The Accidental Counsellor Model
The Accidental Counsellor Model is based on three core themes animated by your presence.
1) Self Care and Wellbeingso we are not overcome by the emotional distress of others. This also includes appropriate referral.
2)Connection so we are able to validate and acknowledge the person so they feel heard and understood.
3) Influence so we can ask appropriate “solution focused questions” if appropriate rather than giving unsolicited advice.
The accidental counsellor model is animated by presence. We’ve all experienced presence before. Think back to the last time you met a new person. Remember how you felt in the first 3-5 minutes of meeting them—either negative (your defense mechanisms kick in, walls go up, you can’t wait remove yourself from the situation) or positive (you’re so comfortable that you inexplicably feel like you’ve known this person for much longer than a few minutes). That’s presence. That’s what really animates the entire Accidental Counsellor Model. It’s your presence that animates the conversation.
Let’s start with influence. This is where a lot of accidental counsellors get stuck because it’s both natural and tempting to exert influence. As a human being listening to people’s stories of pain and stress, it’s quite natural to try to bring them comfort and to make them feel better. Thus, we can be tempted to rush in and provide advice, suggestions, and solutions. Specifically, I’m talking about providing unsolicited feedback and advice. The research says that when we tell people what to do, their motivation for doing it lessens, even if it was something they wanted to do in the first place.
Ask Don’t Tell
When we ask questions and people respond with their own answers, they’re much more motivated because they have ownership and responsibility. It’s much more empowering. The unintended consequence of offering people advice is suggesting that they can’t really fix the problem on their own. It’s like you’re saying, “You can’t resolve this. You need me to be able to get through this.”
Of course, no one intends to say that. It’s the unintended consequence of rushing in and rescuing people rather than just holding a space and hearing them. Obviously, common sense still applies here. If it’s a crisis situation, we need to be much more direct. People need to be safe. If someone’s asking you for some information and you have it, you should probably share it. However, when listening to people’s emotional distress, we typically want to just listen and then ask questions if appropriate.
In terms of preventing the temptation to influence, I recommend remembering the phrase ask, don’t tell. Specifically, ask solution-focused questions.
In order for our solution-focused questions to have an impact, we need to form a connection. I’m not talking about rapport here – if your reading this you know we need rapport. When I refer to connection I’m specifically talking about connecting to the person’s story of pain and suffering. That is acknowledging, validating, and normalising their experience. Here, I find it helpful to think of the phrase get in the pit with the person.
This is really important because when you do that, the person feels heard and understood. They trust you more, and they feel safer. They begin to calm down, and they feel less alone. I believe that it’s in the connection phase that transformation truly happens. This is the most powerful phase. It is where the healing actually takes place.
There are two key misunderstandings of connection that I want to address now.
Misunderstanding #1 Connecting means agreeing.
The first misunderstanding occurs when I say acknowledge, validate, and normalise the person’s experience. People often respond by asking, “What if the person’s lying?” Well, what if they are?
Consider this example in a school context:
What if a parent said, “I’m sick and tired of this school. The teachers can’t teach. My daughter is not learning,” so on and so forth. The parent is clearly quite upset. They might even be denigrating a teacher or staff member. The response I most often hear in this situation is defensive and explanatory. People start defending themselves or the organisation or the school and say, “Look, actually what happened was…” or “that’s not quite really how it unfolded. Can I give you the facts?” And, I hate to say it, but that’s a terrible response. That comes after the person feels heard and understood. They’re not going to listen to what you’re saying if they don’t think that you’re listening to them first.
In this situation, I would respond by saying something like this: “If I believed my daughter was going to a school and was walking into a classroom where the teacher was incompetent, I would be just as upset and distressed as you are right now.” Do not misinterpret and think that I’m agreeing here. I’m not. Surely, we can listen to people and help them feel heard and understood without agreeing. I’m simply acknowledging that I understand how the parent sees the situation. The first common misunderstanding is that I’m agreeing, but I’m actually acknowledging what the person is saying. I’m acknowledging their perspective so that they feel heard and understood.
Misunderstanding #2 Connecting with the person’s pain will make it worse for them.
The other common misunderstanding is that people think acknowledging, validating, and normalising the person’s experience is making it worse for them.We’re not making it worse. We’re getting in the pit with them and as a consequence they feel heard and understood and less alone.
Now I want to tell you about a client who came to see me about a miscarriage, so just a trigger warning here for people who may have had that experience.
I had a client who originally came to see me with her husband who had been diagnosed with bipolar, and they wanted to get some relationship counselling. Unfortunately, he only came once, but she kept coming back. I saw her over a period of several months. A few weeks after she started coming, she came in and just sat behind me silently.
I asked, “How how are you? What would you like to focus on this session?” And she said, “Oh, over the weekend I had a miscarriage.” And I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay, Rocky. I spoke to my doctor, and he said not to worry because I’m still quite young and it was our first time trying and this happens quite often.”
Do you see what happened there? Think about this in terms of energy. When she said I had a miscarriage, my initial response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” My energy was lower. My job is to match where she is, not to bring her down to where I am.
This is a client-centered approach. It’s not about me. I have to be where the person is. So, I adjusted my response: “Okay, so if I’m hearing you right, you’ve had this experience, you’ve had this miscarriage, but it sounds like the doctor’s reassured you, and you seem to be processing this. Is that what you want to talk about this session or something else? What should we focus on?”
And she said, “Oh no, I think I’m okay with that. I really want to talk to you about being harassed at work”
And we spent the next hour talking about the harassment that she was experiencing at work from her manager.
A few months later, I opened the side door to my office, and she was there and in a really terrible state, sobbing at the door. I’d never met a client like that. I almost had to assist her while she walked over to the lounge. I said, “I can see you’re in a really terrible state. When you’re ready, just tell me what’s happened.” Through her sobbing, she told me that this is actually her third miscarriage. I wanted to know whether she had a support framework around her, so I asked, “Besides coming here, are there other people in your life?” because I knew that things weren’t great at home with her partner or at work.
“Are there other people in your life – family, friends – where you can have some support?”
“There’s my mum and my sister, but I can’t talk to them about this.”
“So what do you mean? Why can’t you talk to them about this?”
“They just find it too hard.”
“Well, how do you know that they find it too hard?”
“Because every time I talk to them about this, they just say, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s okay. You’re still young. You haven’t been to the specialist yet. You’ve gotta remain optimistic. You’ve gotta stay hopeful.”
That’s what it’s like when we are on the top of the pit looking down and thinking that we have to pull people out rather than descending down and being with them in that dark space.
So, I said to her, “I’m going to try my best to understand what this is like for you, but I’m not going to pretend to understand because how can I? I’m a male; you’re a female. I can never really know what you’re going through right now.” And while still sobbing, she started nodding her head a bit. When I talk about acknowledging, validating, and normalising, this is what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about having a 20-minute conversation. It can be one sentence, one word.
I asked, “Are you really worried that you’ll never become a mother?”
“Oh my God, Rocky. Yes. All of the time. I’m upset about this all of time. I don’t even want to get together with my husband. I’m scared I’m going to fall pregnant again. I’m going to have another miscarriage.” And she was suddenly energetic and talkative – her state transformed in an instant – and rightly so because she hasn’t been able to talk about these dark fears that she has. She can’t tell anyone about it because people will say, “Oh, it’s okay. Don’t think about that.”
The misunderstanding here is that people think that by asking her this question I have made her feel worse, but what’s making her feel worse is that nobody, including the people in her family who she loves, can actually hear her pain.
When people feel less alone, it’s incredibly healing and transformative. However, getting in the pit and doing this type of work takes a toll on you. And there’s real truth around the idea of vicarious trauma. That’s why looking after your own wellbeing and self care is a very important protective factor. It builds your own capacity to be able to get in the pit the way I’ve just described, and that creates and enhances balance in your own life.
Wellbeing and self care
My simple definition for wellbeing and self care is doing what brings you good, sustainable energy. If you’re hearing stories of pain and suffering and trauma day in day out, you need to be able to live the good life, whatever that means for you. It can be simple things.
One of the things that I’m currently really grateful for is that our trainings are all happening online now, so I’m not traveling as much, and I’m actually going for a walk twice a day at sunrise and sunset. Those walks are so energising for me. Whatever it is for you, you need to make sure to make time for that so that you have some balance to the stories of pain and trauma that you’re hearing, which will build your capacity getting in the pit.
Read the previous Modules here: