressure. Even when silent, however, show your friend that you are paying full attention to him. Counseling is a natural process.
By Latiefa Achmat
Latiefa Achmat is an Islamic counselor and social worker in Cape Town, South Africa.