FOCUSING & CHALLENGING SKILLS Focused and Selective Attention

theory and practice of counseling  FOCUSING & CHALLENGING SKILLS:

1. Focus Analysis Seven Dimensions of Microskill Focus Analysis

It is apparent that focus can be approached in different ways. Thus, it is important that we consider all possible aspects of clients’ problems. The seven dimensions of microskill focus analysis listed below are vital for understanding what is happening in any counseling session.

Client focus

“Sumaira, you feel confused and lonely. You’re unsure of what you want to do.”

This response contains four personal references to the client. Although counseling generally recommends a client focus, this may be culturally inappropriate in some situations. The client focus approach puts the problem squarely on Sumaira and tends to ignore family factors and gender issues.

Other focus

“Tell me more about your husband.”

”What’s going on with Rehan?” (Client’s son)

In this case, the client likely will start telling about her husband and his fights. The other question would result in a focus on the son. For some clients, however, another focus may be more appropriate than a client focus, as they may feel uncomfortable talking about themselves in the early stages of the helping process.

Family focus

Family focus is to understand the importance of family history and family interaction. A child who bullies on the playground may be acting out an abusive pattern at home. Responses that focus on the family include:

  • “How would your son’s bullying relate to what’s going on in the family?” or
  • “Family issues often reflect what happens in the individual.
  • Tell me more about what’s happening in your family“

Problem/Main Theme Focus

  • Husband’s drug taking
  • Any possible emergency

In crises, clients often need concrete problems solved, particularly in times of crisis, and a focus on the individual client could be inappropriate at times.

Interviewer Focus

“I also grew up in a family where there were frequent rows”

Focusing on your own experience may be useful as a self-disclosure or feedback technique, and it may help develop mutuality with the client. As rapport develops, such responses may be increasingly helpful. However, they must not be overdone. Counseling is for the client, not for the counselor.

“We” Focus

“Right now we seem to be getting somewhere. The two of us ought to be able to generate some good ideas using what we know.”

This type of mutual sharing frequently appears in humanistically oriented interviews. It is also characteristic of feminist counseling and therapy in which the helper frequently joins the client as an advocate.

Cultural/ Environmental/ Contextual Focus

There may be broader social, cultural, racial, sex-role and economic issues that might provide an insight into the problem (Ivey, 1994). Helpers with a multicultural or feminist orientation often effectively use this focus to produce change. Most counseling theories, particularly the major ones, often overlook the cultural/environmental context and the historical background of the individual.

Approach Focused Responding with Caution

It is important that the focus shall be done with caution. For instance, an excessive focus on client’s mother-in-law’s behaviour might block the client from looking at her own behaviour. However, client might better examine her own behaviour if assisted to focus on her mother-in-law’s perspective as well as her own. Another problem is that counselors may not focus sufficiently on some topic areas.

2. Focused Exploration

Focused exploration can follow from focused responding and it refers to a specific part of client’s statements. The counselor might respond to a specific part of client’s statement; for instance, client’s perceptions of her mother-in-law, and explore them further before moving on to repeating the same process with another part of her statement: for instance, controlling her temper.

• Three ways to establish focus:

  1. To ask clients to prioritize areas for exploration.
  2. Counselors may wish to initiate explorations of specific areas.
  3. Counselors may wish to focus further when exploring specific areas.

Counsellors can use focusing skills to collect information on parts of problems not mentioned by the clients.

Challenging/ Confrontation Skills

Challenges focus on discrepant, inconsistent and mixed messages that counselors perceive that clients send. We often think of confrontation as a hostile and aggressive act. In counseling and therapy, confrontation is usually a far more gentle process in which, we point out to the client’s discrepancies between or among attitudes, thoughts, or behaviors. In a confrontation, individuals are faced directly with the fact that they may be saying other than what they mean, or doing other than what they say.

‘Put most simply, challenge is an invitation to examine internal or external behavior that seems to be self-defeating, harmful to others, or both – and to change that behavior’ (Egan, 1994, p. 158). ‘Egan’s observation consists of two parts: first, developing new perspectives; second, translating these new perspectives into action. Before you confront someone you want to make sure the relationship is strong and able to withstand the challenge of the confrontation.

Challenging Skills

  • Challenging clients to speak for themselves
  • Challenging mixed messages
  • Challenging possible distortions of reality
  • Not acknowledging choice
  • Reframing

Challenging Clients to Speak for Themselves

  • By failing to send ‘I’ messages, clients may distance themselves from their feelings, thoughts and actions.
  • Owning a feeling

Clients ‘non-I’ message: ‘He is impossible when he behaves like that.’

Client’s ‘I’ message: ‘I feel hurt and frustrated at his behavior.’

Frequently clients require help in speaking for themselves. Ways in which clients avoid speaking for themselves include making statements starting with words like ‘you’, ‘people’, ‘we’, and ‘it’.

  • Owning a Thought
  • Client’s ‘non-I’ message: ‘What do you think about women serving in the forces in combat roles?’
  • Client’s ‘I’ message: ‘I think women should/should not serve in the forces in combat roles.’
  • Owning an Action
  • Clients’ non- I message: ‘The car crashed into the garage door.’
  • Client’s ‘I’ message: ‘I crashed the car into the garage door.’

Sometimes clients avoid sending I messages by asking questions, in the hope that they can agree with the answer.

Encouraging Clients to Send ‘I’ Messages

Respond as though clients send ‘I’ messages. You can respond to clients in ways that use the word ‘you’ as though they had sent an ‘I’ message, even when they have not. For instance, if a client says: He is impossible when he behaves like that’, you might respond with ‘You feel hurt and frustrated at his behaviour.’ Your response implicitly challenges the client to express feelings directly.

  • Request that clients send ‘I’ messages. If clients fail to send ‘I’ messages consider openly drawing this to their attention. ‘You’re asking me what I think about women in combat roles, but I get the impression you have your own ideas on this matter.’ Even more direct is to ask clients: ‘Please use the word “I” when you wish to own a feeling, thought or action.’ Where appropriate, you can educate clients to the distinction between ‘I’ messages and ‘non-I’ messages.
  • Demonstrate sending ‘I’ messages.

If you are open in your own behaviour and use I messages to own your feelings, thoughts and behaviour, your example may help clients to do likewise.

Challenging Mixed Messages

  • Discrepancy between verbal, voice and body messages. ‘On the one hand you say that you are nervous, but you smile.’
  • Discrepancy within verbal messages. Voice and body messages. Discrepancy within verbal messages. ‘You say you are doing poorly, but report being in the top 25 per cent of your class.’
  • Discrepancy between words and actions. ‘You say you are a very committed person, but you take so many days off your work.’
  • Discrepancy between past and present statements. ‘You now say you hate her, but about ten minutes ago you were saying how much you loved her.’
  • Counselors can also explore the consequences of clients sending mixed messages in their relationships
  • outside of counselling. Example: “You have said you want to change this behavior but it seems you keep doing it over and over again. Help me to understand what is going on and how repeating this pattern is helpful to you.”

Challenging Possible Distortions of Reality

• Clients may have unrealistic perceptions that can harm rather than help them.

Sometimes counselors need either to challenge such perceptions directly or to assist clients to test the reality of their own perceptions.


‘They are all out to get me.’ ‘I have no friends.’ ‘I’m a terrible mother.’ ‘I’m not good with women (or men).’ ‘She (or he) doesn’t love me any more.’

• Reasons of such distortions

  1. Clients often jump co conclusions on insufficient evidence (‘I have no friends’), and use black and white thinking (‘Either I’m perfect or no good at all’). They may also fail to own responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and actions (‘They made me do it’). Use your judgment about whether to continue listening within their internal viewpoints or to challenge their possible distortions of reality.
  2. With the questions ‘Where’s the evidence?’ and ‘Is there any other way of looking at that?’ you invite speakers to produce their own evidence or provide different perceptions to confirm or negate their version of reality. On other occasions you may suggest some evidence from your external viewpoint.

Challenging Not Acknowledging Choice

  • Lifeskills counseling heavily emphasizes personal responsibility. One way to do this is to highlight their choice processes.
  • Counselor can confront clients with their role as choosers in their lives. Another example is that of Shaista, aged 37, who says of her father: ‘I resent having to visit him every weekend.’ Here the counselor responds by both reflecting her resentment and challenging her seeming
  • failure to assume responsibility for being a chooser: ‘You feel resentful, but I wonder whether you sufficiently acknowledge that you choose to visit him every weekend.’
  • If a client says ‘I can’t do that’, the counselor may ask ‘Can you say “I won’t do that?”

Challenging by Reframing

  • Counselors may also challenge clients’ existing perceptions by offering new perspectives. Though the facts may remain the same, the picture may look different in a new frame.
  • ‘Sometimes a skillful counselor can change the way a client perceives events or situations by “reframing” the picture which the client has described’
  • ‘Reframing consists of seeing these negative qualities in a different light’ (Beck, 1988, p. 267)

Case Example:

Zeeshan, 16, perceived his mother as disliking him because she was always nagging him about doing household chores. The counselor acknowledged his anger, but offered the reframe that his mother was a single parent who had to go to work to support the family and got very tired because she had more on her plate than she could handle. When she felt exhausted, she became irritable.

In the above example, ‘the nagging mother who dislikes me’ gets reframed as ‘the overtired and overwhelmed single parent’.

How to Challenge?

  • Start with reflecting Always start your response by showing that you have heard and understood clients’ messages. Then build
  • on this understanding with your challenging response. This way you are more likely to keep clients’ ears open to your viewpoint.
  • Where possible, help clients to challenge themselves.
  • Assisting clients in self-challenging often leads to less resistance than directly challenging them from your external viewpoint.
  • Do not talk down Keep your challenges at a democratic level.
  • Use a minimum amount of ‘muscle’ Only challenge as strongly as your goal requires. Strong challenges can create resistances.
  • Avoid threatening voice and body messages
  • Try to avoid threatening voice and body messages – raising your voice and pointing your finger are extreme examples.
  • Leave the ultimate responsibility with clients Allow clients to decide whether your challenges actually help them to move forward in their explorations.
  • Do not overdo it No one likes being persistently challenged. With constant challenges you create an unsafe emotional climate. An overly confronting counselor can retard client growth, as can an overly cautious therapist. Intentional counseling requires a careful balance of confrontation with supporting qualities of warmth, positive regard,and respect. The empathic therapist is one who can maintain a balance, a ‘‘push-pull,” of confrontation and support by utilizing a wide variety of counseling skills and theories.
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