The Counseling Relationship

July 13, 2011 By A.Arneson

What is counseling?

How can counseling be improved?

Counseling is a format defined by private talking between a practitioner and a client, for the client’s benefit. Within this format, scores of procedures may be followed, all fitting neatly within the definition of counseling. For most counseling relationships, the primary procedure is the development of the counseling relationship itself, while the details of the specific method that the practitioner advertises are of secondary import. The quality of the counseling relationship determines the level of benefit derived from this crucial component. The biggest challenge of the counseling professions becomes evident at this point. What are the features of a beneficial counseling relationship? How exactly is it constructed? Why do so many professionals not build a robust counseling relationship?

A client seeks counseling for help with big problems. But the client experiences immediate relief and continues to hire the counselor only if the latter adequately addresses specific emotional needs—a complex issue seldom understood by clients or professionals. In the current state of counseling education, practitioners are not taught what emotional needs are, nor how to properly meet each one in real-time. They are not educated in the detailed mechanics of emotional healing, the core of which is satisfaction of critical needs. Instead, practitioners are taught 1) procedures that work part of the time, for certain people, and 2) general and abstract concepts of counseling, which often do not translate into concrete, specific action.

All established psychotherapy procedures—e.g. Gestalt role playing and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s examining the evidence for your destructive belief—exist because they meet specific emotional needs. That means that they are helpful part of the time. However, they are only helpful if the practitioner 1) builds an adequate relationship that can withstand challenging procedures, and 2) sufficiently intuits the underlying mechanics of the procedure, enough to permit correct execution and adjustment for client differences. Both criteria depend on the practitioner’s grasp of emotional needs—a thorough treatment of which is not provided by formal education. Procedures are taught as steps to follow, without a complete, practical foundation of knowledge about the procedure’s target needs or how they fit into the larger puzzle of healing requirements. In other words, practitioners trained in a specific method are attempting to reproduce the effects discovered by the method’s founder or expert students, but without the founder’s intuitive (but also limited) grasp of healing mechanics. Similarly, abstract concepts of counseling—e.g. offering compassion, listening without judgement—are intended to guide the practitioner to address emotional needs, but without concrete identification of needs or their mechanics. Problematically, interpretation is left to the individual practitioner.

New counselors, licensed and credentialed, thus find themselves on the arduous path of actually learning how to provide help. Some admit that they spent six years in school, acquiring a license, and the next six plus years, in practice, learning how to do the job. What is the quality of their service if they never fully understand the conditions necessary for emotional change? If they are not guided by the absolutes of human healing, then what sort of relationships are they building? Formal education could be improved tremendously, in a way that prepares us to offer immediate and profound benefits.

The demand on counselors is strong, regardless of their license, method, level of experience, or the role they play in the client’s life. Every client is predictably inclined to view the counselor as a surrogate parent—a perception called “transference” that equals expectation. This new parent will either meet or, yet again, neglect emotional needs neglected during the client’s childhood, either relieving or reinforcing the client’s history. Transference occurs when the practitioner meets the client’s emotional needs to a certain depth, or even suggests a care relationship before that care is actually ministered. This natural, spontaneous shift in awareness can happen between strangers on the street, thus it will surely happen in a formal counseling relationship. In short, transference is unavoidable. The practitioner can only prepare for and accept it, as opposed to shirking the responsibility, blaming the client for being too difficult, or making excuses if the relationship goes sour. Due to transference, the client will be extra vulnerable if the counselor fails to meet basic needs; gross failure can be devastating.

Naturally, the extent to which the practitioner can meet emotional needs also depends on the format and method followed—the setting and function of the relationship. For example, a medical doctor’s bedside manner touches on the same needs addressed in a counseling format, but in less depth. No practitioner should feel responsible for offering more emotional need satisfaction than he or she can realistically provide. However, within realistic margins, the counselor must actually do the job of meeting needs, lest the client suffer unnecessarily. The client is merely requesting that the relationship remain healthy—a factor that he or she will recognize, but cannot control independently. The relationship remains healthy only if the professional meets relevant needs with format-appropriate behavior.

Proper education about emotional needs and mechanics is paramount if the quality of healthcare services (in general) is to improve. While no classroom can replace on-the-job training, more knowledge about emotional mechanics is better than less. What exactly does this client need from me today? Ultimately, procedures need not be elaborate, time-intensive, or intellectualized; they must only be effective, by matching the operative emotional need of the moment.

Having a healthy relationship is the most empowering potential benefit of the counseling relationship—something that the client probably never experienced before. Clients have problems precisely because their parents, siblings, and teachers failed to provide healthy relationships. They need to update and complete their parenting experience with new, hired caretakers capable of doing the job right. They need their needs to be met for the first time.

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