(Re-)constructing Lifeworlds: The Counsellor and the Social Scientist

Today I completed my counselling course. And tomorrow I’m already flying back home, three months passed quite quickly. The past couple of weeks I have been busy mostly with interviews and I have met interesting people from very different professional areas for example a counsellor specialized in anger and stress counselling.

But as today was all about finishing my basic counselling course, I want to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the commonalities of two different professions: the counsellor and the social scientist. Although the goals are very different, both parties share the common interest of (re-)constructing lifeworlds, meaning to deepen the understanding of another human being, his every day life, his dreams, his fears, in short: his reality.

During my counselling course, I have learnt that two aspects are crucial for a successful counselling: creating an atmosphere in which the client will feel free from being judged for his actions, thoughts or feelings and establishing a trustful relationship. The same holds true for the social scientist, except for the fact that we don’t speak of clients but rather of interviewees, informants or stakeholders. When doing research – be it long term participant observation or once-off semi-structured interviews – one of the most important elements is etsbalishing relationships with those people you want to get to know more about and creating a situation in which they feel at ease: after all, you are the one snooping around in their lives, taking notes or even recording every word they say! Needless to say, counselling and research both call for absolute confidentiality. If clients or informants don’t trust that you treat their stories confidentially and anonymously, chances of success are fairly low.

Another common feature of both counselling and research in the social sciences lies in specific conversational techniques, in the art of asking ‘the right questions’ in order to receive more information concerning the lifeworld of the client or interviewee. However, the main difference here is the intention of the professional: whereas in counselling, questions should be non-directive and are mainly employed as a tool in order to enable the client to explore his lifeworld further, the researcher very much tries to direct the conversation, already having a couple of interesting subjects she wants to address in the back of her head. Of course, interviews always have explorative components and the informant to a large degree steers the flow of topics herself. However, the approach is more directive. This can be explained by the inherently different interests of the counsellor and the social scientist. Although both operate in the area of (re-)constructing lifeworlds, the counsellor is basically a problem solving assistant. She helps clients to reconstructs lifeworlds and assists in illuminating and exploring personal issues with the goal of empowering the client to tackle those issues and support him to actively change and construct his lifeworld. As a social researcher, reconstructing lifeworlds is important for being able to answer in-depth questions about social phenomena of which the informant is regarded an expert. The goal is not to help a person change, the undertaking is not therapeutic by nature.

However, sometimes these differences are not as clear-cut and the lines between counselling and research are blurred. That happens for example when interviewees thank me at the end of the interview and explain that it has been a very fruitful opportunity for them to think and talk about parts of their everyday lives that usually remain unquestioned. For example only recently, one of my informants who is working as a counsellor in the area of domestic violence thanked me after our one and a half hour long conversation for devoting my time to him. He stated that I had really made him feel important. Another interviewee also thanked me after an interview and told me that she had not been aware of all those aspects of her job until we talked about it…

Those are moments in which I know I have done a good job and not only in respect of my research.

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