The Fundamentals of Co-Counseling

From a report by Harvey Jackins to the 1979 World Conference of the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities

For whatever reasons, the recovery process, the discharge and re-evaluation process, operates spontaneously whenever one person tries to think about her or his distress in the presence of another person who is willing to think about the first person’s distress also. In one sense, the essence of the Co-Counseling relationship is two people thinking about one person’s distress. It will sometimes appear to take other forms. It will sometimes appear as if two people are thinking about the positive aspects of the universe while one of them is discharging, but this simply means that both of them are thinking in an effective way about the one person’s distress, which is to pull attention away from it enough to achieve a balance of attention. Such an appearance does not contradict the definition I just offered.

This thinking about one person by two people (or by more than two people) is divided conveniently into the roles of the client—the person whose distress is being tackled in whatever way—and the person or people whom we call the counselor or the counselors. In its optimum functioning, two or more people are together thinking about one of those people in terms of releasing him or her from his or her distress, and all the other people’s distress is out of sight, is not allowed to intrude. This is the optimum situation for the recovery process.

As we all know, no two Co-Counselors have ever begun with an optimum condition. A great deal of the counseling that has taken place has included the counselor’s distress being a factor in the situation in some way or other. The great genius and motivation of the client and sometimes the earnest determination of the counselor have, however, often sufficed to overwhelm that hindering factor and the Co-Counseling has worked anyway.


“The counselor thinking about the client” has very much the same meaning, we have learned, as “the counselor loving the client.“ We have come to realize that a rational meaning of “loving another person” is very close to the meaning of “thinking about another person,” that you cannot have either one of them without the other in a rational sense. We can certainly see that if one would really love another person rationally (we’re not talking about “patterned” sentiment), it would include thinking about that person. If one were aware that this person has distresses that she or he is struggling to be free from, loving the person would certainly include thinking about those distresses in a way to help the person become free of them. Certainly all of us here at this conference who have ever had one good session as counselor know that if you really think about another person, you cannot help but love that person. Certainly if you’re thinking about the person while the person is discharging, the discharging reveals the real person in the midst of the discharge and you fall deeply in love with her or him forever. If there is anyone here who has not had that experience yet, you will.

So, thinking and caring, thinking and loving, seem clearly to be two aspects of the same process, and both must be present in the counselor’s attitude toward the client.

A distortion of our understanding of the client’s role has become widespread. This is the notion that the counselor thinks about the client but the client just discharges. This has slowed down the effectiveness of our counseling.

It is possible to have counseling succeed to some degree when the client is helped to think about or against the distress enough to get discharge started and then allowed to stop thinking as he or she discharges. But it is clear that the client should be helped to keep thinking all the time, including while he or she is discharging. Really effective counseling means the client thinking all the time and the counselor thinking all the time. When we attain this, we have rapid recovery, rapid re-emergence, from the distress.

For counseling to be effective, the client must be thinking before discharging, while discharging, and after discharging. The client’s mind, as well as the counselor’s, needs to be fully engaged.


The counselor’s attention needs to be fully for the client. We are now engaged in the beginnings of a grand campaign to eliminate carelessly allowing the counselor’s distress to become a factor in the counseling situation. We want to be very clear that the counseling session must be completely devoted to the most rapid, profound re-emergence of the client, even if the counselor “dies in the process.” Now we say “dies” because, of course, it’s safe to say it. No counselor has ever yet died from a client’s material.1 But at some point in the process, counselors’ old fears of death are quite likely to deceive them. Therefore we make no compromises here. In many counseling situations, counselors will feel that they will die if they persist in pushing through for the client. Since it’s going to feel like that, and at that point, restimulated, they will be unable to tell2 the difference, we ask that counselors make a commitment to “be there” for the client even if they die doing it. That will get them through the pseudo-crisis of their fears of death, which they will have to surmount. Afterward, of course, they will realize that they were not in any danger of dying, but by then the job will be done.


Another commonly circulated notion, which is completely false from the counselor’s point of view (and in a sense from any point of view), is that the client is at fault for not having a good session, that it is the client’s responsibility if the session does not go well. Often I overhear such phrases as “She didn’t want to try, so there was no use working with her,” “She wasn’t ready to be counseled,” “Everybody has given up on him; we should never have taken him into the Community,” and so on.

The plain truth of the matter is that all of us, viewed from the counselor’s point of view (and in a sense from any point of view), are perfect clients. Every one of us is a perfect client. Every human being is ready at this moment to completely re-emerge from his or her deepest distresses, if given the opportunity by the external factors, the most important of which is the counselor. Every one of us, as client, is shaking the bars of the prison cell of our distress, is biting at the steel with our teeth, is kicking it and cursing it and doing everything else we can think of to somehow emerge from this confining distress. Every human being is at all times a perfect client.

It is not ever a question of whether the client is ready to tackle something, whether the client is ready to re-emerge. The plain fact of the matter is that every one of us, and every other human being, is at every moment ready to re-emerge completely and almost instantaneously if given the intelligent, caring support and fearless counseling from outside that is necessary.

I would like for all of us to engage in a campaign to lay to rest this nonsense that “clients are not ready” and put the responsibility (not the blame, because all of us as counselors have done the best we could up till now, but the responsibility) exactly where it belongs, on all of us as counselors.

As counselors, we have the freedom to improve. As we get ready to counsel, we may feel terribly inhibited. We may have awakened this morning with an itchy nose and a post-nasal drip and a big toe that doesn’t feel good, but if we see the reality of our client’s position, we will see there a magnificent, gallant hero or heroine who is tied down with barbed wire cutting into her or his flesh, whose arms and legs are twisted into unnatural positions, whose air supply is almost cut off by occluding debris, but who is struggling gallantly to emerge nevertheless. In reference to that situation, we, the counselors, in spite of our aching big toe and post-nasal drips, have enormous freedom, flexibility, strength, power, and resources. We have the freedom to think flexibly about the client’s distresses to a vastly greater degree than the client has, and so the responsibility of solving this situation, of putting resources to work correctly, lies overwhelmingly and primarily with us.


A small footnote: As a client in a counseling situation, we must not use what I’ve just said to allow some of our powerless patterns to obscure our own strength. As clients, we need to hold to the attitude that even if we never found a counselor at all, if we were stranded on a desert island with nothing but a palm tree and a fiddler crab, we have enough theory that we could determine to completely re-emerge and succeed in doing it. We have enough theory already in our possession that all we would have to do is look at our distresses as they show up in our feelings, calculate the exact opposite and do the exact opposite, and when we need companionship tell the palm tree or the fiddler crab about it, and we could discharge. We could re-emerge. As clients we must assume this to keep from falling into the grip of our powerlessness. But that is a small footnote. Overwhelmingly, the job will be done by us as counselors, not as clients, because as clients we’re perfect. All of us are ready to do anything to re-emerge, and the counselor’s pattern that says, “You’re not trying (jeering),” is completely unaware of the fact that we have just tried so hard that the barbed wire has cut an inch deeper into our flesh. This is an accurate description, I think, of where the responsibility falls.


How do we, as counselors, communicate this thinking, this caring, to the client? Well, we say we “pay attention to him or her,” and we “sort of” know what we mean. What is attention? It’s very hard to define. Perhaps we cannot define it well. Nevertheless it has meaning. It might be what a mathematician or a logician would call a necessary undefined term. At least all of us know very well the difference between somebody really paying attention to us and someone not really paying attention to us. Right? You are familiar with the phenomenon. So we can use the phrase for communication.

We say that the counselor “pays attention to the client.” Can we describe it? How do we communicate this attention, this caring, this thinking about her or him? Certainly we do it in part by our regard, our visual regard. There’s a bit of nonsense that’s been circulated widely among the Communities that it is up to the client3 to keep her or his eyes on the counselor at all times. Isn’t that ridiculous? If any of you have mastered crying with your eyes open, please tell me how. But it is true that clients have the right to expect the visual regard of the counselor. When they look up, they should be reassured by the direction of your gaze that you are “with them.” You indicate your caring by the availability of your visual regard.

You indicate your caring by the expression on your face. You all know the difference between the expression that is interested and cares (demonstrates) and the all-too-familiar chronic-pattern expression (demonstrates).

You indicate this caring, this aware attention, this paying attention, by the posture of your body. Your posture can say, “I am relaxedly focused upon you,” or, all too often, “I’m not really here.”

You communicate this caring, this thoughtfulness, by the remark or the gesture that indicates you are following their thinking.

You cannot communicate this by any patterned or mechanical attitude. If there’s one thing that stops me from discharging at all, it’s the counselor who fixes me with an anxious stare, or the interjected “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” after everything I say. I can’t think about myself at all under those conditions and feel a pull to turn the person into a client at that point (which may be the necessary thing to do sometimes).

We can communicate by our regard, by our facial expression, by our body’s posture, by our general attitude, by the short, encouraging word occasionally. “Go ahead, let the tears come” is an encouraging word if it works. If you say it and the person stops crying, then you don’t persist in saying it. You conclude that it isn’t right for that client. There is a big range between “Let it come, it’s all right,” said in a gentle voice and someone shouting “Cry! Cry! Cry! It’s good for you! Cry!” which I once heard someone do.

We fundamentally communicate this caring, this thinking about the client, by paying attention, and our ability to pay attention is a function of a number of factors.

It is a function of how well we ourselves have discharged, how well we have cleaned up the baggage of nonsense, the conglomeration of patterns, that follows us around and appears to speak for us. To the extent we have cleaned that up through our own discharge, it is unlikely to intrude into the client’s session. So, our ability to pay attention is in great part a function of our own progress as clients. Discharge in our sessions as client turns us into a better counselor.

How well we are able to pay attention is a function of how well we have understood RC theory, assimilated the accumulated knowledge from successful counseling practice. We can pay much better attention if we understand the process in all its simplicity and in all its complexity. We will pay better attention the more mastery we have of the theory. Such mastery of theory means assimilating it to where it is really ours because we have thought it through, not simply repeating phrases out of a publication.


However, even if we have discharged on and on, and read every bit of literature five times over and memorized it so we can repeat it by heart,4 and have even thought it through, there is still a third factor that is necessary for us to be effective counselors, for us to pay effective attention to the client. This is the factor of decision.

I don’t think this factor has yet received enough attention. We have understandably encouraged several generations of new counselors to believe that if they kept discharging enough they would eventually be very good counselors. This has certainly moved them in that direction. But I think we can say now that not only our own discharge and re-emergence, and not only our understanding of theory, but also making up our minds to do a good job, to be there for our client, is crucial.

We do not have to wait until all of our distress is gone before we can decide to act as if all our distress were gone. We do not have to wait until we are “comfortable” before we act as if the client were the only person in the Co-Counseling situation that mattered. It does make a difference to make up our minds. “To the devil with my feelings.5 This client is going to re-emerge!” Do I make sense here? (Group responds with “Yes!”)

There is a factor of decision. The decision is easier to make and clearer when we have discharged more, it can be carried out with more consistency when we have mastered theory, but the idea of decision, I think, has to be there from the very beginning.

These three factors largely determine our effectiveness as counselors. Our ability to pay attention is a function of all three: how much we have freed ourselves from distress, how much of the theory we have come to understand, and how much of a decision and a commitment we have made. In the Co-Counseling relationship, the counselor’s proper regard is for the client and the client’s re-emergence only, not at all for the counselor’s comfort or the counselor’s fears.

If we can pay good enough aware attention, then, for most counseling situations, we need to do little else. The client is everywhere and at all times so eager that in most situations this is all we need do. When we come to more demanding situations, in which additional techniques are needed, we find that these advanced techniques only operate on a foundation of paying aware, thoughtful, caring attention. Counselors who try to use these advanced techniques without such a foundation do not do good counseling. They wind up6 trying to manipulate the client and frustrating both the client and the counselor. The fundamental foundation of counseling is paying aware, clear attention. This is so effective, this meets the needs of the client so well, that most people will respond as perfect clients, even if they have never heard any theory at all.


There are simple additions to paying attention that will be helpful. Sometimes the client has embarrassments, speech inhibitions, various patterns that inhibit the beginning of the discharge process. There are simple things we can do in addition to paying attention that will allow the profound strength of the client to begin to operate—such things as asking, “What are you thinking?” and then listening. Often one question is enough for a long, long session. “Where were you born? What happened after that?” and the story of the person’s life unrolls with less and less inhibition. If the client stops and says, “I don’t know why I am telling you all this. This is ridiculous,” and you look interested and ask, “What did happen after that?” (group laughter), he or she will continue. Ask, “What do you feel are your strong points?” which for many people is easier to respond to than “What do you like about yourself?” Any simple framework question, such as, “What are your big interests in life?” will work. Anything that allows the person to start talking is likely to release this profound response to simply being paid attention to.

When I am asked to handle clients that everyone has difficulty with, I almost universally find that what solves the problem is to look at them with approving regard, be really interested in them, ask them to talk about themselves, perhaps indicate an interest in their work. If you indicate you find your clients interesting and take an interest in their jobs, and so on, and simply listen, even the “impossible” clients are almost universally into heavy discharge in about ten or fifteen minutes. Based on some deep computation, their intelligence decides it is safe as long as the counselor is there acting human instead of trying to manipulate them.

The fundamental relationship of Co-Counseling is simple. It is not necessarily easy, because it does require a decision on the part of the counselor—a decision that “my feelings don’t matter, you matter. For the duration of this relationship, this session, you matter. I will think about you, I will care about you, I will love you, I will support you, I will be there for you no matter what rocks of restimulation you drag me over in the process.“ If we can express this, this is profound, this is powerful, this is almost everything we need. Every human being in the world is waiting for someone to present this opportunity to become the perfect client.

Harvey Jackins

Excerpted from pages 65 to 75 of The Benign Reality

(Present Time 182, January 2016)

1 “Material” means distress.
2 “Tell” means perceive.
3 “Up to the client” means the client’s job.
4 “By heart” means from memory.
5 “To the devil with my feelings” means my feelings are of no significance.
6 “Wind up” means end up.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00