This month, the sixth annual Time to Thrive conference will be co-presented by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the National Education Association and the American Counseling Association. In preparing to represent ACA and present at Time to Thrive (#TimeToThrive), the topic of strengthening client relationship skills is forefront in my mind.
My session at Time to Thrive will focus on empowering families to be allies and advocates. LGBTQ youth and emerging adults often face added challenges when it comes to forging strong relationships. The sad reality is that some family members find it difficult to accept LGBTQ youth for who they are and struggle to engage in healthy relationships with them. Thus, as professional counselors, our job becomes helping these clients to strengthen their relationship skills within a cultivated support system.
Relationships also are complicated for clients who are from families with a history of abuse or addiction. Additionally, our clients may be in relationships with individuals who are unwilling to change their unhealthy ways of interacting, which can include manipulating, belittling, controlling or isolating others. For certain clients, no amount of communication skills and strategies can keep them emotionally or physically safe or repair a broken relationship. Some relationships are simply not a good fit for various reasons. The focus in unsafe scenarios should be to identify other relationships in which each person can thrive and feel supported.
Many clients, however, are in relationships that can be improved through the implementation of certain skills such as dealing with conflict, communicating feelings and clarifying the other person’s point of view. Virginia Satir said, “Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships he makes with others and what happens to him in the world about him.” Learning such relationship skills can open up opportunities for life fulfillment and goal attainment.
Modeling relationship skills and practicing communication skills in session are primary ways to teach such proficiencies. We should keep in mind that many clients have never experienced a positive, healthy relationship; therefore, it becomes more important to provide such modeling, both in session and outside of session. For instance, if a person grew up watching unhealthy communication patterns between parents, how can that person be expected to know different ways of interacting? Clients often find it useful to identify people in their lives, in their communities or in society at large whom they believe to have healthy relationships. This gives them a model to strive for in their own lives. This comes with a couple of caveats, however. Clients need to understand that there are no perfect relationships and that healthy relationships require work.
Over the years, supervisees have said to me that they are not interested in working with couples or families. Everyone works with systems though, whether there is one person in the room, two employees engaging in employee assistance counseling or romantic partners trying to improve their relationship together. Regardless of the scenario, each person in a relationship needs to be able to manage his or her own emotions, thoughts and self-talk. Thus, for those of you who work with individuals in counseling, these clients can first strengthen a positive relationship with themselves.
Counselors can teach relationship and communication skills that will assist clients in the workplace, at home, in academic settings and beyond. The ACA website houses mental health resources in its Knowledge Center (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources). This practice-focused treasure trove of resources covers a myriad of topics that are applicable across counseling settings and specialty areas. Likewise, the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo (counseling.org/conference) is a prime venue for learning strategies to help clients develop new tools for relating to others and having more fulfilling interactions with the people in their lives. I hope to see you in N’Awlins next month!
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