Jeffrey Kottler has spent more than four decades as a counselor, educator and supervisor, and he has collected a lot of stories along the way.
He passes some of these stories on in his latest book, The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors, which is published by the American Counseling Association. With chapter titles that include “Admitting you’re lost,” “There are no difficult clients, only difficult counselors,” “Clients lie – a lot – and it might not matter” and “Who changes whom?” Kottler sprinkles his own insights among those learned from some of the most accomplished practitioners in the field.
The secret to being an exceptional practitioner? Unwavering passion and a spirit of constant reinvention, says Kottler.
“Ultimately, beyond a requisite level of intelligence and emotional functioning, the best among us are quite simply those who have worked hardest to develop themselves. They are intensely motivated and committed to becoming the best practitioners of their craft – and they are willing to make all kinds of personal sacrifices and devote time and energy in order to make that a reality,” Kottler writes in the book’s preface. “I am talking about passion and excitement for the work, for the people they are helping, the kind that doesn’t diminish over time.”
Kottler, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, dedicates the book to Jon Carlson, a close colleague who helped him gather much of the information in its pages. Carlson, a well-known counselor, professor and champion of Adlerian theory and practice, passed away earlier this year. The two had planned to write the book together.
Kottler, a keynote speaker at ACA’s 2015 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida, recently moved to Texas to start a new position at Baylor College of Medicine and to serve in a volunteer role (consultant and staff trainer) at the Alliance for Multicultural Services, a refugee resettlement agency. Previously, he was a professor at California State University, Fullerton.
Q+A: The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors
Counseling Today sent Kottler some questions, via email, to find out more about his latest book.
You and Jon Carlson spent years working with some of the most accomplished and influential practitioners in the field. What are some key insights you’d like to share? What were some of the reoccurring themes?
1) Truly extraordinary, exceptional counselors are not necessarily well-known. Most you’ve never heard of because they don’t care about attention and don’t have an interest in seeking fame or writing books.
2) Really great counselors are scrupulously honest and self-critical about their mistakes and failures. They own them fearlessly, forgive themselves for being less than perfect and then learn from them.
3) Exceptional professionals in any domain, flat out, work harder than others. But the idea of the so-called “10,000 hour” rule is wrong: It isn’t just experience and practice that makes anyone great; it’s practicing what you don’t do well. Extraordinary athletes, for instance, practice relentlessly those skills that are not yet within their comfort zone. Most people prefer to practice the things they have already mastered.
4) In spite of the obsession with the best theory or the newest technique or strategy, exceptional counseling (or parenting, or teaching) is about relational connections, those in which the client feels a connection. Great counselors recognize that their main job is to build mutual trust in the relationship, since when we trust our clients, we are more willing to experiment, become creative and try new things.
5) Exceptional counselors have discovered their own unique voice rather than simply imitate others. They have found ways to capitalize on their own signature strengths that are unique to them. That is why counselors can appear to operate in such different ways and yet still be effective.
6) They practice what they preach and live the values and lessons that they teach to others. They are models of what they hope their clients will become, yet are always searching for new and different ways to improve their own functioning, not only in sessions but in their personal lives.
7) Finally, my own favored interpretation is that exceptional counselors are consummate storytellers. They use metaphors, imagery, teaching tales, self-disclosures and other forms of narrative to help people become heroes/heroines of their lives rather than victims, or just survivors. In addition, they recognize that their main job, above all else, is to help clients to share and honor their own life stories. Almost every approach to counseling introduces a variation of that theme, whether called reframing, restorying, looking for exceptions, disputing beliefs, challenging discourse or others.
Please elaborate on what prompted and inspired you to write this book.
I noticed a disconnect between what we’ve learned from research and what counselors seem to pursue the most in their training. Everyone is hungry for the latest theory or the newest technique, even though they seem to matter relatively little compared to other factors. We talk a good game about the importance of the therapeutic alliance, but often we put more faith in the “doing” of counseling. When clients are asked what made the most difference to them in their counseling, they rarely mention any specific strategy or technique and instead say they felt understood. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that some amazing intervention wasn’t critical, but just that it likely wouldn’t have [made] much impact if there wasn’t a solid relationship.
What do you hope counselors take away from this book?
In our previous books, Jon Carlson and I interviewed really prominent, well-known figures in the field. And many of them became writers and teachers because they had some very good ideas but were not necessarily very skilled as practitioners. Some of them didn’t even like doing counseling. So, I wanted to focus this time on counselors who just quietly go about their amazing work and what they can teach us.
I’ve always been intrigued by the phenomenon that there are so many great counselors and therapists who appear to operate in such different ways. How is it that some work in the past, others in the present or future? Some focus on feelings, others on thoughts or behavior. There has to be something in common, and I’ve learned that so much has to do with the counselor’s presence and charisma in all kinds of ways. Exceptional counselors are usually remarkable people. And it has always been so important to me that we apply in our own lives [that which] we say is so important for our clients.
In addition to your book and the insights it shares from others in the field, what resources do you recommend to help counselors stay inspired and passionate about their work?
I think counselors can learn more from our own clients as teachers, more from reading fiction, than the books that I, and many of my colleagues, write. It’s life experiences, especially those that are novel and challenging, that have taught me more than any text or resource. I constantly ask my clients to take risks, experiment with new behaviors [and] get outside their comfort zone – and I’m always pushing myself to learn and grow. I read a novel every week, accompanied by biographies and, lately, medical books. I retired from a counseling department and now teach in a medical school, and I’m so lost most of the time because our backgrounds are so different. And I love that at my advanced age, I’m still learning so much.
Learning from failures and mistakes plays a big part in professional growth and development. What do you want to stress about this to counselors – especially those who are starting out?
It’s often not safe for beginners to admit they are lost or that they don’t know what the heck they are doing (which, of course, is the way things really are). So, it’s really important to have a support system of like-minded people with whom it is safe to talk about fears, doubts and uncertainties.
The second thing that I don’t think gets nearly as much attention as it could is the parallel process that occurs in a counselor’s life – how our clients are constantly teaching us, triggering us [and] stimulating us in ways that can enrich our own daily lives. And also, that all of our own personal experiences, including trauma and failures, can be gifts that help us better understand and connect with others.
What secrets of your own would you add to this conversation? What are some highlights that your clients and students have taught you over the years?
This is more personal than you might expect, but I guess it’s how hungry I am to be valued, how I define myself, my worth, my value, in terms of the good I’ve done —every day. Even after all these years, I still don’t feel worthy or that I’m ever doing enough.
Especially during these insane political times, it seems even more important to do more, especially with those who are being left behind. Frankly I’ve been struggling with depression during the past year, feeling like I hardly recognize my country. Some of the decisions that are being made related to the environment, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ rights and the poor are deplorable. I feel so helpless and sometimes feel like I’ve lost faith.
It is my students and clients who push me to be a better person and model for them what I think is most important. My time is almost over, and I can feel the clock ticking away, so I feel more urgency than ever to pass the baton to others.
My students and clients have challenged me to question what I think I know and understand. Their trust in me has been a vehicle for my own healing, in ways my experiences as a client couldn’t touch.
The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-347-6647 x222
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.