Tip #146 Practicing With a Colleague

Do you have a colleague who wants to practice counseling skills as much as you do? Great! Here are some ways you can help each other. Ideally you will be sitting together. However, most of these ideas you can do by phone or Skype.

First, you study your instrument.
Then, you practice, practice, practice.
And when you get up on the bandstand
you forget all that and just wail.
Charlie Parker
If the student don’t move,
the muscle memory won’t groove.
Steve Berg-Smith

Schedule a firm time at a convenient time. For example, every Wednesday from 8 to 9 a.m. or once a month at each other’s house for 90 minutes with lunch following.

It will work best to decide ahead of time what you will do. It does get tempting to just talk about tough cases or about frustrations with your practice. Just as focusing on changing one behavior at a time is the most effective way to conduct an MI session, focusing your time together will be most effective. Here are some ideas.

• Take turns being a client. Make it a real play and talk about something you might want to change. Be yourself rather than role-playing a client. When you are the counselor, focus on practicing open-ended questioning. Perhaps begin with the examples of open-ended questioning in Tip #108. Note the ones you don’t tend to ask and have them in front of you. Just go ahead and ask some of them even if they might not seem to fit precisely. Notice the responses. Since you are practicing, be as awkward as you want to be. For example, if you notice a closed question, ask to reword it and take all the time you need to come up with new wording.

• Do a real play where the client talks about something she is trying to decide. As the counselor, begin with an open-ended question to get it going, then make at least one reflection before asking another question. For a more advanced version, make at least two or even three reflections before asking a question.

• One way to practice affirming is to bring in some notes about your most difficult clients. Begin by searching for a few efforts that client has made and strengths he has, then brainstorm with your colleague some affirmations you could make (Tip #63).

• If you wish to practice making summaries, you could add that to any real plays. No matter what else you are practicing, you could summarize what your client/colleague has said at the end and then ask how you did.

• Another way to practice summaries: Bring some notes from a recent client. Practice saying out loud a summary you could have given the client. Ask for feedback from your colleague, tweak and do it again. Refer to Tips #119 and #120.

• Practice noticing change talk: Use a client recording, if you have one, or a YouTube video of a counseling session or a movie clip and listen together. Stop when you hear change talk and determine which kind it is. You could add to this by brainstorming responses. See Tips #69 and #121.

• Do a real play of a full session. You could deliberately work your way through all four MI processes: engagement, focusing, evoking and planning (Tip #114). Or you could use the simple format of exploring importance and confidence to make the change. Stay with importance until your client says it is at least at 7 on a 1 to 10 scale and then use exploring confidence to make the change (Tips #20 and #42).

• You may wish to practice guiding a client to a SMART goal. Again ask your colleague/client to discuss a possible change, ideally one that she really wants to do and has not found a way to do yet. Keep Tip #124 in front of you and form open-ended questions that you believe will cause the goal to be smarter. If you find you have advice for your client, this would be a time to also practice giving advice effectively (Tips #59 and #131).

Practice providing advice in a neutral manner: Brainstorm with your colleague a list of the typical advice you give in your setting, then work together to form statements, avoiding imperatives (Tip #39).

• A fun way for each of you to benefit at the same time is to take turns doing a real play where the topic is making a change in your counseling process. When you are the client, think of one thing you might want to focus on changing (e.g., making more reflections, including summaries in the middle of a session, allowing more silence, etc.). The counselor practices all the skills while helping the client explore this change. After both sides, you each will have something to work on before the next time you meet.

After each real play, take some time to debrief:
• First, counselor, what do you think went well? What might you do differently next time?
• When giving feedback to a colleague, you might find the sandwich approach in Tip #111 useful.

A note about real plays vs. role plays: You certainly could each practice the skills with one of you role-playing a client. If this works well for you, great. Most people find that the tendency is to play a difficult client, even when you don’t intend to. When practicing new skills, it’s easier to do it with a relatively easy client at first. You probably have plenty of difficult clients in your practice. Another reason that real plays work well is that your client will respond to you naturally. You get immediate, real feedback about how you are doing.

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