We’re not counsellors.
The main concern of counselling is the emotional life of the client, helping them explore and better understand their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and work towards whole person change, usually in response to distressing and problematic issues. Counsellors are highly trained and qualified in what they do.
You could, however, see Learning Developers in a parallel light. The main concern of Learning Development is the intellectual lives of our students, helping them explore and better understand their own learning, in the context of UK Higher Education (and beyond?). Like counsellors, we’re working with students in a one-to-one context to help them better understand their learning and work towards change (development). Though not our main priority, this can at times encompass the affective dimension – we know that learning is a process full of emotion: discomfort, anxiety, stress, fear, confusion, frustration- as well as joy, curiosity, delight, pride and triumph. Largely though, where counselling’s focus is on a client’s emotional life as a whole person, ours is on the student’s intellectual life and in a more focussed way on their goals as a student, but some of the same active listening skills apply.
I wouldn’t want to push this analogy too far- what we do isn’t therapy and I would be wary of the implication that learning development is remediation of an abnormal or disordered process. Learning challenges your world view and can be uncomfortable – thats an intrinsic and natural part of the process. I avoid language such as ‘issue’, ‘problem’ or ‘support’ where I can in my work. I would however like to explore the extent to which skills borrowed from counselling can help us in our work as Learning Developers, in our role as listener. Counselling may offer us a skillset which is a useful complement to other roles we take on, and promotes a more student-centred way of working.
One of the core skills of counselling is active listening.
Hopefully the use of body language, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice and encouraging utterances comes naturally to most of us in our day to day interactions! It’s a good reminder though that it’s important to let the student lay out or explore their thinking without us interrupting or putting words in their mouth before they’ve had a chance to articulate themselves, and to show that we value and attend to what they say. We’re watching the student’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions etc as well as their words, and also what they don’t say. Active listening may on the face of it feel quite minimal, but it plays a number of important roles in our work.
Active listening ensures that we gain a genuine and accurate understanding of the individual’s student’s issues. It’s easy to jump ahead, make assumptions, fit them into categories or read into the question they’ve brought to us based on our experience of other students and ourselves, and rush into solving the issue for them. Active listening also acknowledges and values students as individuals, creates an environment of trust and, once in a while, we might actually learn a thing or two from listening to our students!
There are other benefits in active listening. Learning is socially constructed, and if by shutting up and encouraging our students to continue thinking aloud, we give them a space to construct their learning through articulating it, they may well be able to talk themselves through an issue into a clearer understanding of what they think or what they will do. Some of my most effective tutorials have been ones in which I have barely said a word. Use of small, encouraging phrases such as ‘ok’, ‘mmhmm’ or ‘go on…’ can help nudge them into deeper reflection and analysis of what they’re exploring, whether it’s an argument they’re constructing or an account of how they go about their studies. If this helps them, it’s worth looking at how students can independently recreate the ‘sounding board’ you’ve provided, through freewriting or recording themselves in future.
Part of active listening entails acting as a mirror and reflecting back what the student has said. Simply repeating a word or phrase can be incredibly useful – it allows you to raise something without being too directive. It might be that you think it could be defined or analysed further, or it might be based on faulty assumptions or might be more significant than the student had realised. You could also use this kind of reflection with different vocal emphases to bring out different or new angles, to foster critical, creative thinking. It can act as a summary of what the student just said, to focus a point they’re making (at which point you can ask them to identify where they feel that point comes across in their writing). You might use it to encourage them to examine any contradiction between what they say and what’s on the page, or to hear back what they’ve said from the outside, creating a distance from which they can examine it objectively and afresh. And of course, it can also be used to explore and validate students’ feelings around study – frustrated, anxious, confident, thoughtful, to open up how learning changes and challenges the learner.
Silence is another simple but very powerful listening skill. It can also pay a great role in addressing ‘threshold concepts’ – a student may just need a moment to process an insight before they forget what they just said. Talking about learning may also raise uncertainty or frustration, uncomfortable feelings which students may be tempted to run away from. Silence can encourage them to stay with a feeling or unclear idea and allow them to probe it further and develop their understanding or an approach to addressing it.
It might not feel like you’re doing much when you’re ‘just’ listening, but you’re creating a lot of space for learning to happen if you stop teaching for a moment!