In this Section:
1) The Volunteer Peer Counselor
2) Introduction to Peer Counseling
2) Counseling Techniques
The Volunteer Peer Counselor
As you begin this section, consider the type of volunteer service for which you are training.
Transportation volunteers may encounter clients for only a few minutes. Your smile and kindness while providing this service speaks volumes to adults and children who have been dislocated from their own homes and are relying on the kindness of strangers for transportation. The client may or may not choose to share his/her experience with you in the short time you are providing the transportation service. That’s okay. Remember, they have access to shelter staff 24-hours a day and have probably already begun discussing these issues. They may simply want to talk about the weather or make other small talk. In some cases, victims may be very open about why they are seeking services. Your previous training has provided you with an understanding of the dynamics of family violence/sexual assault. This understanding coupled with basic training on the role of a volunteer will prepare you for the most important aspects of your role, listening emphatically and being nonjudgmental as the victim shares his/her experience.
In case you encounter a victim who chooses to discuss family violence/sexual assault issues with you, here are a few important items to consider in addition to the peer counseling training below.
1) Are children present? If so, empathize with the client about the difficulties he/she is experiencing and ask him/her to speak to the shelter staff upon returning in order to have a private conversation without the children present.
2) If the client has any questions, concerns, or complaints about the shelter or agency’s procedures, remind them of your role as a Transportation Volunteer and encourage them to speak to the shelter staff or shelter coordinator. Advise them you will be happy to contact your supervisor, the Volunteer Coordinator, to ask her to follow-up on this issue if the client desires.
3) If you contact the volunteer coordinator by email, do NOT use a client’s name in the email.
Your role is to supervise a child or a group of children while parents receive services. This is not a counseling session with the child(ren). Because the children served may have witnessed family violence or be victims of child abuse or sexual abuse themselves, there may be times when the children you are watching speak or behave in ways that you recognize from your training are effects of the abuse experienced. Your primary role is to serve as an observer and report to agency staff any concerning behaviors observed so that PCC’s caseworkers may inform parents of concerns and offer assistance through counseling sessions with the parent and/or child.
Crisis Call Volunteers:
Your training on family violence and sexual assault along with and understanding of crisis intervention and peer counseling will not prepare you with all the answers. Even the most experienced advocates encounter circumstances in which they feel ill equipped due to the often complicated nature of these problems. Your training will, however, prepare you with a strong foundation of understanding what victims’ require of us following a traumatizing event and the appropriate ways in which we can respond to serve as a support system as victims
This section will review the techniques and methods peer counselors may use to allow clients to share details of abuse and feelings about their victimization and victimizer. These methods are different from what victims typically encounter when attempting to discuss these issues with family, friends, or coworkers, who are often well meaning but may be quick to give advice or state personal opinions, such as “You should just leave.” They may issue ultimatums like, “If you go back to him, I’m done listening to you complain. Don’t ask me for help again.” Sexual assault survivors may hear unhelpful statements encouraging them to “Just move on and try to forget about it.” Adults who were molested as children by family members may even hear, “Don’t’ discuss it now because it will only hurt the family.”
In contrast, peer counselors encourage the client’s honest expression of emotions. They want to learn what the client feels he/she needs. Peer counselors respect a victim’s right to make his/her own decisions. That is not to say that peer counselors ignore when victims are utilizing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as denying, minimizing, or rationalizing the abuse experienced or making decisions which place themselves in harmful situations. Providing education on domestic violence/sexual assault, discussing options, assisting clients in accessing needed resources, promoting problem-solving skills, and confronting obvious errors in thinking or unhealthy coping mechanisms are all part of an established relationship with a client that is built over time based upon trust and respect. It also includes an advocate’s willingness to recognize that it is never appropriate to assume a parental role with victims. It is both arrogant and ignorant to assume we know what’s best for another. Our role is to aid victims in exploring how their current (and often past) feelings, behaviors, and decisions affect their lives both in the present and in the future and to empower clients to feel confident in their own abilities to successfully address their problems.
Obviously, most volunteers who respond to crisis calls do not encounter victims for lengthy periods of time. Their roles are to provided crisis intervention. However, by understanding peer counseling, they play a vital role in educating victims about the services available to them at the Center, including the option of seeking services from a peer counselor at the agency.
HOW DO I HELP? / WHAT DO I SAY?
Before we continue, refer back to our Operating Philosophy on the home page of the website with the previous discussion in mind as you prepare to assume your role as peer counselor/advocate.
The biggest misconception new advocates/volunteers share is that they often believe they must have all the answers. From the above section, perhaps it is becoming clear that this is not the role of an advocate or peer counselor.
So, if you are not expected to have all the answers, then what should you say or do when assisting victims? Rule #1 is allow victims to talk. In doing so, they will begin to share feelings, both their fears and sources of emotional pain, as well as their hopes and dreams for their lives. They will tell you what they need. Sometimes this occurs right away. Some victims seek services with a particular goal in mind, such as seeking counseling to deal with childhood sexual abuse because it is affecting trust/intimacy in a current relationship. Family violence victims may present with a plan already verbalized, such as requesting a protective order or assistance obtaining legal representation for a divorce. In other cases, it takes time for a victim to verbalize his/her needs. In these cases, victims are still in the process of identifying what they really need themselves. Family violence victims often seek shelter with no particular goal in mind other than a respite from the abuse and a desire to be safe. Victims of family violence may initiate weekly counseling for themselves or their children due to the stress of living with a controlling, jealous, or violent partner. They may not be able to identify any needs or plans other than having someone to talk to about the problems they are experiencing which cause them to feel overwhelmed.
A good peer counselor exercises patience and self-control. They may be aware of many resources and options available to assist a victim, but sharing all this knowledge is not at all helpful to the victim if that is not what the victim is requesting in the moment. Peer counselors LISTEN to victims and attempt to understand what victims need based on the reasons stated for seeking services.
For example, the victim who seeks services due to feeling overwhelmed by a husband who constantly belittles her as a wife and mother and who isolates her from family/friends may be seeking services because she has no one else she can talk to about what she is experiencing. Perhaps her family has never approved of her partner and when she has tried to confide feelings of unhappiness in the marriage, her family has immediately encouraged her to leave. As a result, she has spent more time defending her partner to her family and denying the problems, rather than truly discussing the troubles in her marriage and defining what she wants/needs.
A good peer counselor will meet the client at this level, educating the client by defining emotional abusive behaviors in relationships, helping the client understand the effects of this abuse on the victim and/or the victim’s children, and letting the client identify and explore the pros and cons to possible options identified by the client and counselor. This peer counselor won’t immediately jump to a discussion of emergency shelter, protective orders, options for legal aid because at no time has the client verbalized these needs. Later, as the client begins to identify and weigh other options, these discussions may become relevant.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the counseling relationship is the ability to establish rapport with the client. The peer counselor does not present herself as an expert who will solve the client’s problems. Instead, the counseling relationship is explained as a partnership in which both the client and counselor will call upon their unique knowledge and experiences to help the client achieve the desired outcome.
Adult & Child Victims seeking services should be informed about:
þ The advocate’s role as a peer counselor: Below is a section of the Explanation of and Request for Services that clients sign in their consent for services which explains the difference between peer counselors and licensed professional counselors. The Peer Counselor should review this with the client and answer any questions.
I understand counseling services are typically provided by peer counselors (unlicensed counselors) trained in domestic violence and sexual assault intervention strategies. The agency employs licensed professional counselors on a limited basis who typically assist with issues beyond the expertise of peer counselors. I understand if I request licensed professional counseling services, there may be a waiting list due to limited availability.
þ Confidentiality issues; what the limits and exceptions are. (Refer to Confidentiality training in the Volunteer Training Section.)
þ The nature and limits of the counseling relationship.
þ Length and frequency of counseling sessions. (Including expectations for contacting the agency if the client cannot attend a scheduled appointment and client’s preferred method for being contacted (to address safety issues) if peer counselor must cancel a scheduled appointment.
þ The survivor’s recourse if (s)he are dissatisfied with the services provided. (Clients are provided with a grievance policy at time of intake.)
(Section on Informed Consent adapted from the Sexual assault Advocate Training Manual from the Texas Office of the Attorney General and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.)
Be Aware of Verbal and Nonverbal Communication:
Peer counselors should be aware of both their verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as that of their clients. Verbal communication consists of what we say and how we say it. It is not helpful to a client if we are using acronyms or abbreviations for words unfamiliar to the victim. If I refer the victim “to the P.D. to discuss a P.O. and obtain CVC information,” I have probably not conveyed any useful information to that victim. Telling a sexual assault victim that police may refer her for a SANE exam may sound insulting. Trained advocates know this refers to a forensic sexual assault medical exam performed by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), but a victim might believe you or the police are questioning her sanity. It is also important to understand the comprehension level of the client, and it may be necessary to adjust your language to adapt to this. Nonverbal communication is also important. Eye contact, fidgeting, looking at one’s watch frequently and other forms of nonverbal behavior convey messages to the observer.
Identify the Problem:
For clients seeking services due to domestic violence or sexual assault, identifying the problem may at first appear as simple as determining which type of victimization the client experienced, such as, “The presenting problem is family violence.” However, the peer counselor needs to LISTEN for the client’s perception of the identified problem to really understand it from the client’s perspective. Remember, victims are generally seeking services because they are unhappy about one or more aspects of their lives and they are seeking CHANGE. Peer counselors help the client verbalize the change they desire. It is not unusual for this desired change to seem unrealistic or even impossible when the desired change is dependent upon the behavior of another who is unwilling or unable to participate, but the issue is to first understand the client’s desire and to later help the client identify and address possible barriers to such change. For example, for many family violence victims seeking services initially, the change they desire is for the violence to cease so that they may continue to live in the relationship with their partners. An adult who was sexually molested during childhood may desire a change in her family’s level of emotional support and/or the family’s reaction to the abuse. They may desire to have a closer relationship with a non-offending parent who continues to deny the abuse ever occurred.
The peer counselor’s role is to:
1) Assist the client in identifying thoughts/feelings associated with current problems.
This is an important aspect in allowing clients to acknowledge and explore personal feelings and unmet needs, while also educating or offering educational opportunities through reading, homework, etc., to the client about the dynamics of abuse and effects of abuse experienced on victims and/or children, their personal rights, etc.
2) Help the client identify and verbalize beliefs about how his/her feelings or behaviors will be different when the desired change is achieved. (How will you and/or your life be different if the change you want occurs?”)
3) Work with the client to formulate a plan of action steps for the desired change.
4) Open a discussion with a client regarding expectations, such as amount of time/level of commitment he/she is willing to invest in achieving desired change.
This is especially important for victims who seek services desiring a change that appears dependent upon a significant change in another. Asking the family violence victim if it will be okay with her if 10 years from now, the violence has not yet ended will help her better identify how long she feels she can cope at her current level and will provide an opportunity for her to consider when she feels it will no longer be acceptable.
It is also important in helping victims clarify possibly unrealistic expectations they may hold regarding their own healing.
5) Exploring the possibility for client to consider of whether he/she could visualize his/her feelings or life changing even if the desired change does not occur.
This discussion is often an important step in helping the client realize that he/she possesses the ability to influence positive change in their own feelings, thoughts or behaviors which are not dependent upon others.
6) Assist the client in identifying, clarifying, or revising goals for desired change in the Individual Service Plan as needed.
Avoid Fostering Dependency:
Because we encounter victims who may be at their most vulnerable point in their lives, it is important to guard against fostering dependency in those we serve. Our role is not to do for clients what they are capable of doing for themselves. Abuse can damage a victim’s self-confidence. Helping to rebuild that self-confidence requires that victims be provided with opportunities to recognize all they are capable of doing for themselves. We can certainly provide support and accompaniment. We can further assist by understanding a client’s reluctance and role-playing possible scenarios with him/her to allow them to face their fears. However, we must be diligent in questioning why we are doing something on behalf of (or instead of) the client because each time we do this, we steal these important opportunities from those we serve.
Research has shown that the counselors who ask the MOST questions are viewed as LEAST effective by clients. Below are some techniques counselors frequently employ to avoid “interrogating” people. These techniques also help to reduce the number of questions that need to be asked to avoid creating the expectation in clients that as soon as you’ve asked all the questions, you can solve all the problems.
Some of these techniques may sound strange when simply reading them. For practice, try using them in normal conversation with others, such as family, friends, or coworkers. You will find if you will just be yourself and use them genuinely and comfortably, these techniques will achieve the expected result of encouraging the speaker to continue talking without your asking few, if any, questions.
1. Strategic Restatement – the counselor selects something the client has said and restates it in his/her own words (or the
client’s words). It is like an echo.This verbally points to a specific statement and gets the client to elaborate on it, without the
counselor having to specifically ask for it.
Client: My husband hits me whenever he thinks I do anything wrong.
Counselor: He behaves violently and then blames you. (or)
Your husband is behaving violently towards you.
(You are sending the message that you are listening and understand what thee client has said. You are leaving it open for the client to continue about the violent behavior and possibly provide further details.)
2. Interpretation – the counselor elaborates the meaning or significance of what has been said by the client. It connects the
emotions/distress to the hazard. The counselor is attempting to identify how the person might be thinking or feeling and
label the emotion. You may be wrong, but generally this causes the client to consider how they are feeling, and this allows the
client to define and express the actual feeling they are experiencing.
Client: My husband hits me whenever he thinks I do anything wrong.
Counselor: It’s sounds very frightening to do or say anything when you don’t know how your husband will react.
3. Prompt - counselor repeats a key word or phrase – not whole sentences.
Client: I don’t know why I even try. Everything always turns out bad.
Counselor: Turns out bad.
4. Probe – Asks the client to evaluate or analyze some data, or to interpret or draw conclusions on something they have
already said. You may use Why questions, such as “Why do you think this upsets you so much?” Another example might be
“How does this make you feel?” or How does this behavior affect you?” or “How are you coping with the stress?”
5. Question – Try to use open-ended questions that keep the client talking rather than a question that requires a yes or no
answer. Also, try to use questions only to inquire about new information, something that has not yet been said.
6. Clarification – Asks the client to be more specific about something that seems vague or abstract to the counselor.
Client: My ex-husband has been harassing me.
Counselor: Have them clarify the statement “harassing.” This could be done by saying, “Please tell me more,” or be using a prompt to repeat, “harassing” The goal is to understand how the client defines harassment. Is he calling and threatening her? Is he driving by her work or by her house? Does she encounter him in public places and feel harassed? Harassing may mean different things to different people and you cannot assume that your definition and the client’s definitions are the same or even meet the legal definition of harassment. Another example requiring clarification might be a client who says, “My husband has a temper.” Or, “He’s not really a violent person.”
7. Silence - Silence can sometimes be uncomfortable. The important point to remember is not to start talking because you feel
you need to break the silence. Silence has many therapeutic advantages.
1. It gives the client time to collect himself/herself.
2. The client may be reflecting on something that has been said. Perhaps he/she has never shared the information with anyone before and needs time to collect him/herself.
3. It can also be used in order to NOT reinforce something the client is saying, such as an inappropriate remark about retaliation against an offender. By not immediately speaking, the client considers what was said and will often retract the statement and begin to focus on the intense feelings that prompted the remark.
Remember, clients judge sessions as most effective when they spend the most time talking. Silence also endorses the idea that counseling is a shared responsibility, and the client should be putting as much into it as the counselor.
8. Summarization - The counselor says in a condensed form what the client has said and uses it as an information check. A lot of information can be lost when passed from one person to another. Your job is to take time half way through and at the end to check the accuracy of your listening skills. This says to the client that you have heard what they have been saying and you understand the emotions they have conveyed.
Summarization is a good way to wrap up what issues have been discussed and what the client plans to do prior to next session as part of his/her commitment to work on issues outside of counseling. Some examples of work outside of session might be journaling feelings about the abuse, playing close attention and writing down any negative thoughts, feelings, or self-talk the client experiences during the week. Other examples might be actively seeking employment, applying for financial assistance, making a list of pros and cons regarding a particular subject.
A reminder for working with children:
Children often relax and become more open when there are games, toys, and other activities in the counseling session to help the child become comfortable in the counseling environment. Since counselors often spend time echoing the client’s words to convey understanding or reflecting feelings stated by the client, child clients can often view the counselor’s responses as a statement of complete agreement with them rather than an expression of understanding/empathy. If a child feels he is being treated unfairly at home, and the counselor is labeling or echoing these feelings in the session, the child may go home and tell his parents how unfair things are and insist that the counselor agrees. It is always helpful to prepare the parent(s) of the child client of your role in assisting the client in sharing their feelings, as well as the fact that while you will not share details of what the child discusses without the child’s agreement, you will provide progress reports to the parent and welcome the parent’s updates/progress reports on the child’s home/school behavior, as well as the participation of the parent in sessions with the child as needed. Ask described in the Informed Consent section previously, children need to be informed of their rights and the limits and exceptions of confidentiality.
Staff/volunteers are exposed to continuing education during the year to enhance their knowledge and skills in peer counseling. Additional skills and techniques are introduced during these training sessions.