Good Counseling, Bad Counseling

Good counseling is kind of like good art, or pornography:  hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

Sadly, a lot of people have more experience with bad counseling or psych care. Bad counseling (Bc) tells clients what their problems are and what the counselor is going to do to or for them to solve that.  At its worst, Bc is disempowering, denies self-advocacy, self-understanding, and self-help, and turns help into a passive process for the client.

The problem with many people working in the “helping professions” is how “helping” is viewed. (Here we’re talking about helping professions as counseling and social work, as opposed to personal attendant staff, which may necessarily be long-term assistance.)  Bad helping is about ensuring the status quo of the client as the dependent recipient of help given by the service provider. Good helping is about making the counselor “unemployed” as it were, of being a temporary resource to the client, rather than a permanent fixture that is necessary to keep a “broken” person working.

Good counseling (Gc) helps the client to determine problems they are facing, and what they need to solve them, and how they can acquire the tools needed to do so.  The counselor works with a person, not for them or to them.  It’s about respecting the client, and presuming competency on the client’s part, including the client as the local expert on their self.

In other words, Gc is empowering. The client needs to have their own power to make decisions.  They need to have resources and information made available to them so they can make their own choices.  Those choices need to be real choices, not dilemmas sold as choices. People need to feel like they are masters of their own fate, and also be able to understand the boundaries of what things they can change.

Clients also need to learn how to be able to reframe how they understand things in a more constructive manner, so they can take the things learned and be able to continue to help themselves later on.  A child’s job is to play, learn and grow, and so is an adult’s.  We all need to continue to learn new skills and approaches throughout our lives as our situations change, and as our abilities to do things also change.  There is no one place in life where one is done learning; it’s an ongoing, lifelong process.  To be able to do this the client needs education, not just in the form of information, but also in the process of making thoughtful decisions with this kind of information.

But to do all that the counselor has to be able to figure out – with the client – not just what the problems are, but also what the client thinks is important:  the things they need to solve, or skills they need to acquire. If something is important to the client, then it’s important!  The counselor should address the subject with them.  People need to be able to make decisions about things that are important to them in their lives.  That’s the inherent difference between Bc and Gc: telling people versus asking them.  A lot of what people need is attentive listening and being taken seriously (for a change).

To be hopeful for a positive outcome, a person needs to feel that they can make a change in their lives, and do so from their own power. The client should then be able to take that sense of power that is created from beneficial change, and be able to share it with others in their communities – the personal empowerment becomes social.  Part of that social empowerment comes from the client being able to earn the respect of others and to be seen as a competent person, rather than as someone stigmatized for being “damaged”.

To do these things, the counselor should be a tool for the client.

And boy is that a change in the power paradigm!

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19 Comments

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  3. 5 August 2013 at 14:44

    A group of consumers on my blog are discussing this very issue. It’s so easy for counseling to veer into paternalism and encouraging self-pity, both ingredients for powerless and depression. The therapist’s “authority” can be reinforced in all sorts of subtle ways.

  4. Ron said,

    30 September 2012 at 5:41

    My wife was having an affair with a lesbian woman. She is a Christian and believed that she was sinning in two ways. We went to marriage counseling and he told us that we may want to get a divorce. He told her that gay relationships were ok if if she wanted to do so. A year later we are divorced and she is still unhappy and now divorced. I am going on with my life. He made no attempt to save our marriage, but rather said that it would not work. In my opinion he should have tried to explore why she was having these feelings before he suggested divorce. He also said that commitment was a negative thing in a marriage as it causes couples to take each other for granted. He said that people should evaluate their marriage every five years and determine if at that point they should stay together. How do you feel about this type of counseling. Our marriage was normal before this and we never sought the need for counseling.

  5. h person said,

    11 November 2011 at 20:50

    hi hello

  6. Ian said,

    23 October 2010 at 19:42

    I found this article very interesting. I am a therapist and counsellor working in Manchester, UK and I hope I deliver good counselling! I agree that it’s hard to define what good counselling looks like, it’s in the relationship between therapist and client.

  7. chelle said,

    24 April 2010 at 8:05

    I think I have experienced bad counseling, the counsilor told me that I needed to do this that and the next thing, she sat with her arms folder all the way through the session slouched in her chair and kept looking at me like she didn’t believe what I was saying. She told me I didn’t need counseling i just needed better friends and i should talk to my family instead she just ended the sessions and told me they were over after 2 and she didn’t know what we could even talk about. I was very upset as my college tutor arranged this for me after she picked up on some difficulties i was having and she has a psychology degree she was disgusted at how the counsilor was and now i’m considering making a complaint against the service she acted like I didn’t know my own mind.

  8. Jane said,

    20 February 2010 at 2:41

    When I was a student I visited numerous counsellors due to my resistance and lack of trust, when I eventually found one the I trusted and could work with and told them my persistent concerns/problems , they guided me to the point where I felt safe and revealed all and informed me that they could work with me regardless etc. A week later they informed me that it would take a long process etc bla bla (in short term I can not work with you).

    My question is: why build someone up to work with you?? If you can not work with them??

    My lasting impresion is:: DO NOT TRUST COUNSELLORS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. mike daniels said,

    12 August 2009 at 5:45

    For 3 months I went to a counselor because I was having problems at work, with my family and in my relatioship. I felt really alone and had no one to talk to. I never felt like we were getting anywhere in my sessions, but at least it gave me an opportunity be heard and just unload. However, at my last session after spending the time unloading, the counselor told me that I spoke in a monotone voice, didn’t articulate well, spoke way to fast and put him into a trance. He was visibly irritated and aggitated. I think after he said all this he felt a little bad because he made a comment that perhaps he was just tired…but i left the appointment feeling like i wanted to kill myself.

  10. ben ruiz said,

    19 July 2009 at 10:54

    Hi I have been going to a counselor for nearly 3 months with my partner and things have gotten worst. My partner is not not living at home anymore. Since we have started there are constant interruptions in our sessions phone calls people walking in etc… She has talked many times about having the tools but she has not given us those tools. We have yet to be able to sit down and have a conversation without it becoming an argument. My partner and I have been reading on our own for as of late and I feel like we have accomplsihed more on are own. At first all the focus was on me and my wrong doings I have a gambling addiction that I am fighting to control, and my partner has jealousy and anger issures. Please advise I am desperately in need of help/ Thank You and God Bless

  11. 15 April 2009 at 21:26

    I wish I could say that I had good counseling experiences. Unfortunately, I received care from someone who only cared about the money. He even told us how rich he was and how he buys all these things for his home.

    I want to get into the counseling profession myself because I know that there are people out there not getting the help they need.

  12. 14 February 2008 at 0:15

    I think good counseling can be priceless but the trouble often is can the counseller be trusted and do they have any qualifacation to do the job.

    I know many that simply jump on the bandwagon so to speak just to make a few pounds but sadly they dont realise (or care) that they often do more harm than good. I guess a good counseller is a recommended one!

  13. qw88nb88 said,

    29 August 2006 at 13:55

    Advice is hard to give; suffice to say that it’s okay to “test drive” a particular provider and decide not to return if you get a bad feeling about them, or their office’s culture. One thing you can do is to write up some questions aboit the counselor’s views on things, and how they go about helping clients, and what they think helps is.

  14. chris hayes said,

    29 August 2006 at 13:45

    think i have experience of both bc and gc, unfortunately the bc came first and hindered me benefitting to the maximum from the gc. thinking now i need to do some more counselling but i am very reluctant to try. any advice?

  15. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    25 July 2006 at 2:59

    Janna: “It consists, not of telling a person what to do, but of allowing them to talk about their own faith walk and encouraging them to find the answers to their questions for themselves.”

    Essentially, this would involve certain types of counselling skills. Counselling, certainly in the way I was trained, did not involve advising people at all: it was more about enabling the client to make choices based on the alternatives available to him/her. This was done by listening, and actively being empathic towards the client, and by reflecting back to them what one understands the situation to be (and accepting that one might have got it wrong, and so being prepared to amend the picture one has of the client’s situation based on the corrections s/he puts forward). Very Carl Rogers, really…

    I specialised in two main ways of working (RET and PCP), but I also make the Rogerian techniques that I learned a part of my initial set of ways of working with a client.

  16. David N. Andrews BA-status, PgCertSpEd (pending) said,

    24 July 2006 at 10:40

    “Bad helping is about ensuring the status quo of the client as the dependent recipient of help given by the service provider.”

    Reminds me of practitioners of different types in another arena that we know of….

  17. Jannalou said,

    24 July 2006 at 9:01

    I’ve been thinking about possibly becoming a Spiritual Director, which is a title given to someone who helps guide people through learning God’s will and hearing his voice. There’s some info about it here: http://www.sdiworld.org/what_is_spiritual_direction2.html – what I would be doing would be specifically Christian in nature; the page itself is an inter-religious kind of thing. But the definition stands.

    It consists, not of telling a person what to do, but of allowing them to talk about their own faith walk and encouraging them to find the answers to their questions for themselves.

  18. qw88nb88 said,

    24 July 2006 at 5:46

    I was considering counselling in the context of educational difficulties (which I didn’t specifically mention, as the Gc/Bc is true for most any kind), but I’m not sure Janna, what you consider to be “spiritual counseling” and which role you were considering for yourself?

  19. 23 July 2006 at 23:23

    [...] Andrea’s post about Counselling (Good vs Bad) got me thinking. [...]


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