Dr. Phil Monroe

Those of us who teach others exert tremendous power with our words. With words we name things into categories, what is good and bad, right and wrong. With words we dismiss some ideas and baptize others. Even those of us teachers who want to be known for our Socratic methods must admit that our choice of questions may wield the same power as those who teach by divine fiat.

Counselors too exert this same power over clients. If we are honest, we tend to provide empathic validation of feelings when we agree with our clients and silence when we do not. We offer “insight” to name our clients neuroses.

A few days ago I ran across notes I took from a presentation made by Paul Wachtel, professor at CUNY. He pointed out how therapists use words to make power grabs in session. When a client is having a negative reaction to our words and work, we can distance ourselves with “pseudo-neutrality” by saying something like, “I’m wondering if your defensiveness to me right now is because…”  Such words imply that the event is merely happening within the client. Such words deny our own responsibility for all or part of the problem. Wachtel suggests that using the words, “Isn’t it interesting that you see/believe/think…” illustrates another power grab. It defines the therapist as the all-knowing seer and the client as some naïve child. These kinds of statements form a put-down even when that is not our goal. Even when the client does not feel judged, it is likely that they will not feel energized to change.

Is there a solution?

I do not advocate that teachers stop teaching or that counselors stop offering wisdom and insight. Nor is it always wrong to name things as right or wrong. Rather, I think we must consider how we teach and counsel. What words best help our students and counselees activate into critical thinking, evaluation, and action?

Acceptance before judgment, describing instead of telling

Before offering assessment, it may be better to enable students/counselees to accept what is in front of them—feelings, beliefs, and realities. Now, acceptance sounds like valuing. But by acceptance I mean to describe and acknowledge prior to judging whether something is good or bad. Consider these examples from Paul Wachtel to a client who keeps missing sessions,

You want someone to pursue you… OR It feels good when someone pursues you.

Or consider his examples with a client who says, “This counseling is superficial. I want to go deeper.”

You say you want to go deeper, but when I try to do it, you don’t want to… OR You want to go deeper into your experience, but it’s also frightening.

Notice that both name the thing that is happening but one offers blame while the other offers an invitation to accept a reality.

Notice the difference between the first option (telling) and the second (validation/acknowledgement). Which one might encourage more active response by the client? Paul suggests that when we accept a client’s perception, it offers an opportunity to stop defending self and to explore what may have been unacknowledged.

A corrective for Biblical counselors?

One stereotype of Biblical counselors is that they spend too much time naming sin. While not a fully fair stereotype, counselors may want to examine how Jesus works with the most vulnerable of sinners. Do we tell them what is wrong and the path forward, or do we engage them at their level of experience? John 4 depicts Jesus’ interactions with the woman at the well. This woman is of ill repute. She is at the well to avoid the judgments of her neighbors. She runs into a Jewish rabbi who chooses not to avoid her but to ask her for help. Instead of engaging in dismissive interpretations or debates about Samaritan versus Jewish worship practices, he offers her something she desperately wants. Then, he does tell her something about her history, but only after she has opened the door.

Or consider Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and how he does not directly name the sin but protects first, asks her to notice what is happening, and then encourages her to act in a new way regarding her sexual behavior.

On the flip side, consider Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders of the day (Luke 11). Notice that he does not refrain from making some rather harsh judgments. Here’s the question I want you to consider: Does Jesus make these pronouncements in the hope that it will produce change? I think not.

None of these stories form a doctrine of counseling but may they encourage us to consider how we join our counselees first rather than stand above using words of assessment and judgment.

Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychologyand Director of the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He also directs Biblical’s new trauma recovery project. You can find his personal blog at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com.


0 # Daniel McCurdy 2013-10-19 10:56
Phil, I really appreciate this blog. The first half resonates with observations I have made in my short time as a counselor. I have seen how much the acceptance and validation can help in the DBT group I am part of at my internship.
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