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Tips on Words to Avoid When Counseling

Chairs for counseling

I’d like to think I’m better at counseling real people than I am at answering test questions. Face-to-face, I’m listening, caring, and responding spontaneously with (what I hope to be) the right words for the situation. When taking the IBLCE™ Exam though, all of the “answers” can look good to me! Yet, we’ll find ourselves in both situations, and we’ll need to know what words to avoid when counseling.

First, remember that there are differences between teaching and counseling. Then, remember that the “words” may be phrases, or even unstated but implied messages.  To dodge the red herrings, avoid anything that smacks of the following:

Judging

Avoid any implied message of “That’s a dumb thing to do.”

Well, of course you wouldn’t speak such ugly words. But close variations include: “No one else is doing that these days” or “That doesn’t seem very practical!” or “A pump is a much better solution.”

Minimizing or dismissing

The message here is, “This is no big deal.”

You’ve probably heard a professional or a friend minimize or dismiss your concern with a phrase such as “Don’t worry about that.” (As if someone could easily live out that command!) Variations might be: “Lots of mothers have gone through this…”  or “this always resolves pretty quickly…” or “That should be the least of your worries.” These are definitely words to avoid when counseling.

Re-focusing

This is a real trap! It’s so easy to say… “Oh, I when I was in your shoes, I did this…” but that deflects from the attention of what the client is saying so those are words to avoid when counseling.

Certainly, it’s okay to try to make a connection by saying that you’ve been through it. But one sentence is plenty — and suggesting that you did the “right” thing is off-limits. After that one sentence, you risk putting the focus on another person, place. In other words, you’re re-focusing.

If the mother is crying her eyes out about her critically ill baby, beware of the sequence of your responses. It may be just fine to offer, “Would you like me to walk you back to the nursery?” However, that is likely to refocus the conversation, so save it for later. In this situation, your first response should be more like “Oh, this must be so difficult for you.”

Giving false reassurance

In this situation, your underlying message is: “Don’t worry; everything will be fine.”

Sometimes, that’s true. But sometimes, it’s false, or the “everything fine” situation is a long way from being achieved. In healthcare, some things might never going to be “fine” or “normal”. Hence, words that predict a future “fine” or “normal” might possibly be the most important words to avoid when counseling.

There’s a fine line between providing encouragement and support, versus offering false reassurance or false hope.  Here are two examples that are subtly different:

  • “She’ll recover. You’re giving her your milk and she’ll be better tomorrow,” are examples of false reassurance. She might not recover. She might not be better tomorrow.
  • “She’s doing so much better today than yesterday. And all thanks to you! Getting your milk is a better remedy for her than anything medical science can offer!” This is only one of many examples that can convey encouragement, and support.

Bossing

This is the trickiest of all! Most of us consider ourselves experts, and we can fall into the trap of telling the mother what to do. We honestly think our suggestion would work best.

However, anything that smacks of issuing a command is a turn-off. Similarly, “fixing” the problem is another example of telling someone what to do. (“You just need to do this…”) These are words to avoid when counseling.

While “fixing” may sometimes be appropriate, it is seldom the appropriate first response. Wait until the mother has been “heard” and is “on board” with any suggestions you might make. Aim to facilitate the client’s decision, rather than identifying a “fix” or implementing a decision. Good listening techniques are also a important part of counseling a client.

Do you struggle which words to use and which words to avoid when counseling? Are you more comfortable with counseling clients than answering exam questions on counseling? Share your tips in the comments below!

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