Counselling skills

Patience: When To Intervene And When To Wait

Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photograph © 2016 M.F. van Alphen

One of the disadvantages of working in any professional capacity is that it is difficult to switch off your professional self when you leave your work environment. As a couple’s counsellor, you notice all the things in your own relationship that ‘don’t follow the rules’. When you work pedagogically, it becomes difficult not to correct your partner when he interacts differently with the children than the ideal described in your study books. The tendency to want to fix everything then needs to be suppressed, as also your need to convert. Couple’s counsellors, for example, aren’t immune to relationship issues, and often these issues arise because they cannot distance themselves from their profession in their own relationships. The lesson in this is that not every context requires intervention. Before you decide to intervene, you first need to ask yourself if it is relevant. At home it usually isn’t relevant, as you are the other’s partner, not the other’s therapist!

Is it important? Is it urgent?

Also with your clients you are first going to have to ask yourself if it is relevant to intervene. If, for example, your role is only diagnostic, this is a different kind of context, in which intervention usually is less relevant. And even when it is relevant, the next consideration is how important it is. When something is essential, this is more important than something that is only desirable, but not essential. Following through, the element of timing then becomes important: It could be that something is both relevant and important, but not urgent.

Use the correct dosage

Why should you consider these things? Imagine if your partner were to constantly harp on about everything you do; even if all his comments were justified – what effect would that have on you? In the best case scenario, you would become irritated with him, and in the worst case scenario, you would start believing that you were no good at anything. As a professional communicator, one of your tasks is to give the other hope, to help them develop the belief that they are able to tackle their problems. If you nit-pick everything, you eradicate that little bit of hope he has left. In short: Feedback and interventions need to administered in the correct dosage!

When to intervene

The ground rule is: When something is both relevant, urgent and important, then it is time to intervene. In all other cases it is better to wait for a more appropriate moment. By way of example: When boundaries are crossed, it’s time to intervene straightaway. This is about boundaries that you need to set, guard against and act on when they are violated. If someone’s (political) views don’t match yours, it’s a valid question whether you should even bother to intervene. And when someone behaves inappropriately, it is usually better to make a mental note of it so that it can be dealt with later on in private.


If you intervene with everything, others will experience this as harping on, which won’t do your relationship with that person much good. It is therefore good practice to intervene in small doses and not in everything. That requires a certain measure of patience. The ground rule is that when something is relevant, important and urgent, it is time to intervene. For important matters which are less urgent, it is better to wait for a more appropriate moment in time. And all other categories: Just ignore it!

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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