Meaning of communication

Communication is the exchange of a message or messages between two or more persons.

The message may be verbal, non-verbal or both verbal and non-verbal. For communication to take place there must be a sender, a message and the receiver. The message received may be different form the message sent because the perception of the receiver may differ from the sender’s perception.

The sender of the message can only be certain that is has been rightly received after he gets a response (feedback) from the receiver. This again may be verbal, non-verbal or simultaneously both.

According to Gichinga (2003) there are three components to the message, each contributing different portions to the communication. One is the spoken word (verbal) that is said to contribute 7%, body posture and gestures contribute 38% while the voice

tone and the inflection contribute 55%.



Written, oral

This is the written or spoken message. In couseling a lot of the communication that takes place is oral. The counselor communicates to the counselee through the spoken words, and the counselee also replies in spoken words. However, as we have seen from the explanation above oral communication only takes a portion of the entire communication.

Written communication is also used in counseling as a form of therapy. This is used for example in instances where the counselee has some unfinished business with someone who has since died or who is beyond their reach. The counselee is asked to communicate to the person through a letter and express their feelings about the business. While doing so there may be a ventilation of emotions, after which the counselee experiences relief. A counselee who for example still harbors bitterness towards a relative who has long died could be asked to write to the relative, explain to them the event that brought the bitterness and finally express their forgiveness to them.

Optical , pictorial

Optical communication has to do with sending of messages through a media that requires one to use the sight senses to receive. This is mainly the use of drawings, pictures and paintings to communicate. A lot of emotion is communicated through such pictures, drawings and paintings.

In counseling optical or pictorial communications can be therapeutic especially when used by children or counselees who are not very good in expressing their feelings verbally. Drawing or painting can be used to ventilate locked up feelings and emotions.


This is the sending of messages through use of culturally held symbols such as drums, cow horn, carvings and so on. These symbols hold a specific meaning to a person depending on the cultural beliefs. Exploration about such communication to a person meaning could be therapeutic to some counselees.

Body language, touch

This communication deals with how closely the participants are to touching, the physical contact, and the body part positioning. It also deals with how people are touching one another including holding; feeling, prolonged holding, spot touching, pressing against, accidental brushing, or not touching at all.

Touch may be used as a form of therapy to communicate feelings of  “I care”. It is a reassuring gesture used during traumatic moments and also during  grief.


This refers to use  of the body spacing and what it means/communicates. Social ,intimate and personal distance is correlated with physical distance. Edward T. Hall in the Wikipedia encyclopedia physical distance of 1.5 feet to 4 feet is considered as personal distance and is normally reserved for interactions among good friends.

5 feet to 12feet apart if considered social distance and is for interactions among acquaintances. 12 feet to 25 feet is public distance used for public speaking. The distance maintained in counseling between the counselor and counselee communicates te kind of interaction between the two.


Olfactory (smell)

The communication deals in the kind and degree of odour or smell detected by each person from the other what it means to them. Different smell could be interpreted differently by different people. While odour feelings are very personal perceptions, individual reactions are related to gender, age, sate of health, and private affectations. Use of perfume by the counselor could be interpreted as a turning on communication by one counselee while it could be repulsive to another.

General observation

This communication deals with messages that the receiver is able to see or hear without much effort. They have to do with the general behaviour, and presentation of the sender.

For example the way one is dressed can be easily observed, or the way one moves their certain body parts e.g. fist, lips, eyes and so on. The tone and quality of voice can also be observed.

General observation about a counselee can communicate certain feelings an emotion and their intensity. It can also communicate and initial state of the counselee. For example a counselee who comes into therapy dirty and shabbily dressed could communicate a condition that may require further assessment.


Temporal communication has to do with relying messages conserving the dynamics of the present moment. It is communication of the feelings and emotions of the present moment—the here and now.

Challenges of each type of communication in counseling

Some of the challenges of oral communication include:

  • The reluctance of the counselee to talk which mean that the counselor may not be able to access that information.
  • Oral communication also requires that the counselor is able to listen very actively in order to receive the said, implied and unsaid message. The counselor must also be able to use the skills adequately in order to enable the counselee to explore deeper and get in touch with the effective part of other communication.
  • Some counselees may not consent to written communication as they may find it too threatening.
  • Optical and pictorial communication requires a counselor who is trained in interpretation of pictures, paints and drawings so that they are able to monitor the emotions and their intensity.
  • Artifacts communication requires that the counselor understand the culture of the counselee in order to fully perceive and appreciate it.
  • Body language and touch cold send the wrong message and is prone to misinterpretation and abuse. It also brings the challenge of boundary setting in the interaction of the counselor and counselee. It presents an ethical issue.
  • Special communication presents a cultural challenge. Hall notes that different cultures maintain different standards of personal space. In Latin cultures, for instance, those relative distances are smaller, and people tend to be more comfortable standing close to each other; in Nordie cultures the opposite is true. Comfortable personal distances also depend on the culture, social situation, gender, and individual preference.
  • Olfactory communication is prone to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. A counselor’s use of perfume may be interpreted as sending some particular message. Some smells and odour may cause feelings of transference in the counselee.
  • General observation may be misinterpreted. A counselor may classify a counselee’s case under abnormal psychology because of the unkempt way they look, while in reality the counselee could have undergone some experience such as fire to his property and so he has no clothes to change. Other observations may require the counselor to seek for clarification from the counselee, failure to which he will misinterpret them.

Communication skills in counseling

Communication skills in counseling include attending skills. These communicate the counselor’s presence to the counselee. These have to do with the room arrangement and with the sitting position (remember SOLER)

Another communication skill is active listening which is purposeful listening. It involves listening to both the said and unsaid messages. It goes hand in hand with the skills of paraphrasing, summarizing, silence and reflection of feelings.

Another communication skill is that of giving feedback. This is providing the counselee with information about how you as the counselor experience them. In giving feedback you need to concrete, own your feedback, avoid blaming the counselee and offer both positive and negative feedback.

Another communication skills is that of providing information. This is providing the counselee with information that they may be lacking, and that could help them to reassess their concerns. In providing information, ensure that it is brief, that the counselee understands what you are saying and that you do not confuse the information with advice.

Other communication skills include self disclosure and immediacy. For the counselor to use these skills effectively, he/she needs to ensure that the time he uses them is right. He also needs to be clear and to the point i.e concrete.

The counsellor needs the following basic communication skills to do effective counselling:

  1. Attending
    Attending refers to the ways in which counsellors can be “with” their clients, both physically and psychologically. Effective attending tells clients that you are with them and that they can share their world with you. Effective attending also puts you in a position to listen carefully to what your clients are saying. The acronym SOLERcan be used to help you to show your inner attitudes and values of respect and genuineness towards a client (Egan.)

S: Squarely face your client. Adopt a bodily posture that indicates involvement with your client. (A more angled position may be preferable for some clients – as long as you pay attention to the client.) A desk between you and your client may, for instance, create a psychological barrier between you.

O: Open posture. Ask yourself to what degree your posture communicates openness and availability to the client. Crossed legs and crossed arms may be interpreted as diminished involvement with the client or even unavailability or remoteness, while an open posture can be a sign that you are open to the client and to what he or she has to say.

L: Lean toward the client (when appropriate) to show your involvement and interest. To lean back from your client may convey the opposite message.

E: Eye contact with a client conveys the message that you are interested in what the client has to say. If you catch yourself looking away frequently, ask yourself why you are reluctant to get involved with this person or why you feel so uncomfortable in his or her presence. Be aware of the fact that direct eye contact is not regarded as acceptable in all cultures.

R: Try to be relaxed or natural with the client. Don’t fidget nervously or engage in distracting facial expressions. The client may begin to wonder what it is in himself or herself that makes you so nervous! Being relaxed means that you are comfortable with using your body as a vehicle of personal contact and expression and for putting the client at ease.

Effective attending puts counsellors in a position to listen carefully to what their clients are saying or not saying.

  1. Listening
    Listening refers to the ability of counsellors to capture and understand the messages clients communicate as they tell their stories, whether those messages are transmitted verbally or nonverbally.

Active listening involves the following four skills:

  • Listening to and understanding the client’s verbal messages. When a client tells you his or her story, it usually comprises a mixture of experiences (what happened to him or her), behaviours (what the client did or failed to do), and affect (the feelings or emotions associated with the experiences and behaviour). The counsellor has to listen to the mix of experiences, behaviour and feelings the client uses to describe his or her problem situation. Also “hear” what the client is not saying.
  • Listening to and interpreting the client’s nonverbal messages. Counsellors should learn how to listen to and read nonverbal messages such as bodily behaviour (posture, body movement and gestures), facial expressions (smiles, frowns, raised eyebrows, twisted lips), voice? related behaviour (tone, pitch, voice level, intensity, inflection, spacing of words, emphases, pauses, silences and fluency), observable physiological responses (quickened breathing, a temporary rash, blushing, paleness, pupil dilation), general appearance (grooming and dress), and physical appearance (fitness, height, weight, complexion). Counsellors need to learn how to “read” these messages without distorting or over? interpreting them.
  • Listening to and understanding the client in context. The counsellor should listen to the whole person in the context of his or her social settings.
  • Listening with empathy. Empathic listening involves attending, observing and listening (“being with”) in such a way that the counsellor develops an understanding of the client and his or her world. The counsellor should put his or her own concerns aside to be fully “with” their clients.

Active listening is unfortunately not an easy skill to acquire. Counsellors should be aware of the following hindrances to effective listening (Egan, 1998):

  • Inadequate listening: It is easy to be distracted from what other people are saying if one allows oneself to get lost in one’s own thoughts or if one begins to think what one intends to say in reply. Counsellors are also often distracted because they have problems of their own, feel ill, or because they become distracted by social and cultural differences between themselves and their clients. All these factors make it difficult to listen to and understand their clients.
  • Evaluative listening: Most people listen evaluatively to others. This means that they are judging and labelling what the other person is saying as either right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, relevant/irrelevant etc. They then tend to respond evaluatively as well.
  • Filtered listening: We tend to listen to ourselves, other people and the world around us through biased (often prejudiced) filters. Filtered listening distorts our understanding of our clients.
  • Labels as filters: Diagnostic labels can prevent you from really listening to your client. If you see a client as “that women with Aids”, your ability to listen empathetically to her problems will be severely distorted and diminished.
  • Fact? centred rather than person? centred listening: Asking only informational or factual questions won’t solve the client’s problems. Listen to the client’s whole context and focus on themes and core messages.
  • Rehearsing: If you mentally rehearse your answers, you are also not listening attentively. Counsellors who listen carefully to the themes and core messages in a client’s story always know how to respond. The response may not be a fluent, eloquent or “practised” one, but it will at least be sincere and appropriate.
  • Sympathetic listening: Although sympathy has it’s place in human transactions, the “use” of sympathy is limited in the helping relationship because it can distort the counsellor’s listening to the client’s story. To sympathise with someone is to become that person’s “accomplice”. Sympathy conveys pity and even complicity, and pity for the client can diminish the extent to which you can help the client.
  1. Basic empathy
  • Basic empathy involves listening to clients, understanding them and their concerns as best as we can, and communicating this understanding to them in such a way that they might understand themselves more fully and act on their understanding (Egan, 1998).
  • To listen with empathy means that the counsellor must temporarily forget about his or her own frame of reference and try to see the client’s world and the way the client sees him or herself as though he or she were seeing it through the eyes of the client.
  • Empathy is thus the ability to recognise and acknowledge the feelings of another person without experiencing those same emotions. It is an attempt to understand the world of the client by temporarily “stepping into his or her shoes”.
  • This understanding of the client’s world must then be shared with the client in either a verbal or non-verbal way.

Some of the stumbling blocks to effective empathy are the following:

  • Avoid distracting questions. Counsellors often ask questions to get more information from the client in order to pursue their own agendas. They do this at the expense of the client, i.e. they ignore the feelings that the client expressed about his or her experiences.
  • Avoid using clichés. Clichés are hollow, and they communicate the message to the client that his or her problems are not serious. Avoid saying: “I know how you feel” because you don’t.
  • Empathy is not interpreting. The counsellor should respond to the client’s feelings and should not distort the content of what the client is telling the counsellor.
  • Although giving advice has its place in counselling, it should be used sparingly to honour the value of self?responsibility.
  • To merely repeat what the client has said is not empathy but parroting. Counsellors who “parrot” what the client said, do not understand the client, are not “with” the client, and show no respect for the client. Empathy should always add something to the conversation.
  • Empathy is not the same as sympathy. To sympathise with a client is to show pity, condolence and compassion – all well? intentioned traits but not very helpful in counselling.
  • Avoid confrontation and arguments with the client.
  1. Probing or questioning
    Probing involves statements and questions from the counsellor that enable clients to explore more fully any relevant issue of their lives. Probes can take the form of statements, questions, requests, single word or phrases and non-verbal prompts.

Probes or questions serve the following purposes:

  • to encourage non-assertive or reluctant clients to tell their stories
  • to help clients to remain focussed on relevant and important issues
  • to help clients to identify experiences, behaviours and feelings that give a fuller picture to their story, in other words, to fill in missing pieces of the picture
  • to help clients to move forward in the helping process
  • to help clients understand themselves and their problem situations more fully

Keep the following in mind when you use probes or questions:

  • Use questions with caution.
  • Don’t ask too many questions. They make clients feel “grilled”, and they often serve as fillers when counsellors don’t know what else to do.
  • Don’t ask a question if you don’t really want to know the answer!
  • If you ask two questions in a row, it is probably one question too much.
  • Although close-ended questions have there place, avoid asking too many close-ended questions that begin with “does”, “did”, or “is”.
  • Ask open-ended questions – that is, questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer. Start sentences with: “how”, “tell me about”, or “what”. Open-ended questions are non-threatening and they encourage description.
  1. Summarising
    It is sometimes useful for the counsellor to summarise what was said in a session so as to provide a focus to what was previously discussed, and so as to challenge the client to move forward. Summaries are particularly helpful under the following circumstances:
  • At the beginning of a new session. A summary of this point can give direction to clients who do not know where to start; it can prevent clients from merely repeating what they have already said, and it can pressure a client to move forwards.
  • When a session seems to be going nowhere. In such circumstances, a summary may help to focus the client.
  • When a client gets stuck. In such a situation, a summary may help to move the client forward so that he or she can investigate other parts of his or her story.

Integrating communication skills
Communication skills should be integrated in a natural way in the counselling process. Skilled counselors continually attend and listen, and use a mix of empathy and probes to help the client to come to grips with their problems. Which communication skills will be used and how they will be used depends on the client, the needs of the client and the problem situation

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