ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Aug 22, 2011

How Can I Be Ethical When I Don’t Know What I’m Doing?

In my last blog, I was strongly advocating, rather evangelizing, counselors to first of all to DO NO HARM. This is especially a danger when dealing with religious and spiritual issues. As Nietzsche said, ’Those who were seen dancing were considered insane by those who could not hear the music.’ On the other hand, again especially in the area of religious and spiritual issues, so many advocates are like cowboys with ‘all hat and no cattle’—claiming faith and religion because of the effect it has on others but with no person experience. As counselors we should be able to distinguish between those who actually are hearing the music and those who are trying to get us to dance because of the silence in their lives. In either case, DO NO HARM.

This blog explores a step further. I have often heard that more that 50% of the impact of a counseling session is outside the awareness of either the client or the counselor. I believe this is also true of life in general.

Malcolm Gladwell’s delightful book, Blink, explores the effects of the unconscious on our judgments—especially our immediate impressions or responses. We are aware that CEOs are almost all white, males; but why are they also 3 inches taller than the average American white male; the same phenomenon is true, also, of American presidents. How does that happen? A famous Univ. of Chicago study in 1990 showed that car sales men in the Chicago area would initially offer a black male a price quote on a car around $1,000 higher than for a white male who was in every way equal though they would deny be prejudiced. It seems their subconscious was making a $1,000 difference without them knowing it! It is interesting to check out our own various subconscious associations by doing the Implicit Association Test (IAT). You can do this conveniently using the tests found at

Another example from a study with significant implications for counselors: Two Dutch researchers (Dijksterhuis & Knippenberg) asked 2 groups of students to answer ‘Trivial Pursuit’ questions. But one group first wrote down everything they could think of about being a professor; the other group wrote down everything about a ‘soccer hooligan.’ The first group got significantly more correct than the second!

So the good news and bad news about the subconscious is that it is highly malleable. Although we cannot escape prejudiced associations our environment presents to us, we can use techniques which can potentially override those associations and enhance the effectiveness of our unconsciousness as counselors.
For example, say a 15 year old Hispanic male has been referred to me by the courts for getting into trouble with the law. What might happen to my unconscious associations if, before meeting him, I were to read over his chart mentioning all of the trouble he had been giving his teachers, counselors, law officers, etc? Add to that the fact that just before my meeting him, the only Hispanics I saw were those cleaning dishes in the cafeteria and mopping the floor? Furthermore, my latest experience with 15 year old males was the report on the morning news about the police arresting a 15 and a 16 year old youth?

What chance does he have with me to make any significant changes? Not only does he have the task of taking on a new vision of who he is and what he can hope for; he also has the added burden of changing my unconscious associations of who he is and what I expect from him.

As a counselor, I need to prepare my consciousness by making a commitment to accepting him as he is and to working to empower him to overcome those forces keeping him from becoming all he can be—which include some of the same forces that tend mold my limiting and negative associations. But I also can prepare my subconscious perhaps by reading or watching videos about successful Hispanic leaders, professors, athletes, etc., and about successful individuals who were always in trouble as teenagers. Since the impact of a counseling session is determined as much by what is implicit as what is consciously decided on, we must prepare both our consciousness and our subconscious for each session.

This is especially true for spiritual and religious issues. If I am truly committed to the belief that my view of my religion is the only true one, I am in trouble. While consciously I may tell myself I can be open to individuals of any faith, my subconscious may be offering my client a different message.

This suggests a further implication for our lives as counselors. Although consciously I may be able to ‘put up an ethical professional front’ as a counselor as I work with a client, my subconscious is going to present itself as it has learned it throughout my whole life. That’s why you can usually tell if a person is lying unless lying is just part of their normal daily life. In my day to day life, if I live as if individuals can’t really change or women are truly intellectually inferior, in a counseling situation, although my conscious behavior may seem to portray me differently, my subconscious will present my client with a different picture.

If the religious community I belong to implies by its ritual, language, authorities and beliefs that males are superior to women, my subconscious will bring that attitude into the counseling session and make its presence felt.

That also makes it so difficult to be as effective as possible in many counseling environments where the very structure, process and authoritative structure imply associations which are antithetical to helping an individual realize their own autonomous power and freedom.

Bottom line, to be ethical counselors, we must live our daily lives as if we truly believed the principles and assumptions we claim as we work with our clients. We must train both our conscious knowledge as well as that part of our mind that is outside our awareness by the very way we live our lives. It’s the only way to be an ethical counselor. (I wonder if the revision of ACA ethics will include this dimension in its consideration.)

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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