Depending on how you read this title, you’re thinking one of two things right now:  Life has gotten the best of me, or I’m a big hockey fan.  Confused? Let me explain.

While traveling on I-95 to Pennsylvania, I passed a SUV with a license plate that read: ILVNHL.  My wife looked at me and said, “Did you see that license plate?  It looks like it says, ‘I Live In Hell.’”  I laughed and then replied, “No, it says, ‘I Love [the] National Hockey League.’”  Two completely separate perspectives; two drastically different messages.

We laughed about this for several days, but it does serve as a reminder that people (not just men vs. women) communicate differently.   This should come as no surprise.

Communication is more than just words and phrases.  It is also comprised of more than non-verbal communication and paralanguage.

Remember the basic principles of the speech communication class that you took years ago. In order for communication to be effective, for both parties to be both heard and understood, it must involve a two-way exchange of information.  A message must be sent and received in a context that is mutually understood.

Good therapists know this to be true. Great therapists invest in understanding the context of their clients’ communication. Failure to do so may result in faulty assessments that lead professionals to believe that their clients love NHL, when in reality, they feel like they’re living in Hell!

So how do therapists elevate their communication skills from good< to great?  There are three steps that you can take right now to improve your counselor communication skills:

1) Listen Closely. Clients are not always clear regarding the issues.  It’s your job to listen closely to what they’re saying.  And, yes, you will have to decipher the encoded messages to understand what’s really being said.

2) Ask Meaningful Questions. Many inexperienced counselors ask questions like, “And how does that make you feel?” or “Talk more about […that];” when these question often fail to provide counselors with an adequate understanding of the issues.

If you want meaningful answers, you need to ask meaningful questions!

By asking a client, “What do you mean when you say that?” or “Explain how that feels to you right now,” you gain perspective on more than just the message your client is attempting to send; and, you also gain greater insight into the context of that message.

3) Learn the Context. The context of the message is a vital part of all communication. ILVNHL may conjure up thoughts of hockey pucks and Zamboni machines to you, but it may be a desperate cry for help for someone else.  Look for clues that reveal ulterior messages.

It rarely happens easily, but communication is a two-way street.  Regardless of the language type (verbal, non-verbal, or para-language), your clients are communicating with you. Remember the words of your old speech teacher, “You cannot not communicate.”  The same is true of your clients.  They’re always sending you messages – even those oppositional few who refuse to talk.  So be sure to listen in the proper context and try to understand exactly what is being said.

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