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  • Writer's pictureDale V Wayman, PhD

Language and Counseling

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

From my perspective, it seems that many counselors tend to agree that our emotions are housed in our first language. Many Adlerians agree and also posit that much of our emotions are housed in our infant (maybe gestational) pre-verbal connections. Let me share with you three unique language experiences I have had in my counseling practice. 1) I was counseling a young, urban professional woman in a South American country. She was consulting me for some personal issues. I opened the session in English, talking about confidentiality and similar issues and it seemed like we were off to a good start. She clearly understood. I then stated, "it seems like our emotions are rooted in our first language, would you like to counsel in Spanish?" She said, "por seguro." We proceeded and about 10 minutes into the session, she said in English, "I'm sorry but your Spanish is not very good, can we counsel in English?" I responded, "for sure." The session seemed to pick up steam and she came back for a few sessions (in English) afterwards. I think she got something out of our sessions together. I definitely learned Spanish (taught to me by gringos) was not as good as I thought it was. However, it was good for me to be familiar with Spanish as sometimes, she expressed an emotion in Spanish and I understood, intellectually but not emotionally/culturally what she was saying/feeling/meaning.

2) I was in a hospital in the Amazon jungle doing some counseling among the English-speaking staff there. I went there monthly and enjoyed my excursions into this "exotic" part of our world. A young indigenous couple that lived in the Amazon, showed up wanting help. They were triaged by the staff and found to not have medical issues but marital issues. This was interesting because Spanish was not their first language and Spanish is not my first language. So, we were counseling in the language that we both knew, but not very well. The session was quite difficult, there was hesitating and halting speech from them and from myself as well. It was quite tense, not from emotion, but from straining to understand each other. I gathered that she didn't like his drinking of alcohol and he didn't like that she got angry when he drank. In Spanish, I told him to pay attention to her "sentidos." At that point, they both burst out laughing, hugging each other, talking in their first language and pointing at me. (I should have said "sentimientos." Hint - sentir is to feel. Sentidos is senses (among other meanings). Sentimientos is feelings.) They definitely talked to me much more after that but I wasn't terribly adept at keeping up with their language which seemed to be a mixture of their first language and Spanish. I surmised it was a way that they were used to talking to each other. After about 20 minutes, they thanked me and went on their way. I definitely learned something...attempts at speaking/understanding our clients' language is appreciated, even if we make mistakes. Remember...Adlerians are not afraid of making mistakes in our counseling sessions (or life for that matter).

3) I was in an American mental health clinic and I was counseling this one gentleman and we were having a great session. Things were going well and he seemed to benefit from what was going on in the session. Suddenly, he stopped and with tears in his eyes, he said, "I don't know how to say what I am feeling in English. Nobody around here seems to understand my language." (This was a small clinic in a rural area of the United States.) I feel comfortable in English as it is my first language. I get along ok in Spanish and I am familiar with the Romantic and Germanic languages. I said something to him that I've never said in a session and haven't said since, but it just seemed, clinically, the right thing to say. I said, "I doubt I know your language either, but would you *run an experiment with me?" He said, "sure." I responded, "go ahead and say what you want to say in your language and I will listen." I displayed my best attending skills, my best non-verbal skills with minimal encouragers, and gave him my 100% undivided attention. I strained to figure out what he was saying, it seemed it was some Cryllic language. I was totally lost. However, I continued with my counseling skills and after about 10 minutes, where he was crying, yelling, deeply expressing himself, he stopped. He asked, "did you understand what I was talking about?" "No," I said, "but I could tell that you were telling my something very deeply emotional for you. How did that feel for me to hear but not understand you?" His response was very unusual, "I was convinced that you understood me. You seemed to know what I was talking about. Are you sure you didn't understand me?" I said, "yup, not a word." He burst out with a hearty laugh..."well, it sure helped. I feel much better. Thank you!" I definitely learned something...counseling skills are definitely helpful to people. We need not discount our ability to connect with someone non-verbally. I hope that these three examples help you, they certainly helped me!! *"run an experiment" is an Adlerian concept to help gain the client's cooperation and confidence

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