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Eighteen Ways to Make Your Counseling Go Better

The following was originally written for a single class I called “Fundamentals for Experienced Counselors.” I tried to think of the counseling insights that had been most important to me as both counselor and client. The eighteen items below are the result. I ended up using only the first three for the class, but I think all of them may be useful to others.

1. Decide to make a difference. Decide (and re-decide each session), for yourself and your client, to make that session make a difference. As counselor, take a deep breath (or three) and decide to see your client afresh, to notice them, and to notice how much you care about them. Then keep thinking, even if you don’t say much. As client, notice what you are holding back and not telling your counselor. Decide to take the chance and tell your secrets.

Background: A few years back I was getting a little lazy and complacent as counselor. I would listen attentively but was not always actively thinking about my client and how to move them forward. Neither my client nor I was making the fullest use of our time together or our joint intelligence. Once I realized this, I made a decision to give each moment of every session nothing less than my full attention, to think actively and use every bit of good thinking I could find. This has vastly improved the quality of my counseling relationships. I now take far more risks as both client and counselor, talk and think with my client about the session, discharge often while in the role of counselor, and refuse to settle in either role for anything less than my best thinking.

2. Be close. Feeling alone is a basic component of every distress recording. If we hadn’t been alone with our experience during the original incident, it would have been discharged and never recorded. Therefore, giving someone your undivided, loving attention and, in particular, expressing warmth with closeness and physical contact contradict nearly every distress. Remembering this about yourself will also tend to contradict your own distress.

3. Remember that you are the contradiction. Getting your client to notice that you are there is often the simplest, most powerful thing you can do. Your presence and your willingness to listen, love, and encourage contradict the most basic distress—being alone. Hurrah, there’s hope! Another human being is really there! How you might need to do this with each person will vary considerably. It does not need to be demonstrative and overt; often something small, personal, and subtle can have a huge impact.

4. Notice if the client is discharging, and “follow the discharge.” Often a client will start discharging or come close to it at the beginning of a session, when little has been said. They may make a brief comment during “news and goods” or even as they come in the door; an expression may flash across their face as they have a thought they don’t verbalize. Before you give a direction or ask a question, notice if they are already discharging (or are close to it). If they are, follow the discharge and whatever might be encouraging it, even if you and/or the client initially have no idea what it is about. The client’s mind is already trying to discharge the distress. They don’t need to explain it, and you don’t have to “understand” it to assist. It’s enough to notice that it has already been contradicted sufficiently—most likely by the safety of the counseling environment and your presence—for it to begin to discharge.

5. Remember that re-evaluation follows discharge (not the other way around). This is a corollary to the above. As client, once you discharge you’ll understand what you were discharging about. Don’t worry if you don’t know now. Just follow and encourage the discharge and notice whatever thoughts you have along the way. Because many early hurts have little or no verbal component, talking about them usually doesn’t work particularly well. It can be useful to tell your counselor about any impressions, images, sensations, memories that come up while discharging on these early hurts, but don’t let the talking get in the way of the discharge. Just allow the discharge to happen. Your mind knows what it is doing.

6. Keep in mind the four-step counseling process:

a. Remember and notice that the client is inherently a person of great intelligence, caring, and so on.

b. Pay enough attention to the client to see clearly what the distress consists of.

c. Think of all possible ways to contradict the distress.

d. Contradict the distress sufficiently; the client will always discharge.

I would add that noticing the client also means noticing how much you care about them and if they are already discharging or about to discharge.

7. Tell or show the client that you like or love them. When I do this as counselor, I usually discharge myself, because I have to push against whatever has held me back from openly caring about this person.

8. Stand up or use posture as part of contradicting the distress. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said to a client, “Let’s stand up,” heard the client groan, and then almost immediately seen much more profuse discharge. Simply moving to a more upright position—sitting or standing up, or even raising the head slightly—can allow the whole body to move (particularly with shaking) and contradict passivity, hopelessness, and powerlessness.

9. Trust the client’s mind. Your goal as counselor is to assist the client to discharge so they can recover their full intelligence and make choices and decisions with greater clarity. You may feel uncomfortable about or disagree with the choices they are contemplating, but the decision is theirs. To get clearer, you can discharge with another counselor on where it gets difficult for you.

The next two points address ways we sometimes undermine the client in their taking charge and being powerful in their lives.

10. Avoid giving opinions. Making judgments or expressing opinions about the situations or people your client is talking about is not helpful, and I’m surprised how often I see or hear of counselors doing this. If you think it would be helpful for your client to take charge in a situation, find the direction that will help them discharge toward that end. Expressing an opinion or making a judgment about the events or people in the client’s life is accepting the client’s distress as reality and tends to reduce safety and discharge.

11. Avoid giving advice. We all know the admonition about not giving advice as counselor. I would add to it “even if you are an expert in the field that your client is discussing.” It can sometimes be tempting to try to help the client “figure out” a situation, especially if it’s something you have a lot of experience with, but it’s not helpful to the goal of the session, because you are communicating lack of trust in the client’s own mind. On rare occasions, after a session and with the client’s permission, I might offer to tell the client about some external resources I’m aware of, but I’m extremely careful about this and explicitly ask the client whether it would be appropriate.

12. Work on the early hurts. We hear this frequently in classes and workshops, but in my experience many counselors have a difficult time doing it with any consistency. The idea is simple: discharge regularly on the earliest experiences you can access. Doing so has a much greater effect than working on later hurts that added to the earliest ones. You are digging at the roots of the pattern rather than picking off the leaves and branches.

Ask yourself, “What are the three earliest and most important experiences for me to work on—the ones that if I work on them, everything else in my life will move forward?” Then decide to work on these experiences regularly and enlist your counselors in reminding you to do this. If you need to discharge on current issues, also look for and notice their connections to the early experiences. When you can, shift your attention to the earlier experiences or at least acknowledge them to yourself and your counselor.

13. Think about the session in advance. Putting some attention before the session on what you want to counsel on and what your counseling partner has been counseling on can make a big difference in how the session goes.

Look forward to the session and actively think about yourself and your counseling partner. What directions have worked particularly well? What did your counselor ask you to remember for them or remind them to work on? What ongoing “projects” do you have in your own counseling? What do you want to be thinking more clearly about at the end of the session? What was that insight you felt so clear about in a recent class or workshop or session? (Keeping a list, in a notebook or electronically, of every good direction or insight I get in a session has been incredibly helpful to me in refining my focus in upcoming sessions.)

14. Think with the client. The counseling relationship is a partnership. It’s not a test to see whether the counselor, with no help, can outwit the client’s pattern. Recently I’ve started asking the client questions like, “Is there a way we can set this up that would work better for you?” “Is there something different I could do that would make it safer or easier for you to discharge?” This has the effect of (1) letting the client know I am thinking about them and (2) eliciting the client’s thinking so we can work together. The client will often share something previously unsaid or suggest a small change in physical position, wording, or tone, which will greatly enhance the discharge and the progress of the session.

15. Check in after the session. I’ve found it useful at the end of each person’s session to talk briefly about the counseling: what went well, what we were thinking, what didn’t work, what could have helped. This is a good affirmation for the counselor and their thinking and a great way to keep the counseling on track.

16. Remember how ashamed and humiliated many men feel. As a man and counselor of men, I would reiterate the often-repeated advice, “Don’t underestimate the degree to which shame and humiliation play a role in men’s distress.” It took me twelve years in Co-Counseling before I could admit to myself and then tell my counselor that what I was feeling was shame. Within a distress recording of shame and humiliation, this can be very hard to admit! Be patient; be gentle.

Deciding to “not feel bad about oneself” is important for countering shame, but clients may first need to be able to simply admit the things they feel shame about. Saying something like, “I got hit a lot,” in a matter-of-fact way, can be very useful for discharge. Telling one’s “secrets” can also be an important part of working on shame.

I have found it useful to tell a client that I will “stand guard” or “not let anyone else see” while they tell me how ashamed they feel or what they are ashamed of. In relationship sessions with a man and a woman, I’ve sometimes physically interposed my body between the two of them and told the man, “I won’t let her see,” while he whispers to me the thoughts and feelings he is so ashamed of.

17. See the bigger picture. Take time to get to know and be known by the significant people in your Co-Counselor’s life. This is different from socializing and can help you see your Co-Counselor’s life in a larger context. Spending a little time making friendly contact also lets these people see you—something that can be helpful if they aren’t in RC or don’t otherwise know you.

18. If being counselor is restimulating, try alternating roles more often or inviting in a third person. If both Co-Counselors are having difficulty keeping their attention out as counselor, try alternating roles for shorter periods of time. Instead of each person having one long turn as client, alternate in five-, ten-, or fifteen-minute blocks. This gives both people a chance to discharge and get their attention out. Inviting an agreed-upon third counselor to occasionally join your regular Co-Counseling session can also be very useful.

Will (McNaughten) Loving

Northampton, Massachusetts, USA

(Present Time 184, July 2016)


Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00