ACA Blog

Marianela Medrano-Marra
Nov 16, 2009

The Counselor as Observer

Shifting from the laptop screen my eyes glance at the family of cardinals landing on the deck, one after the other, forming a red line, to then disperse in a disorderly manner. Their perky crests sticking up proudly, chests open, confidently pecking the seeds stuck between the boards, while a few finches dance their way around the openings in the hanging feeder. I push the computer aside to give the birds my undivided attention. A family of blue jays, five of them, arrives, and the cardinals fly away. The blue jays establish supremacy, and the finches too depart. One blue jay ventures so close to the glass door that I can see how the blue darkens in a circle around the neck, the wings and tail spotted with white and light blue. In the distance, I hear other jays singing out their dominant call. The visiting jay finds its way around, hopping from one end of the deck to the other, until a red-bellied woodpecker bullies it away. Not content with pecking at the suet feeder hanging to the left, the woodpecker flits to the cylinder feeder, and once again chases away the finches, who had ever so stubbornly returned. I look in ecstasy at the gleaming red cap, the slender body and the long beak and feast on the privilege of my seat.

The birds return, mingle, fly away, only to immediately come back. They form a colorful tapestry, and a vision of ongoing adjustment and adaptation, and I can’t help but reflect on the similarities between the complexity of their exchange and that of our human relationships. Despite the difficulties, they seem to make up their minds, or their instincts, I should say, and to be okay with each other. The scene repeats over and over, from one group of birds to another— from cardinals, to blue jays, finches, woodpeckers, orioles, and warblers. From my seat, I witness the complex simplicity of their interactions, and the similarities to ours—our need to find connection, and our tendency to disconnect. We too push each other, cuddle, tolerate, change our minds, share spaces in this dance we call relationship.

I think about the many stories we hear from our clients, stories of disconnection, of longing for connections, and also stories of profound connections they have with others. Like the birds, we too go through the dance, connecting and disconnecting, but unlike the birds we have the additive of emotions encoded in our cognition. Emotions make human interactions more complex. Observation provides the blueprint to understanding our clients' emotional messages encoded in their overt and covert expressive manifestations; it births understanding and knowledge.

In order to discern patterns of actions and the principles behind them, we need to fine-tune the lenses through which we look at what we are trying to understand. Being mindful of how we observe and why can preclude us from unskillful interventions. Like the birds, we too can chase our clients away if we don't remain attentive to the messages encoded in their interactions with us, and their interactions or ways of being in their environments. We must learn to decipher their scripts so we can deliver relevant and genuine interventions.

Observation is the foundation of creative thinking, an essential part of good counseling. We must look at clients’ ecologies with fresh eyes, unbiased by pre-conceived knowledge, be curious and purposeful observers. In the language of Philip Cushman, it is not about “reading our clients as texts, but more like standing behind them and reading over their shoulders the cultural text from which they themselves are reading.” The key is to remember that we observe in order to contextualize our clients’ stories and to become familiar with their landscapes

Marianela Medrano-Marra is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Naugatuck, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.

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