Bridging Troubled Waters: Building Empathy in Counseling

By Sabrina Bong — Before a presentation on LGBTQ students, Project Q Youth and ATODA Program Coordinator Miranda Larocque started with an icebreaker.

“Think about a secret that you’ve never told anyone,” she began with. “Now think about what it would be like to tell someone else. How would you feel about telling someone?”

She continued to ask us questions about how we would feel revealing the secret and why we would decide to maybe keep the secret to ourselves. As we pondered and considered whether or not we would tell someone, she explained that the process we were currently struggling with is similar to the confusion and anxiety people experience when they “come out.” It was a powerful icebreaker and really made me think about how much emotion must be behind this act.

The activity also made me think about how, in an effort to be a good counselor, I need to be able to empathize with the students and parents I work with.

In my Intro to Counseling class, my teacher has us write personal bias papers every week. We write about our opinions on certain controversial topics, like confidentiality and sexually active students. It’s a way for us to recognize what our own biases are and think about how they may affect us as a counselor. I really enjoy these papers; they make me stop and think about all the different influences on my opinions and beliefs.

I think there is a very fine line between empathizing with the people you work with and unconsciously pushing them to see your point of view. As counselors, we genuinely want to help others. We want to establish relationships and gain people’s trust. And in order to do that, we need to be sure to keep our own beliefs in check when dealing with situations that we may not agree with.

Take, for example, the issue of confidentiality. I struggled with this particular issue because I personally believe one of the best ways to help a student is to keep their parents informed. If parents are aware of their child’s problem, they may be able to help resolve it. But at the same time, I realize that many students come to their school counselors because they don’t feel comfortable with telling their parents. I don’t want to destroy any relationships I may build with my students, but I also don’t feel comfortable keeping parents in the dark with what their children are going through. However, I need to put my personal biases aside and instead concentrate on what would be best for the student and the issue at hand.

I will be putting myself in my students’ shoes (figuratively, of course!) and empathizing with what they have been struggling with. I may not always know exactly what they are going through, but I will do my best to understand their feelings. I will be sure to consider all viewpoints involved and keep my personal biases in check. And someday, hopefully, I will be known as a school counselor who can be a keeper of secrets and a collaborator with parents … simultaneously.

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