Basic Attending Skills

I realize it might seem ridiculous to devote a blog post to “paying attention” as counseling skill….

After all, shouldn’t it be obvious?  Can you imagine a therapist falling asleep or becoming distracted during a session, nothing would be more painful, angering, or infuriating.  Keep in mind, one of the many purposes of this blog is to create a resource of information that can aid in my ongoing professional growth.

Learning to become mindful in my interactions with clients has been crucial for me thus far.  During weekly sessions with my supervisor, I’ve become aware of two things:

#1.  I use more counseling skills than I am aware of.

#2.  There is definitely room for growth.

What is Attending Behavior?

For this blog post, I dug up my very first course textbook for this graduate program.  It reviews essential counseling skills and describes attending behavior as an essential component in conversation:

“Attention & Consciousness are the foundations on which create an understanding of the world.  Together they form the ground upon which we build a sense of who we are.  [Attention and consciousness enable us to] define ourselves in relation to the myriad off physical and social worlds we inhabit.  They are also the basic foundations that give rise to ‘the mind'”. (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 62)

Kranz & Sanders (2006) add that in the counseling field…”all that we do is determined by our attentiveness” (p. 107).  “Well-developed skills assist…in two ways. First, they help…demonstrate that [we] care and are involved.  Second, they enable counselors to observe unspoken messages and respond more appropriately to immediate client needs.” (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 62).  Effective communication achieves the following goals: “communicates interests; sets a climate of respect, motivates self-expression in others; assists concentration; establishes a base for constructive exchanges; prepares on to access information accurately”  (Kranz & Sanders, 2006, p. 107).

The Basics of Paying Attention.

What follows below, is information from an array of resources that describe the essential skills involved in basic  attentive behavior.  (Again, I realize it may seem obvious, however starting with the basics at this point is the most effective cure to my feelings of incompetence).  

Key Aspects of Attentive Behavior – (Kranz & Sanders, 2006).  

Basic attentive behavior involves both verbal and nonverbal communication.  It stays on topic, focus on the client, while maintaining eye contact, and an attentive posture, with silences when appropriate. (, n.d.).  Kranz & Sanders, (2006) discuss three elements of attending behavior:

  1. Contextual Attending:  involves preparing the setting in which the interaction is supposed to occur and preparing in advance with arrangements necessary for positive interaction, (Kranz & Sanders, 2006).  To the issue of contextual attending, I would like to add that this should include any necessary preparatory work prior to first meeting.  This can include, understanding the client’s reason for seeking therapy, and any relevant background information.  The sociocultural background and specific concerns determine how one can best prepare in advance.
  2. Postural Attending: (Kranz & Sanders, 2006) define postural attending as an awareness of how you communicate an interest in the client.    Do you have any distracting behaviors?  What about your eyes contact and nonverbal messages?
  3. Psychological Attending:  “psychological attending occurs when a sense of ‘one-ness’ is experienced between those involved….[it] can be observed by noting the congruity of ‘presence’ between counselor and client.” (Kranz & Sanders, 2006, p. 123).

“The 3 V’s + B of Listening” (Ivey, et al 2010).

“The first interviewing skill of the microskills hierarchy is attending behavior which consists of four dimensions and is critical to all other helping skills” (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 65) and includes the following:

  1. Eye contact (visual)
  2. Speech (Vocal quality)
  3. Listening (Verbal tracking)
  4. Body Language….

Nonattention & Silence

Two final comments regarding the issue of attending behavior are worth noting.  Firstly, there are times when it is useful or appropriate to not attend to specific things a client says.  For example, a client recently discussed that she didn’t feel she was progressing very far in recovery.  However, it was clear that she was being hard on herself, and simply not aware of the how far she had come.  In such an instance, Ivey, et al, (2010) note that, “non attending may be useful.  Through failure to maintain eye contact, subtle shifts in body posture, vocal tone and deliberate jumps to more positive topics” it can be possible to switch the interview to another lien of discussion.    My course textbook concludes by noting briefly the utility of silence and its relevance in the coursing process.  “Counseling and interviewing are talking professions. But sometimes the most useful thing you can do as a helper is to support your client silently.” (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 76).

ADDENDUM:  Improving my capacity to pay attention

In another textbook I found the following comment: “Counselors must be able to hear, and perhaps tolerate vicariously experiencing distressing emotions that may occur during counseling.” (Prout & Wadkins, 2014, p. 136).  There are skills all counselors must develop:

  1. AFFECT TOLERANCE: “to respond empathetically to client’s experience of distress without overly identifying with it or avoiding it” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p 136).
  2. MINDFULNESS: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmental.” (Prout & Watkins, p. 136).
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Kranz & Sanders, V. (2006).  A compendium of roadworthy skills for counselors. Australia: Quest Partners.
Ivey, A.E; Bradford Ivey, M; & Zalaquett, C.P. (2010). Intentional Interviewing and Counseling.  Belmont, CA:  Brooks/Cole.
Prout, T.A. & Wadkins, M.J. (2014).  Essential interviewing and counseling skills.  New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. (n.d.) Basic counseling skills. Retrieved from:

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