Bridging the Experience Gap between Transitioning Veterans and Civilian Counselors

In the course of a dialogue, whether in a therapeutic setting, a social engagement, or even in a political environment, it is necessary to first bridge the distances in paradigms and experiences among participants, so that a common understanding between communicants can be realized. Few examples of an experience gap can be more profound than the paradigm of a Veteran who has experienced combat when contrasted with a consistent experience of living a civilian lifestyle.

As noted in a recent article posted here by Michael DeVilliers, concerning the reintegration of Post-9/11 veterans into civilian life and the struggles social workers will face in assisting them in the process of transition and healing, “Helpers must make it clear to the veteran that they are ready to listen without judgment”.

This approach to active and mindful listening is a necessary start in establishing an emotional engagement across the experiential divide. Active listening allows an individual the opportunity to step into the paradigm of emotions, events and meanings held by others. To build a bridge across dissimilar experiences, a social worker (or other social, emotional or mental health professionals) must be capable of exploring the paradigm of the veteran, and to go further, by adopting the language and emotional meanings the veteran attaches to his or her experiences. This creates a shared dyadic dynamic in which the transitioning veteran and the care professional develop a socially constructed vocabulary and understanding of meanings which can facilitate both a return to civilian life as well as the emotional and spiritual healing process—a process which will be distinct and unique for each and every veteran.

For this reason, a counselor must be prepared to admit that they cannot fully comprehend what these experiences would be like for themselves, but, through a socially constructed dialogue, counselors can come to understand what these emotions and experiences mean to the veterans they are counseling. Accordingly, through the use of careful reflective language, the counselor can carry the veteran through the counseling experience with both understanding and compassion, by seeing the other through his or her eyes, in order to address the veterans’ needs in the terms by which the veteran experiences them. Slowly, over time, that language can evolve and shift to reflect the healing process and to facilitate the transitional experience.

Care must be made to ensure that, as counselors and care-givers, the language, experiences and emotional perspectives of one veteran (or, indeed, of any dialogue partner) are not transferred into a dialogue session with another veteran. No two veterans are alike, and no two veterans necessarily share the same emotional paradigm surrounding their experiences. Each relationship must be engaged as a uniquely dyadic relationship. Transferring the emotional impressions from one therapeutic relationship, and transposing them upon another person, may be shrugged off as a simple faux pas, or, may permanently impair the relationship between the veteran and the caregiver.

A social construction approach to dialogue establishment and relationship building is an approach which can benefit any counseling relationship. Inevitably, we have rarely walked in the shoes of those around us, and by extension, it is equally inevitable that we will unconsciously transpose our perceptions and our values onto the narratives of others even as we seek to understand those very same narrators. To truly understand anyone whose experience, culture, or values diverge significantly from our own, we must learn to use the words and feel the feelings felt by those who are different from ourselves. Only then can we care for, and lift up, those who most need our support in building new and better lives.

By S.T. Mulder
Guest Submission

S.T. Mulder withdrew from college to serve as a Health Care Specialist in the United States Army; following that experience he worked in various construction trades before finishing his undergraduate degree. He holds a Bachelors’ in Business Management and Economics, a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership, and is presently working on a Ph.D. in Leadership and Policy. His doctoral focus is on incorporating systems theory and human process design into constructing an effective framework for facilitating cross-cultural communications and conflict resolution processes.

The content and legality of the submission is the sole responsibility of the user responsible for submission. Submitted content does not reflect the views of Social Justice Solutions Inc. and has been posted in accordance with SJS’s terms of service and privacy policy.


therapy veteran by Cpl. Scott Schmidt

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