One of the Most Difficult Challenges for a Counselor
I know of no more difficult occupational challenge than that facing a counselor as he or she moves from their formal education into doing counseling. A physician can learn from other physicians how to set the broken leg so that the body’s systems will mend it. Then that physician can use that skill in his or her practice. However, every counselor brings a unique personality to the counseling situation and every client responds to that personality differently from every other counselor. And you as a counselor respond to each client uniquely because of who they are! Each client-counselor relationship is unique. Its characteristics cannot be accurately predicted so that what might prove successful in treatment cannot be accurately predicted. Neither how you as a counselor will respond nor how your client will respond to cannot be known precisely until it happens. No one can teach you that—you have to learn that by paying attention to what happens in the counseling room and learning from each session with each client. You have to learn what works for you and what doesn’t.
So if you are new to counseling and feel somewhat inadequate, it means that you are accurately aware of your situation. You are required to do something no one else has ever done, that is, be a counselor with your own personality, your own skills counseling clients who respond to you in ways they respond to no one else in the world!
What to do? First, of course, watch and learn all you can from those you consider the best counselors—learn from them—their techniques, their interpretations, their theories, everything—put those into your ‘tool kit’. The more you learn from others the better counselor you can be.
Second, enter every situation you have with a client with an attitude of learning. You can learn something new from every client every session. Only in that way can you be the best counselor YOU can be. One famous psychotherapist said that any session he had with a client in which he didn’t learn something about himself was, in a sense, wasted. We are required to write notes about what happens with a client after a session. A good practice would be to also write down in a journal some notes about what happened to you and periodically review those to see how you are making progress.
Once a man who was a good cook could not figure out why his meatloaf never tasted as good as his grandmother’s. He followed her recipe exactly but every Christmas when the family gathered and she cooked her special meatloaf, it always tasted so much better. One year he decided to watch her to see what she was doing that he missed. In the kitchen she did exactly what he did. Then she put it on the plate to take it out to the table. But as she did, she said, I think it needs a little of this and a little of that. So she sprinkled a few spices on it as she carried it out to the awaiting diners.
So with counseling. You can follow this technique or that theory but real success comes from knowing who you are and what you uniquely bring to the counseling interaction that the client responds uniquely to.
And that you learn only by practicing your craft and learning what works for you.
I think that explains why it is so difficult to build up a body of work in counseling that can be passed down to future counselors—each of us is unique. That also explains why many of the amazing therapists in the past (Milton Erikson, Eric Berne, etc.) have always had a reputation of thinking ‘outside the box’ and their successes are often unique to them. This is also why I hear the phrase ‘evidence based’ with some suspicion—more as a marketing phrase.
The ‘metacommunication’ (those spices we add) that we uniquely bring into the counseling situation (usually outside our awareness) often has the greatest effect on the client helping them to change or perhaps inadvertently affirming to them that they can’t change.
There are numerous spices available. Continuously learn which ones you possess and how they affect you and your client and how to use them to the best affect. And see what happens.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in ‘spirituality beyond religion’ and veterans ‘beyond PTSD’