ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Nov 07, 2011

Three Metaphors All Counselors Use: The Third One—The Dialogue

Much of my interest in counseling came many years ago from reading the works of Eric Berne and Milton Erickson. The skills and writings of these geniuses and their followers presented such powerful ways of helping individuals change—no matter what the client was dealing with—and personally, they changed my life. But when I went through graduate school a few years ago, these two pioneers were hardly even mentioned. Rarely did any of my textbooks even refer to them although most of the issues we were dealing with had already been dealt with quite powerfully by them.

What had happened? Then it struck me—these therapists were using an entirely different metaphor from that used in the counseling environment I was in. It was a metaphor which did not lend itself to creating theories which could be developed and passed on to disciples. Most of my counseling education assumed the metaphor I discussed in my previous blog, the counselor as an artisan. The artisan metaphor is assumed by anyone who develops a theory of personality including its development through the early years. Almost all the current psychotherapies assume an ‘image’ and discuss some process to realize that image in ones client or in ones self—the counselor is an artisan. Most counseling organizations and clinics embody the artisan metaphor in their structure and processes.

However, Eric Berne, Milton Erickson and a few others assumed a third metaphor which, to me, made their work so much more powerful because it dealt with the counseling situation in a more realistic and comprehensive way—counseling as dialogue. They acknowledged and worked with the 900 lb gorilla in the counseling experience—that is, the relationship between the client and the counselor. The metaphor of a dialogue works with that relationship. This metaphor comes from comes from the human activity of speaking, specifically dialoguing. The smallest unit of a dialogue is that one person speaks, a second person responds. This is the basis of the term Transactional Analysis. To try to break this unit down further by trying to understand the client as an individual or the counselor as an individual (like is done with the metaphor of counselor as artisan) would be like trying to study water by studying the characteristics of hydrogen or oxygen.

Here I can only suggest a few of the consequences of using this metaphor to guide one’s counseling:
Counseling involves two individual in relationship. It is a common observation that when a couple comes in for counseling, actually 3 different entities are present, each of the individuals as well as their relationship. And it is that relationship that is the key to success in couples counseling. Using dialogue as a metaphor, the relationship between the client and the counselor is the entity that is ‘subject matter’ of the counseling process. Understanding the power and possibilities of that relationship and modifying it is the key to a successful outcome. Restricting that relationship may hinder a successful outcome.

This relationship is a unique entity which is created when the two individuals—client and counselor--first interact. It is an entirely new and unique creation but it then lasts forever! Even after the death of one of the members of the dialogue, it continues. (Personally, I believe that observation provides an understanding of many beliefs and experiences of ‘life after death’.)

The content of the relationship comes from the communication between the two individual as they interact with each other—that is, what each member contributes to that relationship as they interact with each other. That is the major reason using this metaphor cannot lead to a psychological theory—each creation is entirely unique and requires its own handling.

It is critical for the counselor to be especially alert at the first interaction—when that unique relationship is first created. In the first 5-10 minutes, this relationship is created and in that time, an experienced counselor should be able to gather most of the information needed for counseling this client including what are their key issues and to how to help the client can reclaim their own power to solve their own problems. On the one hand, there no need for extensive intake forms documenting the background of the client—in fact, such information will prejudice the relationship even before it is created. What is needed is time for the counselor to ‘clear’ his or her mind from what they have just been involved in so that they can be open to whatever the client presents as they the client responds to them. If it is a former client, the counselor needs time to recall that relationship—its possibilities and possible restrictions—I’m not sure that can be done in the 10 minutes between clients.

The basic assumption in a dialogue is that each person is making a response that they think will give them the result they want—not necessarily, of course, what response they say they want, because their response is more than just the language they use.

Lest this blog get too long, here are just a couple of other aspects of this metaphor:
In a dialogue, each individual chooses how to respond to what they understand the other to be saying as well as how they imagine the other will respond to their own response. Their understanding, of course, comes from their view of the world and themselves, their experiences from the past, their social skills, what they perceive as their needs and how to get those needs satisfied. Each response is an attempt to ‘change’ the other person—that’s what communication basically is all about. However, so often the client gives this power away. This can be immediately discerned in the actions and words and phrases the client uses.

Note, for example, by listening to the client’s pronouns, one can often discern how he or she avoids responsibility for themselves. Here are some well-known examples:
‘It really feels bad when I talk with her.’ If ‘it’ feels bad, then the client has no power or responsibility to change ‘it’. ‘I really feel bad when I talk with her’ claims back the responsibility for the feeling and thus the ability to change it.

‘You can’t talk to a person that way.’ This shows two ways of giving up one’s responsibility and power to change things—‘you’ (rather than ‘I’) means I am not responsible. And ‘can’t’ really is not true unless a person has lost the physical ability to talk. ‘I won’t talk to a person that way.’ Claims back both responsibility and the power of choice.

The point being, that the dialogue metaphor can guide the counselor in helping the client reclaim their responsibility and power in a relationship and thus their ability to change it. The collection of essays by the Goulding’s, The Power Is in the Patient, gives some good examples.

Another critical difference between being guided by the counselor in dialogue and counselor as artisan metaphors comes from the responsibility of the counselor to be either thoroughly aware of different cultural, religious, past experiences, family situation, etc. vs. entering into the client-counselor dialogue as completely free of any pre-conceived images of the client and theories by the counselor. For a counselor creating a dialogue with a client, any pre-conceived ideas the counselor brings may limit the counselor’s ability to create a completely new creation—and thus limit what changes the client can make, because the client’s contribution to the dialogue comes as a response to the counselor’s responses and if the counselor’s responses are already limited or guided by some preconceived notions, the client’s responses will also be limited. Note that a client often tries (usually outside of awareness) to get the counselor to use those pre-conceived notions. In fact, that is often the way the client gives up his or her power and becomes dysfunctional.

Almost everything I learned in graduate school was like carefully studying ‘hydrogen’ (the psychological aspects of individuals) but when I got in a counseling situation, I had to deal with ‘water’ (the relationship).

Most of Vann Joines and Ian Stewart’s book Personality Adaptations is a concentrated presentation of counseling guided using the metaphor of counseling as dialogue.

I could go on, but I hope this has given you enough of an idea the power and possibilities of the dialogue metaphor and how it is different from the other two metaphors, the counselor as artisan and counseling as a legal activity.

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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