Providing counsel

Ana Cox isn’t advising you to start analysing your manager, but what she does ask is whether you’ve considered using counselling skills in your work?

In my job as a therapist, people are often surprised to hear that I was a PA for many years. They seem to think the two roles are poles apart and that my having been a PA has no connection to my work now. This is totally wrong, as it’s my belief that the years in my previous career helped me hone skills essential to my role now. In fact, I also believe it’d be beneficial for all PAs to bear counselling skills in mind when working with their managers.

The main benefit of bringing counselling skills into your role is developing a positive, and therefore more productive, relationship, which will be robust at times of pressure and lead to greater achievement of goals.

Still not convinced? Here are some of the basic skills that counsellors use with their clients, adapted by me for use by PAs, helping to build working relationships by sending out positive signals – try them out!

 “Remember, although some of these skills may sound easy, obvious, or like something you do already, the chances are that when the pressure is on, deadlines are looming and your to do list is rapidly growing, these measures will be the first thing to go – and those are the times they’re likely to be of most help.”

Attending: Try to really be present with your boss. Maintain eye contact so there’s connection. Nods of the head, leaning forward and mirroring body language can also be much more powerful than you may think.

Reflecting and paraphrasing: In counselling, a reflection is pretty much what it says on the tin – reverting back to a person with what you understand from what they’ve said, either by just a single word or a paraphrase of the whole sentence. Doing this in day-to-day conversation will let your manager know they’ve been heard. And the benefit to you? They’ll be less inclined to feel the need to check up on their instruction.

Clarifying: This helps your boss to feel understood. A good way to clarify is by using open questions that really get to the centre of what’s required. Open questions generally begin with a how, what, why, who or where, whereas the opposite, closed questions, are those simply answered by yes or no.

Concreteness: This is akin to having an agenda for a meeting. Concreteness involves being focused on facts and relevant concerns, thereby avoiding discussions around abstracts. This can help you avoid conversations where your manager thought you were both talking about X and you thought you were talking about Y. Avoiding these crossed wire conversations feeds a healthy relationship.

Empathy: When a counsellor offers empathy, they attempt to put themselves in the shoes of their client and see what it feels like to be them. Look at things through your boss’ eyes: the urgent report they want completed by the end of the day also becomes your urgency, rather than a pressure point you have no connection with and, therefore, resent.

Unconditional positive regard: In counselling, this is seen as the conveyance of warm acceptance of both the negative and positive, with no demand for personal gratification. In other words, maintain warmth and respect for your manager through thick and thin.

Congruence: This is where a counsellor is genuine to themselves; being honest in a measured and gentle way. For a PA, this could be seen as a risky manoeuvre but within the framework of the relationship described above you should feel comfortable and able to express yourself in a non-defensive and unpretentious way.

Ana Cox is an accredited counsellor with the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. Having worked in various agencies and schools she now concentrates on working in private practice with a focus on her special interests, which include bicultural identity, stress and anxiety.