I have a question for you to ponder: How do we develop depth with regard to our character, insight and empathy? Is it something that is part of our genetic makeup? Is it based on our life experiences? Or is it a combination of these?
As a parent, this is a question I have contemplated for many years. My husband and I have engaged in discussions about how our six children were developing and what kind of person we believed each would grow up to be. Would they be smart? Would they be insightful and empathic? Would they have depth?
I remember teaching a counseling course and talking about issues of depth. But even figuring out how to define this construct is challenging. Still, at times we find ourselves saying, “Well, that person doesn’t have much depth” or “He/she is really a very shallow person.” What exactly does that mean?
Going back to my ponderings regarding my children for a moment, I used to think, “How could they have much depth or empathic understanding when their lives have been so privileged? They have never had to struggle, wondering about their housing or food. They did not grow up in the South during the fifties, sixties or seventies when we struggled for equal rights. Will they really understand the struggle of African Americans in this country? How can they possibly appreciate these issues, not having had these experiences themselves?” All of these questions floated through my head as I stood there thinking about their development.
This month, our cover story focuses on how we work effectively with challenging clients, and the topic got me to thinking again about how we grow as professionals. How did I develop the skills and comfort level to work with a diverse population as a professional? In answer to my own question, I kept coming back to the challenges I faced in my professional development. What aided in my growth was taking risks, trying something new or working with a client/student/patient who required me to stretch beyond what I had done previously.
Some of you may remember the acronym YAVIS, which, when I was originally trained as a counselor, was used to describe a client who was young, attractive, verbal, intelligent and social. The presumption was that everyone would want to work with YAVIS clients. As I thought about this, however, I concluded that this type of client would provide very limited growth on my part. They were purportedly insightful enough to work through the process very successfully. Of course, that was a major assumption on my part. Nonetheless, they were presented as the ideal. But what about the other clients? The ones supposedly not so desirable?
If you look back on some of your greatest accomplishments as a professional, what do you see? I see the times when I had to struggle and work a little harder for success. Those challenges are what have assured me that I am here for a purpose and really making a difference in people’s lives. Those challenges have caused me to push myself to get better and to take risks.
We must do this as a profession as well. In my very first month as president of the American Counseling Association, I was challenged to do something I had never done before. If you remember, there was a firestorm of e-mails and major network broadcasts, including on CNN, discussing developments at Augusta State University and Eastern Michigan University related to nondiscriminatory practices in the counseling profession. Multiple news outlets asked ACA to respond to these cases in connection with the ACA Code of Ethics. I was also asked to give a radio interview related to this issue.
I immediately understood the gravity of this request and my responsibility to ACA and its members. It was clear that I would not just be representing my views but responding as president of ACA. I admit, I was shaken. I could have asked colleagues who were already used to conducting these types of interviews — who had a certain level of comfort and expertise in doing them — to handle this one. But after conversing with ACA staff, I decided the only way I would become comfortable with this challenge was by doing it. And believe me, it was a challenge. I could hardly get a word in edgewise (as my grandmother would say) with the interviewer, but I did it. I survived the interview, and it actually turned out very well. Now I realize that I need more training on media presentations such as these and will be even better prepared for the next opportunity.
As a profession, we are currently facing the challenge of how to effectively serve all of our members while ensuring that everyone feels valued and that all voices have a place to be heard. We may not always agree, but it is critical that we disagree agreeably. This is where our growth, our depth, occurs as a profession. We have to be engaged in healthy dialogue to identify areas of improvement and not take it as a personal attack when someone disagrees with us.
We are professional counselors, and if we cannot communicate effectively, shame on us. This is who we are. We work through problems. We work through challenges. Rarely do we have individuals coming to us because they are so happy they just don’t know what to do with themselves. Instead, they bring problems or issues they need assistance in solving.
We must do the same professionally as we move to the deeper depths of professionalism and organizational development. It will not be easy, and it is not for the “fair-weather” counselor.