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It’s all about the relationship: Q+A with Richard Balkin and Jeffrey Kottler

By Bethany Bray January 22, 2015

Relationships are the heart of counseling.

No matter how the profession grows and changes, relationships will remain central to the good that counselors do in their clients’ lives. And counselors should never lose sight of that fact, say Jeffrey Kottler and Richard Balkin.

The duo will deliver the Saturday keynote address at the American Counseling Association 2015 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida, being held March 12-15.

Although they each have a different background and style – Balkin is a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville and the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development, while Kottler, a prolific author, splits his time between California State University in Fullerton and Nepal, where he founded a nonprofit — they both specialize in relationally based counseling.

Counseling Today caught up with Balkin and Kottler to discuss the importance of relationships in counseling and to get a preview of what they’ll be talking about in their conference keynote.


(Left to right) Richard Balkin and Jeffrey Kottler


Q+A: Richard Balkin and Jeffrey Kottler


You both specialize in relationally based counseling. Talk about how you came to focus on this area. Why does it interest you?

JK: I’ve always found, both as a client and a counselor, as a student and a teacher, as a reader and an author, and as a supervisor and a supervisee, that it was particular kinds of relationships that most inspired and mentored me. Certainly content, theories, research and skills are all crucial pieces of any therapeutic encounter, but at their core is an alliance that has been mutually negotiated in such a way that the work not only is achieved but also maintained over time.

RB: A big part of my research is examining counseling outcomes with adolescents in crisis. I am interested in what is effective with this population. As I have focused on the goals adolescents need to meet in order to work through crises, the question of how counselors can help their clients work to meet their goals is an obvious extension of this research. This is where I believe the relationship between the counselor and client is extremely important. As other mental health professions have focused so much on specific techniques, I believe the counseling profession needs to make a shift from evidence-based techniques to client-centered outcomes. I hope to expand on this concept in the keynote.


What’s your favorite thing about the ACA Conference? What are you looking forward to at the 2015 Orlando conference?

JK: Of course it’s all about relationships! As much as I enjoy learning about new ideas and cutting-edge research in programs, I most yearn for ongoing contact with friends and colleagues who I have known for decades and yet only get the chance to see briefly each year. Although I dutifully and systematically study the program guide and book myself to attend topics that interest me, it seems that along the way I almost always run into someone interesting or engaging and I end up learning far more in these informal conversations. A conference to me is primarily about making and sustaining personal connections, and that has always been my priority.

RB: At this point in my career, I really enjoy the service component to the counseling profession and ACA. Many of the projects and groups I work with, such as the editorial board for the Journal of Counseling & Development, ACA’s Council of Editors or the ACA Publications Committee, include counseling professionals I have known for years, and it is a joy to work with so many wonderful people. I think it is great that we can work together to continually move the counseling profession toward service, enrichment and growth.

I always enjoy reconnecting with friends and colleagues. I think so much of how I experience ACA affects me as much on a personal level as a professional level. I enjoy the opportunity to participate in ACA at various levels, such as mentoring my students and introducing them to many of the scholars they have been reading about, or engaging in conversations that stimulate how I communicate and teach about counseling. And, honestly, I am excited about participating in the keynote with Jeffrey. I think it is fun to present on topics that provide passion for what I do and communicate that passion at a broad level.


The title of your keynote is “The Power of Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life.” Why do you feel it is important to talk to counselors about this topic? What will counselors learn?

JK: I think there is way too much attention on techniques, interventions and skills without exploring more deeply what empowers them. There has always been a disconnect between what counselors think makes the most difference in their sessions and what clients report was most helpful to them.

RB: As a journal editor, I get inundated with research and concepts across the counseling profession. I think this keynote is an opportunity to bring us back to the core values of counseling and where we excel as professional counselors. I am hoping counselors walk away with an increased sense of appreciation for what we do and how we do it.


From your perspective, how can counselors make relationship-building a priority with clients?

JK: In part it is about deep faith in the power of relationships to capitalize on and intensify anything else that we do in sessions. On one level it seems pretty strange that a conversation once each week or so can really make much of a difference. When I try to explain what counseling is all about to indigenous healers around the world, they often laugh hysterically at the absurdity of what we do, believing that talking about problems would [not] do much good without the other sorts of rituals, constructive actions and deep relationship that is so much a part of their work.

RB: At the heart of training in counseling is the core conditions, and I think regardless of one’s theoretical orientation or approach to counseling, focus on demonstrating empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard (is important). However, I often tell my students, “You cannot be an advocate for your clients until you are an advocate for yourself.” So, implementing these concepts in our relationships plays an important role as well.


What is new and fresh in this area? What might counselors be overlooking?

JK: What is new and fresh strikes me as familiar from the good ol’ days: a renewed respect for the power of the [therapeutic] alliance to strengthen almost any intervention or evidence-based technique. My own primary interest focuses on how the stories we share with clients, as well as the way we listen and honor our clients’ stories, become the leverage for lasting influence and persuasion. Ask clients, supervisees, students or readers what they remember from a helping encounter, including this interaction, and they will frequently report a particular story, self-disclosure, metaphor or tale that stuck with them. I work a lot with young children in remote regions of Nepal, and when they ask me what it is that I do for my work, I tell them that I’m a storyteller. They nod their heads in complete understanding because that is what elders and healers and helpers do in most parts of the world.

RB: As I look at the current research in this area, I find there are a number of elements a counselor simply may have limited to no influence [on], such as past history, the presence of immediate support and family history. However, one element that counselors can direct is the working alliance, which is perhaps the most essential component of the factors that counselors can influence.


Please talk about how you two came to know each other and what made you decide to collaborate on a conference keynote. How do your two different styles as counselors complement each other?

JK: It was a shotgun marriage, arranged according to the deeper wisdom of ACA President Robert Smith, who felt our contrasting styles and interests would lend greater wisdom and breadth of experience to the subject.

RB: Jeffrey is right. It was a shotgun marriage, but one I am honored to be a part of.





Jeffrey Kottler and Richard Balkin will deliver the keynote address on Saturday, March 14 at 9 a.m. at the ACA 2015 Conference & Expo in Orlando.


Kottler will do a book signing afterward from 10-11 a.m. His most recent books are Stories We’ve Heard, Stories We’ve Told: Life-Changing Narratives in Therapy and Everyday Life and On Being a Master Therapist: Practicing What We Preach.


For more information or to register for the ACA Conference in Orlando, visit




About the speakers

Jeffrey Kottler is a professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is also the founder of Empower Nepali Girls, an organization that develops mentoring and supportive relationships with children at greatest risk of being forced into early marriage or sex slavery. Kottler is the author of more than 80 books, many of them about the power of relationships in helping and healing.

Richard Balkin is a professor and program coordinator for counselor education and supervision and school counseling at the University of Louisville. He is also the editor of ACA’s Journal of Counseling & Development. His primary research interests include counseling outcomes and counseling adolescents as well as cultural differences in counseling. He co-authored The Theory and Practice of Assessment in Counseling with Gerald Juhnke and is a past president of the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling.






Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


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1 Comment

  1. Brent Bandhauer

    It’s encouraging to see ACA emphasize the counseling relationship. As a school counselor, I’m constantly being pushed to identify data and more data to justify my existence. Data to show an increase in test scores, data to show a reduction of bullying reports, data to show improvements in attendance. I highly support the need for all of these results, but it’s nice once in a while to allow myself to focus on the fact that I’m here for kids to have someone who they feel eager and comfortable to spend time with. How I wish I could be there for the keynote presentation!


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