Teaching Counseling Skills in Hanoi

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Sexual Intelligence continues to report from a three-week trip to Vietnam. I’m reaching the end of 5 days in Hanoi.

Today I began my two-day seminar in Hanoi. I have 2 days with 20 professionals, teaching both general counseling skills and sexuality counseling. It’s quite a challenge, as the group is heterogeneous in terms of experience and background—some hotline workers, some physicians, some long-term clinicians, etc.. Only 4 of them are over 30 years old. And only 3 are men.

As in many non-western countries, a lot of their concept of counseling involves telling people what to do—either from a well-meaning place of advice-giving or from an old-fashioned idea of medical superiority. So my first job has been to establish a new concept of counseling. We talk about how to listen, how to ask questions, the difference between empathy and agreement.

We talk about how clients speak in metaphor, how they will push whatever boundaries we set up, how they often demand answers to questions that aren’t helpful to them, while avoiding questions we think will be helpful. And we talk about the delicate balance between being clinically powerful and being respectful.

They aren’t used to my informal style of lecturing, of course (I’ve never taught a group outside the U.S. that has!), nor to my continual inquiry about their experience with me—how’s my English? Do my examples—which often involve eating and sports, since most people can relate to that—make sense? How would they apply the material I just presented?

And I have to beg them to ask questions. They don’t want to be “disrespectful,” and don’t want to “interrupt.” So I ask them—how would it affect the counseling if a client feels the same way?

In Vietnam people rely on family members for guidance far more than in the U.S.. This has many consequences; one is the weird power dynamics involved as parents pull their children one way, while their siblings or younger aunts/uncles pull them another way. How do you follow your own heart if it means disappointing your family? How can you enjoy your “selfish” choices when you know you have disrespected or dishonored members of your family—who, after all, want what’s best for you?

It’s an age-old conundrum, still alive in most parts of the world (as well as ethnic communities in the West). The introduction of technology such as mobile phones and the internet complicate the situation, adding powerful new influences on decision-making.

Sexual decision-making—already complicated in cultures that discourage premarital experience, sexual communication, and marriage-for-love—is getting even more complex with these new influences. When people can no longer rely on traditional norms (or no longer want to), how do they make choices? Having sex in order to be “modern,” or to compete with others in a newfangled relationship marketplace, or to establish a sense of independence, doesn’t always serve people. Add a huge dose of sexual ignorance and mythology, and sex can be the source of great emotional (and physical) pain.

We should know—in our own way, we’ve been doing something similar in America for a while now.

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