The Accidental Counsellor: Cutty Felton

How do you support people in vulnerable circumstances, while avoiding compassion fatigue? It's all in the approach says this former solicitor and crisis counsellor.

Written by
Georgie Tomich
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Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to found Accidental Counsellor?

As a practicing solicitor, I oftentimes encountered situations in which my clients were distressed or vulnerable and yet, although I knew how to assist from a legal perspective, I was not equipped with the skills to appropriately and ethically respond to the grief or anger or confusion they were experiencing. It was often exhausting and left me feeling as if I had not done the very best for my client and so I started to explore those response skills, discovering along the way that there were many others from every sector of our corporate community who were desperately seeking the same skills.

How has your background as a solicitor and work at Lifeline helped inform your Accidental Counsellor training?

Ultimately, it was a combination of my legal and commercial experience, together with my time as a volunteer telephone crisis supporter on Lifeline’s 13 11 14 suicide prevention and crisis intervention line, which informs my model, framework and empathic approach that will assist all who find themselves inadvertently thrust into the role of ‘Accidental Counsellor’ while carrying on their work.

Why is Accidental Counsellor-based training so important for frontline housing sector workers?

So many people find themselves in truly vulnerable circumstances at the moment, and particularly when it comes to housing. A difficulty with, or threat of any type to, essential shelter will result in escalated emotions and behaviours which will impact that person’s capacity to hold a positive conversation with the worker. Of course, there will be additional ‘drivers of crisis’ that will be impacting as well, and so workers in the frontline housing sector will often be confronted by difficult behaviours and emotions. Having the skills provided in the Accidental Counsellor training, within very carefully defined boundaries, to de-escalate the level of agitation, fear or aggression, in an ethical and empathic way, will assist to bring the client into a productive dialogue going forward. Importantly too, though, is the ability of the worker to protect themselves from the worst of the impact of other people’s trauma and so those skills will also be discussed.

Can you talk us through the issue ‘compassion fatigue’ and ways that frontline workers can manage or avoid this while working closely with tenants experiencing trauma or vulnerable circumstances?

Compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout are unfortunately a common result of the care we give in sectors such as frontline housing. When we find that our own view of the world is changing, we are continuously exhausted and unmotivated or have become generally suspicious of everyone, it is important to take steps to address that. There are, however, ways in which we can guard against those impacts to an extent, including working within three very important boundaries (of your role, of the conversations you have and as provided by policy) and understanding the true meaning of empathy in the context of your role. These are important themes throughout the training which will also provide strategies to assist when feeling impacted.

"It was often exhausting and left me feeling as if I had not done the very best for my client. I started to explore those response skills, discovering along the way that there were many others from every sector of our corporate community who were desperately seeking the same skills."

Do you find there is an increasing need for this type of training in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns and the like?

The skills covered in this training have always been needed, however the pandemic has certainly brought renewed focus on the necessity for this type of training and an understanding of the fact that we all are impacted in some way or another. These are therefore the skills that we need to respond to those vulnerable in the housing sector and also to those of our colleagues or team members who themselves may be struggling for one reason or another.

What are some FAQs that you receive from people attending your workshops? 

  • What to do if it is obvious that someone needs help but is not getting it (eg: for mental illness)
  • How to contain conversations when safety demands that we do so
  • How do I deliver ‘bad news’ (not really a part of the course as such, but which I do cover briefly when asked)

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare there has been a 7.8% increase in domestic and family violence incidents in Australia since 2019. How crucial is it that staff are well equipped to help support tenants experiencing DFV?

It is important to understand that people deal with a multitude of different struggles and hardships, particularly during this time of Covid-19. We know that the rates of domestic and family violence have spiked during this time and so it is important, together with the response skills covered in Accidental Counsellor, to have some awareness around the impact of DFV, especially in the housing sector. It is only when we recognise what it is that we are hearing or seeing that we are able to respond in the safest and most ethical way possible, without for one moment taking on the role of expert or counsellor in domestic and family violence.

Cutty Felton is the CEO of Accidental Counsellor and an accredited DV Alert and Lifeline trainer. A qualified solicitor for 10 years, she felt the need to contribute more directly to the community and in 2013 joined Lifeline, initially as a trained volunteer Telephone Crisis Supporter before heading up Corporate and Community training for Lifeline H2H.

Cutty is running two online workshops with the ahi: Accidental Counsellor on October 26, and Domestic & Family Violence Awareness on October 11 and December 2. To register for these and other online workshops visit our Events page.

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