My Evolution as a Counsellor
My search for a counselling model has been long and circuitous: there were many models and theories that did not resonate with me, but finding a friendly fit was difficult. I liked what Rogers, and Maslow had to say, but this did not feel like the whole story to counselling.
I learned more about being a good counsellor after school than in school. In my practice, I have always been seen as an enigma, because for most counsellors theory or tools of a theory was more important than the client and relationship. In spite of not focusing on theory I was usually seen as effective. The feedback I received from clients and other therapists who saw clients I had seen was that I was the most non-judgmental person they had met, and so they felt free to tell me anything. Much literature in the field of counselling reports relationships as being more important than any theory. This concept I embraced fully.
When I started teaching counselling, I became acutely aware of my personal style of counselling. Later, I was given the task to train peer counsellors, an opportunity that helped me articulate principles that informed my own counselling approach. It was especially important that I understand my own counselling approach to clearly develop an effective approach to peer counselling. I felt that a clear simple approach was necessary, as I did not want to inundate peers with theories, and rules about minutiae, such as how to sit or how to move; I have always felt that if you are really empathic, you will naturally convey that interest and concern.
I eventually developed a simple approach to peer counselling that could be fully explained in just 15 words. The concepts are simple, but counselling using this model is difficult to carry off at first.
No fixing/no advice
It is not about you
(You may notice the first letters spell out NANNIE)
I believe that the above model is just a 21 century operationalization of Rogers’ concepts of client-centred therapy. Rogers spoke of a “person centred” approach to counselling. These six simple concepts are merely an operationalization of a person centred approach. The client is in control of the content and direction of the counselling. This approach is designed to give the client all the power. Counselling sessions are the client’s time and space to explore/process/think out loud I believe this approach emphasizes the importance of building an empowering and accepting relationship with the client which is one of the goals of good counselling.
For counsellors, these six concepts are simple, but deceptively challenging to apply. Despite our training, too often our own needs get in the way of helping a client. When we tell clients how they should live their life, it is too often ultimately done more for ourselves: to make us feel good, helpful, and that we are “providing a service”. I believe that what we as counsellors give to our clients are safety, security, and freedom to be, and freedom to explore. By creating a safe space to explore ideas and feelings the client can express himself more deeply and explore feelings and emotions that he may otherwise hide from.
No judgment is about not having a personal reaction so someone else’s actions. Such reactions might be, “Oh good, you stopped drinking”, or “It is too bad they could not stop drinking”. We are often unaware of our judgments of others. We see praise not as judgment, but of course if you think about it, praise is judgment. We are not there as a counsellor to provide a cheering section for what we think is appropriate behaviour. It is not about you and your judgment, as a counsellor, of what is good and what is bad for a person. Sometimes, more often around abuse of someone else by a client we find it hard not to judge our client. It is important at these times to remember that we are all trying to get through this life the best way we know how. Our clients come to see us because they are having trouble, they do not need our judgment (criticism) to help them grow. They need our support and acceptance, not our praise or criticism.
The difference between acceptance and no judgment is sometimes difficult for counsellors to understand. Acceptance is more about not trying to change someone, taking them as they are; it is not having a “therapeutic plan” for them to change. Most frequently it is a plan to help them stop drinking, stop them doing drugs, a plan for ridding them of depression etc. Acceptance is accepting a person as they are without expectations of them changing, growing, or becoming something else.
No fixing/no advice
The question often comes up about giving advice. If you the counsellor have important information that the client needs then providing the facts without directing an action is respectful and helpful. If a client says “My driver’s license expired, Is it important that I renew it?” The counsellor could talk about the process of renewing and the consequences of not renewing, all without directing the client to take a specific action.
Most counsellors feel lost without being able to ask questions. Just the act of asking a question puts the counsellor in control by demanding answers to the counsellor’s needs and not the client’s needs. The counsellor tells himself that he is doing it for the client but it is detracting from the client being in control, questioning may get in the way of having a safe and free space to explore. Asking questions is more about the counsellor’s needs and curiosity/voyeurism and less about the client’s need to tell his story. Much of what counsellors do, they do to keep themselves in control and look knowledgeable and helpful.
I once worked with a guy for about 4-6 months and he kept referring to “the accident”. He never talked about what this accident was or how it happened, but about almost dying, his families reaction, and him feeling scared because of surgery. I was very curious about what the accident: What was it that he did? Did he cause it? Did he hurt others? All of these questions. But that was all about me, and this is his story, so I never asked. One time when he was going into more discussion about the accident, I commented that it seemed like he still had unresolved issues about this accident. After a long pause he really opened up about how he felt, his fear of dying, being crippled, his family reaction, his feelings of guilt or stupidity in the accident. He could see how he had just compartmentalized the experience, but never dealt with his feelings about what happened. By not asking for a recitation of what happened but offering an opportunity to explore feelings about what happened he could begin to address unresolved issues.
It is not about you
Counsellors often violate the “It is not about you” rule. For too many of us, counselling is too much about us, our attitudes, our knowledge, our expertise etc. How often has it happened that clients have told us they went to a different counsellor and that other counsellor kept talking about themselves? Though this may not be what actually happened, it was how the client experienced the counselling. Letting go of our ego is not easy.
I am often taken aback at the end of counselling relationship with someone they tell me how helpful it was and how much they got out it, and how much I did for them. I always think “you did all the work, you made your choices, you took the risks, you made changes in how you behave, I just was here, but “you did the work”! The counsellor cannot begin with a plan of: “This is how you need to change …”. That is not respectful, it is not accepting, it is not empathic, and it is often more about the counsellor than the client. We should not be developing a plan for someone else’s life. It is a big megalomaniacal to think at our role as counsellors is to develop a life plan for anyone.
Empathy is not always easy. To often we put our own spin on our client’s experience. I remember a client who was gay telling me that when he was 12, his mother told him that she was lesbian. My empathic response was, “So you felt like she would understand your attraction to boys.” He told me, “Oh no, I made her promise that she would never date a woman and not be a lesbian.” He then added that he knew if his mother could not fight these feelings, then he was doomed to be gay all his life. He was not ready to face that at age 12. Well I really got it wrong, but he told me so much more about himself and his development by correcting my misunderstanding I was much more able to empathically understand him by being wrong and sharing my mistaken understand of his experience. If I would have not said noththing, and just “know” the truth of my perception I would have not understood him and his journey to adulthood. I have found that it is often very helpful when I make mistakes and am not really empathically in tune with my client. Much too often counsellors are afraid to be “wrong” in their understandings of their clients. I have never had a client be offended by my not getting it, but they only work harder to help me understand their feelings.
Empathy and understanding is not enough. When teaching these counselling techniques, I give an example to show clients sometimes need more than empathy and understanding. I give the example of the most empathic, understanding counsellor response to the person who asks where the WC is. Such a counsellor may empathically understand the need to find the WC, and empathically reflect the frustration and not getting any answer to the question, and accurately reflect the urgency and discomfort the client is feeling. But the empathy is not what the “client” needs; factual information is what is needed here. To often we tell ourselves that we “know” things that we must impart to our clients, often that is for our ego not for the client’s growth. One has to be very careful when giving information, that we are only giving factual information without directing an action.
This approach to counselling means having no personal or ego investment in your client and his future, but making a professional space that supports your client. We as counsellors are most helpful when we let our clients grow in their direction and not try to force our beliefs of how they should live their life. This is very hard for most counsellors. The only place we as counsellors know about having influence over others is when parenting, and we are most likely trying to hard to control our kids. One of the biggest challenges in parenting is letting children make their own mistakes. Counsellors also face this challenge in letting clients make their own decisions and go in their own direction: as counsellors, we often fear the consequences.
In our own childhood, we, like most others, were likely not allowed to grow in our own direction. Maybe we as counsellors have never experienced the kind of acceptance, trust and non-judgmental space presented in this counselling model. It can be hard to learn how to be accepting and non-judgmental when we may have never experienced it ourselves.
When I was a psychologist in a federal prison in Canada, I felt like my job was to help these guys find their path in life, which may not always be staying out of prison. Many times guys said my office was the only place they could really talk and explore their feelings, fears, and fantasies. They were generally guys who never experienced much acceptance and understanding. When working with drug users, my job is not to help them get off drugs but to help them to understand their lives with drug use and support them in planning the future they choose/makes for themselves. I am not afraid when they use drugs again; generally we look at it together as a learning experience for them to understand more about themselves. I feel that often drugs are not the problem but the symptom of someone who cannot find a way to live that works better for them. I assume the drug users who are happy with their situation do not seek out counselling.
I think our counselling methods are an expression of our beliefs and feelings about ourselves. It seems like often the best counselling approach is one what resonates with us. I think more of variability in the effectiveness of a counselling approach comes from our ability to embrace the theoretical principles, but not in how effective a counselling approach/theory may be. If a theory of counselling feels foreign to us, then likely we will not be very effective in using it once we learn the basic skills of that theory. If you lean toward a client-centred approach, then some of these methods may be useful in developing your approach to counselling.