I have had the privilege of having a blog posted on the ACA blog site for about a year now. This opportunity has motivated me to clarify and articulate many ideas that have been bouncing around in my brain for a long time. I hope they have helped others who have read them. Now, however, every time I get a brilliant new idea or insight into some aspect of counseling, I realize I had that same brilliant idea several months ago and have already written about it. So I’m thinking it is time to summarize those ideas that seem most important as a way of finishing.
If I could make any changes I wanted to for counselors, here are a few I would make culled from my past blogs:
1. I began my blogs focusing specific on spiritual and religious issues. And if I had my way, the word ‘religion’ would only be used to refer to social organizations with a definable membership. This may limit it to primarily a western phenomenon. I think Huston Smith did us all a disservice to include such cultural philosophies as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, African Religions, etc. in a book called World Religions. Thus religion and ones involvement in it should be studied using the tools of groups of people, viz. sociology, not psychology.
2. As Karen Armstrong noted in her book ‘A History of God’, the word ‘God’ is meaningless unless someone or group defines it and every religion has such a definition for its members. To say that over 90% of Americans believe in God is as meaningless as saying that 90% of Americans believe in love. Unless my client tells me what he or she means when they use the word, I would ban it from the counselor’s vocabulary.
3. I would eliminate all so-called measures of spirituality. There are hundreds of them but I have never seen one that I felt measured anything real or helpful. The ones that do report results which might be useful could more clearly report the same results without using the word ‘spiritual’. To try to measure spirituality is like trying to measure the wind direction in my backyard—whence it comes and whither it goes no one knows. What these usually measure is the ‘finger pointing to the moon’, not the moon itself. Spirituality is beyond all things human and too important to significant.
4. I would ban all studies that try to quantify any reality that would be important to counselors. As Dr. Brown said at the Annual ICA Convention, ‘Anything that can be measured is probably not that important.’ I agree. One (or several numbers—think statistics) cannot contain enough helpful information to make any significant difference to a counselor—and such numbers can have such destructive power. Numbers limit those possibilities and take away that power that might be useful for helping a client change. (And I hate likert scales—they are as insidious as a virus.) Courses in measurement and evaluation in MA programs need to be completely re-thought with an emphasis on discerning information from what are called qualitative techniques. Note that many of the questions on the CEE concerning statistics were either misleading or just wrong.
5. Much of what I learned in my MA in community counseling major, the courses that CACREP require, a majority of the questions on the CEE, and much research in counseling has been irrelevant to my ability as a counselor. In fact, it has been counterproductive. Yes, it is good psychology, theories of human development, current psychotherapies, multicultural issues, how to do an intake, etc.
But once I know that this client in front of me is a 14 year old, black male who was expelled from high school, has been arrested several times and has been diagnosed as having a defiant personality—if I ‘know’ that about him, I am unfit to be his counselor because he probably has no chance of changing. If I bring all of that into our counseling session (and how can I forget it if that is what I have been told), I have already limited his options for change. Many of his difficulties come from what he already is bringing in with him which discounts those very abilities he needs to change himself. Since he is bringing this stuff he will try to get me to go along with his stuff. And the more I study and learn about his background, his psychological ‘development’, his relationship with others and himself, etc. etc., the less capable I become to be an effective change agent for him—to enable him to change himself.
Most of my education to be a counselor should have been about communication.
Thus my final wish:
6. I would like counselor education to be done in the department of communication rather than psychology. Although the phrase ‘talk therapy’ feels demeaning to me, it some ways it is accurate. We need to be professionals at communicating like Milton Erickson was. He was so good that he could change a person who didn’t believe in psychotherapy by telling that person carefully crafted stories—talk therapy at its best. Eric Berne was another master at communication by conceptualizing the counseling session as a dyad between two individuals.
I would require courses that taught me how to ‘read’ another person to gather that information that would be helpful in bringing about change: how to read another person’s face (think Paul Ekman) and body movements; how to become aware of the 80% of communication that is usually outside our awareness. (Some claim that that 80% is what really brings about change.); the implication and impact of certain common words and phrases. As rhetoric theory asserts, every statement a person makes is intended to bring about a change. As a counselor, I need to be trained to be able to understand and apply that.
Courses that already tell me what to expect from my client—such as courses in being ‘cultural sensitive’—can only obscure or cause static in the communication process. My ‘radio’ receiver must be as open as possible to all signals coming from this person I am interacting with.
Since our major tool is talk therapy, we need to be experts as detecting the information in signals from a client and skilled in responding with that information that will have the greatest impact.
The study of psychology and sociology are important studies but I feel are not relevant to what I am about when I work with another person to help them change—in fact, they tend to prevent change.
Thank you for reading this blog and any others you might have read.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.