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4 The Guidance Interview - techniques
The Skilled Helper, by Gerard Egan (1998) has probably had the most influence on modern guidance techniques. This recommends ways of helping people to manage their own problems and to develop opportunities fully. (A useful alternative, if you do not find this helpful, is Nelson-Jones, 1993).
Egan describes a problem-solving approach, but one which includes a focus on results, outcomes and achievements. This should incorporate a working knowledge of applied theories of developmental psychology, personality and other relevant factors; see the Models of Guidance section for a brief survey.
This section, however, is devoted to the technical side of conducting interviews. Although discussions of particular techniques are embedded within each section, such techniques may generally be used in any stage of the interview.
Egan proposes three stages for an interview. For our purposes, we shall refer to these as agreement, exploration and strategy.
Stage 1: Agreement. The interview should find out about the person and their circumstances (the current situation if a follow-up interview) and should lead to agreement of the agenda, the issue or issues which will be tackled in the interview.
This vital stage should not be hurried. There are various dangers of skimping this stage, presumably with the intention of using valuable time to get at the ‘meat’ of the interview. In vocational guidance, for example, the client may enter an interview with a casually considered career topic or one which has been suggested by a peer or relative; seizing on this without other preliminary discussion may lead down a blind alley, wasting time. Similarly, the initial pretext for a counselling session may be a trigger but not the main issue. In the writer’s experience, many interviews which fail to achieve their objectives are one’s with insufficient work in the initial phase of the interview.
Apart from deciding the content of the interview, this stage is also a time for establishing empathy. Trust should be engendered here: the client, for example, should have a clarification of mutual roles and confidentiality within the interview.
This is a time for warming up the client. An interest in what the person has to say and an imaginative flexible approach to that individual is important. Of the techniques to be used, summarising is particularly important here. Summing up the discussions on a regular basis allows both parties to ascertain if the content has been heard correctly, demonstrates your interest, helps to clarify in the client’s mind what is being discussed and provides an effective standpoint for further discussion. As a practical hint, it should be noted that summarising is a useful way of coping with a stalled or halting interview at any stage of the interview. Examples of summaries include: “so you think that .... ”; “from what you’ve been saying, ....”, “would I be right in saying?”, etc.
Questioning is a clearly relevant technique at this stage. In general, open-ended questions are recommended. These tend to start with “why do you feel ...”, “tell me (more) about ...”, “what can you tell me about ...”, “why do you think that ...”, etc. Such questions tend to lead to an opening out of responses from the other person; intelligently used and with variation, they can effectively develop discussion.
When, for example, the person mentions computing as an area of interest, a useful career choice question may be “what do you mean by computing”; you may then find out their level of understanding (do they really mean information technology, computer science, programming?), if this is viewed as a potentially core vocation or a tool on the periphery of some other as yet unknown sphere of interest (travel, administration?) and likely level of interest. Less than an enthusiastic gleam in the eye should lead to further questioning at this stage, perhaps asking if they have considered other career paths.
Close-ended questions, not usually the tools of choice in interviews, tend to lead to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Such questions start with “is this”, “do you agree with”, “do you think/feel ...”, etc. As these tend to limit responses, they should be used sparingly. In training, interviewers may use them without realising it; the best way to reduce their frequency is to consciously practise using open ended questions regularly.
Close-ended questions may sometimes be used with effect, however, very early on in an interview. Working with someone who appears particularly reticent or ill at ease, you may try the ‘easy ones first’ approach. “So you’re in your last year of school?”, “I gather you’re not feeling at your best” or “so you decided to come in again” may just elicit “yes or no”, but this may then be followed up by an open question. The point here is to get the person into the mode of speaking to you.
You may also need to ask tightly devised questions when assessing a person’s attainments or abilities. Particularly with younger clients in careers interviews, a knowledge of educational qualifications may be vital as a starting point.
Do not use close-ended questions persistently, however.
This stage should be concluded by agreement, or ‘contracting’, of an agenda for the rest of the interview. This does not usually need to be formal, but should be clear about what is needed from the interview, where necessary prioritising in terms of time restraints, importance and practicalities.
It should be noted that the goals contracted at the end of Stage 1 do not have to be adhered to slavishly. The needs of the client must come first. New goals may emerge later as more appropriate; or the client has a greater (or lesser) understanding of the issue than you had previously thought.
Listen to the client, paying attention to the content of what is said and the way in which it is said. Try to go along at a rate and level appropriate to the individual.
Stage 2: Exploration.
This stage, the body of the interview, may include - depending on the agreed agenda - a discussion of future possibilities (with likely implications and consequences), in-depth discussion of an issue or subject, and a choice of goals. Egan (1998) suggests that commitment is an issue at this stage. Important matters to be considered include a client’s willingness to face particular issues, how motivated they are to achieve particular goals and how realistic are their viewpoints.
People often have ‘blind spots’ (see Johari’s Window in the Models of Guidance section for one way of looking at these) or distorted perceptions (see also Berne, 1964, 1974). Although you are unlikely to deal formally with these in an interview (possibly excepting psychotherapy candidates), consideration is necessary in gaining an insight into blockages and to progress towards positive goals.
Such progression may include challenging. This does not have to mean confrontation. There have been periods in the history of social work and psychotherapy when the term ‘honesty’ was used to justify unpleasant and irresponsible confrontations. Confrontation may not lead to constructive goals, often leading to alienation between the parties and a subsequent failure to achieve the desired targets; it may even lead to a fresh state of trauma or aggression.
Challenging may, however, constitute a questioning of assumptions. Gentle versions of such challenges may include “I wonder if that’s always the case”, “how did you get that information?” and “how do you think you could follow that up?”
Another problem may be too much talking. One way of slowing someone down is to respond with less prompts or use close-ended questions to limit the scope of a discussion and refocus. You do not have to constrict yourself to questions which leading to yes or no. Content-driven questions such as “which approach do you like best?”, “what do you think is the best way?” may narrower the focus.
Beware of talking too much yourself. A common shortcoming of many advisers, including the author, this may prevent adequate exploration and may also stop the client from viewing an idea or action as truly their own and relevant, making it less likely that they will do something after the interview. Do not, however, ignore the importance of passing on information; try, however, to wait until you are sure it is appropriate.
As mentioned previously, those who tend not to say much may be more encouraged by open-ended questions. Another way to encourage someone is to build on what they already know. Prompts - nods, “yes”, “mm” and paraphrasing of what the person has already said - may all be useful. Do try to vary prompts, as too much of one technique will be seen by the client as comic or worse.
Do not always assume that your client is wrong in his or her emphasis, however, or that a deviation is a problem within the personal interaction. Changes within the exploration stage this may reflect motivation. As motivational factors are crucial to both likely future success and attention at the interview, you ignore changes of focus at your peril. As mentioned before, Stage 1 agreements can be scrapped if a more appropriate target presents itself.
Although this section has devoted itself to techniques, do not underestimate the importance of silences. Where this is clearly a matter of a person thinking, or being loaded with emotional tension or indecision, give time.
Stage 3: Strategy.
It is not sufficient merely to seek insight, an understanding of an issue. Insight should be linked to action. Such actions should be achievable, relevant to the clients’ needs, with clear times for execution; if other people are to do something, their roles should also be clear. Avoid the temptation to think up all the actions yourself, as people are less likely to take to heart ideas which they have spent little time considering; the more varied the activities based around an idea, the more effective the learning is likely to be.
Agreed strategies should be written. Individuals do not tend to remember very much of a set of complex ideas, however vivid they may appear at the time. Action plans tend to vary with different organisations and according to function. It should be remembered that the client should have a copy of this as soon as possible, to reinforce any learning which has taken place, and your copy should be kept safely for the purposes of confidentiality.
There is no formula to ensure a seamless mixture of listening and techniques. Variation of techniques is important, as is a concentration on listening. This will seem more ‘natural’ after practice.
Adult clients may tend to leap in with their preoccupation without allowing you to proceed in the way you expect. Interruption to take them through your chosen process may inhibit the client and thus the dynamics of relationship: go with the flow, as you can return to agreeing an agenda when you both have a clear idea of where you are going.
Lack of a clear divide between stages is not too big a problem, so long as agreeing an agenda, exploration and strategising all take place and are in the client’s interests. Seamless integration between stages may indeed indicate an effective interview.
CareerSteer – career test for career choice www.careersteer.org