Effective Counselling and the Objectivity Challenge

Most people tend to be compassionate. Perhaps it is a human evolutionary trait, or simply the manner in which we have been trained to understand and act upon our emotions. Or it could stem from the need to help others in order to achieve a sense of belonging. In modern society – represented by large conglomerates of human beings living collectively – people have daily opportunities to help others, and also varied motives to do so.

These motives can be a response to social pressure, redemption, responsibility or simply the adrenalin rush of helping someone. Does that sound familiar? Many individuals become professional counsellors with that foundation – the determination to help others. But is that enough?

A Differential Support

There is a strong ethical component in any health-related profession, particularly the ones which deal directly with consumers – in the case of counselling, the client. One of the most prominent aspects of becoming a professional counsellor lies in understanding the ethical guidelines of the profession, which in turn requires prospective counsellors to be able to differentiate between ‘friendly advice’ and professional assistance.

This is a challenging proficiency as it not only involves the process of learning which is intrinsic to any professional development (or training), but also remodelling the manner in which people naturally respond to a call for help: emotional and inevitably subjective feedback.

In order to cater for those needs, counsellor training involves a great deal of ethical background theory and practice which aims to develop the objective ‘eye’ – a demanded skill for counselling sessions. Such a methodical approach to interpreting human behaviour and individual needs is rooted in the development of early behavioural sciences.

Method in Counselling

What is ‘method’? Method (from Greek methodos or met hodos meaning “way across”) is a word which entered English in 1541 via French and Latin, and is defined as ‘a series of steps taken to complete a certain task or to reach a certain objective’. The methodical approach was induced by the need to share common guidelines in the observation and analysis of events, laying grounds for the advent of the scientific method – the central component of any modern science.

In the 19th century, the scientific method served to ‘unleash’ psychology from its bonds with philosophy and medicine – and the consequence was the advent of the original behavioural science. Counselling moved away from psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis in the early 1950s with the intent of enhancing the relationship between counsellor and client.

The helping nature of the counselling approach set the standards for this newly adopted discipline – and increased focus was placed in nurturing the relationship with the client, encouraging client’s responsiveness, and developing a bond which would lay grounds for the client’s progressive development. From that point, the last group (the ones that derive the adrenalin rush from helping people) was deemed to undertake a series of particular events in order to become their vision: compassion was not sufficient, training was required.

Becoming an Effective Counsellor

According to Meier & Davis (1997) “in no other profession does the personality and behavior of the professional make such difference as it does in counseling. Beginning counselors need to work at increasing their self awareness as well as their knowledge of counseling procedures. Your willingness to be open to supervision, to accept clients’ failures and criticisms, to participate in counseling yourself when appropriate, and to acknowledge your limits will contribute to your eventual success and satisfaction”.

Acknowledging Values

The client-counsellor relationship is fundamentally a relationship between two human beings. Obviously there are two different roles in the relationship but both counsellor and client have a history of experiences that have shaped who they are, how they view the world and what are their values.

An effective client-counsellor relationship does not ignore the “human” side of the professional. To establish trust, a client needs to sense that the counsellor is genuine and sincere in their communications. But when a counsellor begins to suspect their own biases, conflicting values or judgements are influencing their work with a client, it is critical that they reflect upon this behaviour and seek to rectify it.

Critically reflecting in supervision, through journaling or personal inner work is required to establish an appropriate plan of action.

Recognising Limitations

It is easy for inexperienced counsellors to fall into the trap of feeling solely responsible for their client’s progress. Counsellors do not possess a magic wand to solve all of life’s problems and it is important to remember that ultimately it is the client that makes choices in their own life.

Counsellors can assist clients to think through options, explore motivators and hurdles, set goals, formulate plans of action and so on. A client, however, must assume the responsibility for taking actions in order to accomplish progress in his/her life.

There are many moments in the counselling relationship in which it is important to recognise the limitations of counselling. When progress seems “stuck”, some of the best plans involve tolerating ambiguity, sharing responsibility with the client, re-establishing the role of the counsellor and/or sharing information with a supervisor.

Drawing the Line

Maintaining a critical perspective towards the counsellor-client relationship is essential in order to avoid emotional burnout, misjudgement and unproductive distribution of power.

“A common mistake for beginners is to worry too much about clients. There is a danger of incorporating clients’ neuroses into our own personality. We lose sleep wondering what decisions they are making. We sometimes identify so closely with clients that we lose our own sense of identity and assume their identity. Empathy becomes distorted and militates against a therapeutic intervention” (Corey 2001).