13 Tips How to Counsel (For the Non-Counselor)

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A lot of us have been there. A good friend, family member or loved one goes through or is going through a tough or difficult time. It can be a loss of a loved one, losing a job, a broken engagement, not getting accepted into  particular school or other issues. We may have been that person who they’ve turned to and we’ve advised them—however most of us may not know exactly how to advise them, guide them or counsel them effectively.

These tips shouldn’t be taken out of context and give anyone a license to think they can professionally counsel someone dealing with deep trauma or grief or anxiety. Seeking professional mental health help is important—these tips are for those who typically are the initial “first responders” or first point of contacts for folks dealing with grief, trauma or emotional or mental pain.

1) Be Sincere

The biggest thing when it comes to advising or counseling a friend, family member or loved one  is to be sincere in your efforts to counsel or guide them. If you’re pretending to guide, counsel a friend, family member or loved one just to get gossip material or the inside scoop on a situation it’s not only unethical, Islamic, but extremely offensive and can really cause more pain than good to your friend, family member or loved one.

2) Show Empathy

The biggest thing when counseling anyone is to show empathy. There is a stark difference between empathy and sympathy which is summarized in the video below.

Empathy is a core part of counseling and without it the exercise of counseling is extremely ineffective.

3) Listen

Listening is so crucial when it comes to counseling. When you listen you’re able to understand your friend, family member or loved one much better and can even identify and help guide or counsel them much more effectively. Also, listening can be a huge act in itself and that may be simply what your friend, family or loved one needs to heal from their situation, trauma or grief.

It can also help you identify whether your friend, family or loved one needs additional or professional counseling.

4) Keep Confidentiality

A huge part of counseling is keeping confidentiality. You may not be a professional counselor or bound by any non-disclosure agreements or legal statutes, but keeping your friend, family member or loved one’s confidentiality is so important. Often time when people are going through trauma or grief they are extremely vulnerable and not in a good state emotionally, psychologically or mentally. Breaching confidentiality and speaking to others about their situation, grief or trauma can add more pain, suffering, and trauma to your friend, family or loved one.

Breaching confidentiality should only happen when your friend, family member or loved one shows signs of suicidal tendencies or some sort of self-harming behavior.

5) Don’t Preach

The last thing a friend, family or loved one needs is a khutbah or a lecture about how dumb they were in their decision making or what they should and shouldn’t have done in their particular situation.  Also, bringing religion into a conversation in a negative manner can inflict more mental and emotional trauma and grief on your friend, family or loved one. Religion should only be brought in to encourage and provide hope and healing .

6) Don’t be Judgmental

This may be an extension of the previous point but it is so important to mention. The last thing someone needs to hear is how their decision-making was poor or silly or how bad of a person they are for acting a certain way or responding to a situation in the manner in which they did. Additionally, judgmental attitudes or comments will not help in healing the trauma or grief of your friend, family member or loved one.  Lastly, being condescending is also not a good way to help in the healing process at all.

7) Don’t Tell How (and how not) One should Grieve

This is probably the biggest mistake we make when advising a friend, family member or loved one. Individuals process trauma and grief pain in different ways. Never ever tell someone how to (and how not to) process their pain, trauma, or grief. This most probably cause more damage than good in helping your friend, family member or loved on get through their pain, trauma or grief.

8) Don’t Belittle Someone’s Trauma/Grief

We may often knowingly or unknowingly belittle someone’s grief/trauma/pain by calling it a “first world problem” or “compared to _____ this is nothing” or “What you went through is nothing like I went through” or similar statements are simply not helpful in helping your friend, family member or loved one heal. People handle stress, anxiety, depression, trauma and grief differently. Belittling one’s suffering is not only extremely insensitive, but also simply a cruel way to break a person even further or harm them emotionally or mentally.

Also, making fun of or mocking someone’s pain/suffering/trauma is probably the worst thing you can do to help someone heal.

“Do not mock a pain you haven’t endured” – Unknown

9) Give Space to Grieve

Sometimes friends, family members or loved ones may need space to grieve. Allow them to. Let them reach out to you if needed, but let them know you’re there. Some people may need that attention or a constant contact with you, but if they need space to think things through let them.

10) Only Advise When Asked

Often times a friend, family member or loved one may simply need a sounding board to listen to them and help them process situations, feelings and emotions. That in itself can be healing. Now, if they ask for help explicitly give them the advice, but to prematurely shoot off tips and advice can often not really help in allowing them to figure things out by themselves.

Allow people room to grow emotionally and learn to navigate their emotions, feelings and thoughts. Essentially be a coach and not like an overbearing parent who holds someone’s hand and doesn’t really allow them to grow and process their thoughts, idea, emotions and feelings.

11) Give Hope & Encouragement

This is important to help stabilize  and help a friend, family member or loved one heal. There are numerous stories in our tradition from the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and from the stories of the Prophets of Allah (peace be upon them all). Often times we romanticize their stories and make them out to be super human beings but often fail to realize that they too felt sadness, grief, trauma, fear, pain and other emotions/feelings. We should derive words of healing, hope and triumph over hardships from the Quran, the Hadith and the seerah (biography) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

12) Be With Them

Sometimes when depression and anxiety hits a friend, family member or a loved one the first sign is they avoid socializing with others. They find it hard to interact with others or they reduce their time spent with others. They spend time alone to often process their pain, trauma, grief, depression or anxiety. When you identify these tendencies allow them space, but also encourage them to be among others and/or you can simply hang out with them as a friend to be a shoulder to cry on and an ear who can listen to them.

13) Pray For Them

Lastly, pray for healing for your friend, family member or loved one. At the end of the day only Allah can heal the hearts and minds of the broken-hearted, depressed, and anxious. Sincerely pray for them and the combination of your prayer and you helping them through their difficulty inshaAllah will help them heal and become stronger emotionally, mentally, psychologically and spiritually.

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