Professional development is a career-long requirement for counselors. As professional counselors and counselor educators, we have attended or presented at numerous conferences and skills-training workshops over the course of several decades. This range of experiences has allowed us to observe that presenters frequently infuse experiential exercises into their presentations.
In most instances, presentations have included activities that were appropriate, well-planned and contributed to the overall goal of the session. However, we have also participated in experiences that did not seem to be consistent with the ethical standards of the counseling profession. These concerns are worth noting because they reveal a significant gap in the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics. More important, these ethical concerns are worth discussing because they constitute a potential to harm participants. We contend that counselors who assume the role of workshop trainers or presenters at professional conferences (hereafter referred to as “presenters”) are ethically bound to safeguard the well-being of participants. The ACA Code of Ethics does not specify safeguards for professional peers and workshop participants, and we contend that the ethics code needs to be extended to apply such safeguards.
The ACA Code of Ethics delineates guidelines and professional expectations for counselors. The code protects clients, students and research participants who participate in experiential exercises. We believe ethical guidelines should extend to counselors who provide professional presentations and training workshops. This article aims to review risks to participants and recommend ethical guidelines for presenters.
When group experiential activities are used in professional presentations, the experience of participants parallels the experience of clients and students who are protected under the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics and the 2007 Association for Specialists in Group Work Best Practice Guidelines. These standards provide safeguards for group participants in clinical and educational settings. In the ACA Code of Ethics, these standards include:
- Standard A.1.a.: Protect dignity and welfare.
- Standard A.2.b.: Explicitly explain the nature of services provided.
- Standard A.4.a.: Avoid harm.
- Standard B.4.a.: Review the parameters of confidentiality.
- Standard C.3.d.: Disclose adequate and accurate information for consumers to make informed choices.
- Standard C.3.f.: Do not exert undue influence on individuals who may be vulnerable.
In combination, these standards guide counselors toward the foundational moral principle of “do no harm” in the use of experiential exercises.
ASGW, a division of the American Counseling Association, supplements the ACA Code of Ethics with its Best Practice Guidelines. These guidelines, devised by an ethics committee, call for group workers to operate as “ethical agents” and address responsibilities in planning, performing and processing groups. Many of these guidelines are also pertinent to practitioners who provide presentations. For instance, screening and informed consent are recommended to ensure that the purpose and goals of the group are compatible with the needs of the group members. Group workers are also apprised to modify skills and techniques as appropriate to the group’s type, stage or unique needs. They are also expected to manage communication, especially the appropriateness of disclosures, to protect the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of group members. Confidentiality, group processing and ethical surveillance need to be ensured when performing group work.
To do no harm is perhaps the most fundamental and prescriptive ethical imperative. Professional counselors are implored to protect the dignity and welfare of clients and students. It is our contention that professional counselors need to extend this same care to participants in conference sessions and workshops. Counselors go to conferences to network and develop social capital in addition to pursuing professional development. A regrettable self-disclosure in a workshop setting could lead to embarrassment when encountering colleagues in future role interactions.
A personal experience provides an illustration. I (Rebecca) attended what was publicized as an academically oriented session at a national conference where participants were asked to form a circle and in turn share a personal experience of forgiveness. Not only did this require a significant shift of mood and style from the didactic presentation, but it also created an expectation for participants to instantaneously disclose personal experiences with fellow participants. I immediately felt “put on the spot” and a visceral discomfort to either spontaneously create a fictitious scenario or to quickly assess the ramifications of divulging personal information. My feelings of discomfort were magnified by the fact that the session was also being video recorded with the intent to provide future access.
Given the surrounding context, I felt the presenters’ decision to use this particular experiential exercise violated my privacy and failed to honor my sense of dignity or take my welfare into consideration. Although it would be overstating the case to say this experience inflicted long-term harm, I believe the expectation to divulge sensitive personal information in that context was inappropriate. In traditional group settings, facilitators can identify and process aversive reactions. Practical and logistical restrictions prevent these safeguards in conference or workshop settings, where audience members are not prescreened or given time to debrief from the experience.
These ethical considerations to do no harm and to protect the dignity and welfare of presentation or workshop participants seem consistent with the intent of the ACA Code of Ethics. We contend ethical safeguards for participants in professional presentations need to be intentionally applied.
The ACA Code of Ethics mandates counselors to provide clients with adequate and accurate information about counselors’ services so clients can make informed choices. In conference and workshop settings, presenters provide this information in conference bulletins and promotional materials. There are ethical risks when presenters fail to explain the nature of the services they will be providing or to disclose adequate and accurate information so that participants can make informed choices.
At another national conference, I (David) attended a presentation that illustrates this risk. The one-hour session was publicized as a review of current research on a theoretical construct relevant to my area of teaching interest. The presenters started the workshop by stating that they wanted to do a guided imagery meditation exercise. They proceeded to conduct a meditation that involved white light imagery. I found this particularly disconcerting because I recently had gone through a near-death experience that involved white light. Therefore, I elected not to participate. I noticed that several others either left the presentation or sat without participating.
I did not wish to reexperience my event among an audience of 60 participants and was uncertain of the purpose and extent of the guided imagery. I was alarmed that the workshop presenters did not prepare the participants for this meditative exercise, nor was it possible to adequately process the individual experiences of such a large group. I did not view this guided experience as either relevant to or consistent with the session program description. In fact, it detracted from the overall goal of the presentation. Furthermore, this imagery had the potential to be aversive rather than relaxing.
Informed consent affords clients the opportunity to make choices that meet their needs and goals. We contend that informed consent needs to be extended to presentation participants as well.
Confidentiality is considered a cornerstone of counseling. It is difficult to ensure confidentiality in workshop settings in which experiential exercises are utilized with multiple participants, especially when those exercises encourage self-disclosure. In group work, the leader establishes a norm of confidentiality. Similar safeguards do not exist in workshop settings. Therefore, presenters need to be sensitive, if not restrictive, to the type of disclosures they expect participants to reveal.
Group workers also gauge the intensity of group exercises according to the maturation level and cohesiveness of the group members. Upon reflection, the conference presentation activity on forgiveness was too intense for an impromptu group and demonstration exercise. Disclosures prompted by conference presenters that imply a degree of intimacy disproportionate to the stage and nature of the group seem to invite great potential for embarrassment, regrettable disclosures or confidentiality breeches.
In conclusion, we contend that presenters need to be ethical agents and uphold the standards of the ACA Code of Ethics and the best practice guidelines adopted by group specialists. We offer the following suggestions to extend the role of all program presenters to be consistent with the ethical obligations of professional counselors.
Facilitate informed consent. Be sure experiential components are listed in promotional materials. If last-minute changes to a presentation are needed, clearly explain them as a preface to the presentation.
Select experiential activities intentionally and carefully. Base the selection of experiential activities on context. Exercises that are extremely effective in established groups may not be appropriate for impromptu groups. Exercises that involve sensitive experiences can be described or modeled to participants.
Give a “pass” or observer option. Participants who are offered the choice not to participate in an exercise may feel less pressure and are less likely to compromise themselves.
Read the participants. Take the time to read the nonverbals of the crowd. If people are reticent to engage, pay attention.
Treat the welfare and dignity of participants as the top priority. Allow participants’ need for a positive and worthwhile experience, rather than the presenters’ need for dramatic effect, to guide decision-making about experiential exercises. If an impromptu group is formed, select activities that are appropriate for a beginning group stage.
Rebecca A. Willow is the immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Counseling Association and a counselor educator in the clinical mental health counseling program at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Tobin is a counselor educator in the clinical mental health counseling program at Gannon University.