Successful counseling

Five secrets to good counseling.

Ellen Bresee is associate coordinator of Shepherdess International.

If you are a caring person, you counsel. If you say, "I could never counsel!" you are really saying you wouldn't listen to some heavyhearted person who comes to you for help. You may be shy. You may feel inadequate. But Christians desire to be caring people, and caring people reach out to hurting people rather than hiding from them, even if it means sharing their pain. "And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you" (I Thess. 3:12).

Caring persons counsel successfully. Researchers conducted an experiment on a university campus comparing the relative effectiveness of counseling done by professional counselors and that of regular teachers. They found that the professional counselors had no more success in helping troubled students than the average teacher. The professional counselors knew more. Their techniques may have been better. But students who counseled with teachers chose them on the basis of an ongoing relationship. They came to those they knew best, trusted, and whom they felt cared most.

People who choose to counsel with a pastor, and especially with a pastor's wife, usually choose him or her on the same basis. Such counseling tends to be successful.

"The journey through life is a series of crises some of which are predictable and expected and some of which are total surprises," says Norman Wright in Crisis Counseling. Some of these crises send people to their extended family for help. Christian friends who will listen and still love them provide reassurance and support.

Let me share five secrets to good counseling:

1. Learn to listen. Many good things happen when you listen to the counselee—especially at the beginning of your first session:

You show the counselee that you care. Listening flatters. It says that what the counselee thinks and feels matters. It proves you care, and troubled people desperately need to know someone cares.

Talking clarifies the problem for the counselee. Talking is excellent therapy. By putting their feelings into words, people move from the emotional to a more rational level. Clothes taken out of a washer and placed in a basket are all wadded up, shapeless, and intertwined. But hang them on the clothesline, and individual shapes and colors come clear. Thoughts and feelings, problems and needs, can seem terribly complicated. Putting them into words is like hanging them on the clothesline. Things start coming clear.

Listening clarifies the problem for the counselor. While you're talking you're not learning. When you concentrate too much on coming up with answers, you may misunderstand part of the questions. Listen more to learn more.

You encourage your counselee to talk by smiling, nodding, leaning forward, and looking interested. Most counselees do not feel free to go on talking unless the counselor gives some positive reinforcement. As one professional counselor said when recruiting beginners to assist him in counseling people attending a stop-smoking clinic: "All I want you to know is one word, Uh-huh."

During the early stages of a counseling experience you should talk only to clarify what the counselee is saying. Sometimes what you are hearing is not what he is saying. Sometimes what he is saying is not what he is really feeling. Repeat in question form what you think he said. "Do I hear you saying that when your husband works late at the office every night you feel rejected?" The counselee will correct you if you're not really hearing what he is trying to communicate.

Be unshockable. If you show you're shocked by what a counselee reveals, he may feel threatened and withhold further disclosures. Ask God to help you to be accepting of the person even though what he's done may be distasteful to you. On the other hand, you don't need to encourage sordid details.

Hear both sides. Never assume that what you hear from one side is completely accurate or that the person is deliberately lying, but that he is right in his own eyes. The implied flattery that comes with his -selecting you as his counselor tends to bias your thinking in his favor. After all, anyone who had the good sense to seek your counsel couldn't be too far wrong! You will tend to take sides against the other person. If at all possible, talk to that other individual personally.

Be as nonjudgmental as Jesus was toward the woman caught in adultery. And let your grace extend to the "offending" party as well as to the counselee.

I learned a valuable lesson early in my counseling experience. I thought I was saving time by meeting with a husband and wife together on their initial visit. Later the wife called me and told me a completely different story from the one she shared in front of her husband. The whole picture changed. From that time on, I have made it a practice to counsel separately on the initial visit. Your counselee may be intimidated in the presence of a dominating spouse.

2. Concentrate on solutions. Spend most of your time on solutions, not problems! The first half hour of the first session ought to be enough time listening to the problem. Some people go over and over a problem and refuse to work on a solution. They want sympathy more than they want a solution. If they solved their problem, they wouldn't feel important any longer. They'd lose the' excuse for coming. Not only are you wasting your time with such people, you are hurting them by oversympathizing. You will become their crutch and may prevent their ever walking.

I like the little story about solutions I once heard Pastor Glenn Coon tell. He and his wife had moved into a new home, and the landscaping wasn't finished. When Glenn tracked mud on their new carpet, his wife wasn't happy. Finally she said that they had a problem. Glenn asked what it was. Her simple answer was "Mud." Immediately they began looking for a solution. The answer they came up with was to place a pair of overshoes by each door for Glenn to wear while working outside. The overshoes could then be slipped off at the door before he came in. The point is that they didn't spend much time on the problem.

All it took was a simple, quick explanation of it, and they immediately moved on to the solution!

The Christian way to change others is to change oneself. You can discover whether or not you can really help a person by finding out whether he is expecting to make changes in his own behavior. Too often pastoral counseling consists of a member coming with a black story about a nonmember spouse, fishing for sympathy. Many times the session ends with a prayer imploring the Lord to change the spouse. That may not be Christian counseling at all! The Christian way to change others is to change oneself.

We don't want to send people out feeling guilty because of all the mistakes they may have made in a relationship. On the other hand, sanctification is growth in love toward both God and man. We help people apply Christianity to their problems when we help them see how Christ can change their own attitudes and behavior and how they can use Christian love in motivating the spouse to change.

Don't try to solve people's problems. Help them to define what the problem really is and then work their way through the process of solving it. Guide them in deciding what change Christ wants to help them make as He works with them in healing the relationship.

Don't do "band-aid" counseling that discourages long-term treatment—especially if you tackle marriage counseling. Heavy surgery may be required! One session does not usually solve marital problems. The danger is that when you help the counselees alleviate the symptoms, they get to feeling better and think all is well.

I have known couples who felt the pressure ease dramatically after two or three sessions with a counselor. Then they said, "Thanks, we don't need any more help." But after several more months they were separated. They had been too embarrassed to come back and say, "It wasn't enough." It usually takes a long time for relationships to disintegrate and a long time to rebuild them.

If a couple insist on ending the counseling, at least leave them with a good self-counseling book. An excellent one is How to Have a Happy Marriage, by David and Vera Mace. This outlines a six-week program that helps a couple learn skills in communication, confrontation, and appreciation.

3. Help them choose a plan. Counselees find it easier to concentrate on solutions if, together, you list various options. Then help them decide which options seem best, and form a plan for putting them into operation. Now your task is largely to encourage them to implement their own decision.

If you have a counselee who constantly phones you and brings up the same old problem, ask, "Did you try what we decided on?" If he hedges, encourage him to try it before you discuss the problem again. Assure him of your continuing concern, then pleasantly but confidently close the conversation and hang up. If he won't help himself, you cannot help him.

Many ministers and spouses find themselves dominated by the telephone, and valuable hours that could be used in soul winning are lost. If you find this a problem, try a class on assertiveness training. In a paper entitled "Why Do Clergy Wives Burn Out?" Roy Oswald, of the Alban Institute, suggests that clergy spouses often believe the congregation expects them to be passive and to ignore their own needs. Passive behavior eventually leads to losing control over one's life. Aggressive behavior means exploiting or coercing another. Christian assertive behavior is feeling clear about who you are and what you can and cannot contribute. You can be pleasant and receptive to the chronic phone caller and yet not let someone else's agenda dominate you.

4. Know when to refer. While listening, watch for such inappropriate responses as illogical verbalizing, uncontrollable emotions, staring into space or inattentiveness, extreme depression, inability to make simple decisions, belief that others are out to get them, and loss of control in eating and other habits. These can be psychotic symptoms, and people who exhibit them should be referred to a professional counselor or psychiatrist who is trained in treating severe conditions. Find out what resources are available in your area so you can refer cases you are not qualified to work with. You can usually find help by inquiring at your county mental health department. The Narramore Christian Foundation, 1409 North Walnut Grove Avenue, Rosemead, CA 91770, (818) 288-7000, keeps a list of qualified counselors and will give referrals.

5. Practice strictest confidentiality. When someone opens to you the depths of his heart, you have a grave responsibility to practice the strictest confidentiality! If you cannot keep confidences, don't counsel. It would be better for you to tell the person who comes to you that you have trouble keeping a secret, that it sort of bubbles out at the wrong time. I knew one minister's wife who said she asked her husband and others not to tell her any secrets. That way she didn't accidentally give them away.

Beware of the busybodies. They tend to go fishing a lot. For instance, one might say to you, "I understand Mary is thinking about a divorce." This busy body saw Mary counseling with you in the church office, and she's noticed Mary's husband hasn't been around much lately. She doesn't really know that Mary is thinking about a divorce, she's only hoping to find out! If you surmise she knows and answer yes, you've blown it.

Don't be surprised if a person whom you counseled avoids you later. Your relationship has changed. This is especially true of a person who has seldom shared his feelings with another human before. I remember one lady who would cross the street when she saw me coming. I wondered whether I had offended her. Later she told me how much she had appreciated my help. She was just embarrassed because she knew that I knew.

Offer to pray with the person you are counseling. Prayer focuses his attention on the real Source of help—God.

If you care, develop good counseling skills, and have time for counseling, you can be a great help to your husband. The counseling you do just might mean a lighter load for him. Perhaps you can bargain with him, getting him to agree to spend with you and your family some of the time you save him by counseling members. If counseling is a gift God has given you, use it to glorify Him.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Ellen Bresee is associate coordinator of Shepherdess International.

April 1987

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