One of the common reasons people start counseling is because they want to know themselves better. The time required to achieve this self-understanding varies, but some counselors make helping clients get a clearer picture of their personalities the first order of business. Many of these counselors find that certain personality assessment tools and techniques offer a fast train to this sort of insight.
A variety of personality assessment instruments are readily available to counselors, from interest inventories that help clients target particular career paths, to projective techniques that seek to uncover unconscious desires. In addition to giving clients a well-rounded sense of their own needs and expectations, these tools can provide counselors with concrete data that can help direct the course of treatment.
But for many counselors today, experience with personality testing and other assessments begins and ends with a few courses in graduate school. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs maintains assessment as one of eight common core curricular areas required for accreditation, and many counseling degree programs include assessment instruction as part of courses on career counseling and research methods. Even so, while focusing on the more dialogical process of building an empathic therapeutic alliance with a new client, many counselors overlook the somewhat evaluative activity of assessment. Those who do make use of assessment instruments say they draw on the information gained through these tools to deepen their understanding of their clients’ needs — and to help clients do the same.
Providing a foundation
The tangibility of an assessment report always appealed to Suzanne Wall’s research-oriented personality. As such, the American Counseling Association member in Hartford, Conn., sought certification for administering both the Strong Interest Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessments (see the sidebar posted below for more information on the assessments mentioned in this article). She has been using personality assessments for well over a decade, including during the 12 years she offered career development counseling on a private college campus.
“The assessment results were a starting point to a larger conversation about how [the clients’] natural gifts and talents could be applied to the world of work,” says Wall, who serves as president of the Connecticut Career Counseling and Development Association. “I am a numbers-oriented person and found the test information to ‘ground’ the counseling time — that is, to provide a foundation.”
Craig Lounsbrough thoroughly agrees that personality assessments can help root the early stages of treatment, while simultaneously offering a map for how to move forward. The licensed professional counselor and author maintains an outpatient counseling practice in Parker, Colo. During his 12 years as a private practitioner, Lounsbrough has found that personality assessments “provide a rapid, well-informed and rather comprehensive glimpse into the individual that gives therapy a strong and informed point of departure.” He notes that this helps him chart a more effective treatment course and often minimizes the length of treatment time required.
Lounsbrough uses personality assessments in all of his cases. Most clients are receptive to them, he says, because he doesn’t present them as stereotypical “personality tests,” but rather as tools for personal growth whose value extends beyond the counseling room. Although he makes most use of the MBTI, Lounsbrough also uses the Student Styles Questionnaire, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis (T-JTA), the Prepare/Enrich assessment and projective drawings. He says he has found that clients who resist using the instruments often have fears about the counseling process and may be less committed to it.
Tavye Morgan, an ACA member in Atlanta who offers counseling services and spiritual direction in her private practice, has been certified to use the Enneagram, an assessment that delineates nine personality types. She also describes personality assessments to clients as tools for personal growth, although she says clients may not fully comprehend them at first.
“At the very least, one of the things it does is help me understand where people are coming from when they come in for a counseling session,” she says. “While it is a self-typing tool [which depends on honest self-reporting], the Enneagram gives me a lot of insight into what is happening with my clients when they have no idea.” Morgan encourages clients to consider the assessment a tool for better self-understanding. “I am of the philosophy that if you understand why you behave the way you do, you are more able to change it,” she says.
Morgan was inspired to become certified to use the Enneagram with counseling clients after her own experience with the instrument. “It was the most powerful resource I had ever been exposed to, and it helped me understand parts of myself, behaviors and how I was motivated in certain ways. It truly helped me have clarity about the direction in which I was moving,” she says.
Morgan notes that the Enneagram combines the psychosocial with the spiritual. She says that angle spoke to her specifically because she has a master’s of divinity in parish ministry.
“In my pastoral role, I’ve performed a lot of weddings, and I use the Enneagram in my premarital counseling,” she says. “It really helps couples in their understanding of where each [person] is coming from. It really increases compassion when you are able to see the interior world of another human. We make the assumption that we all view the world in the same way, but we don’t. … We live in a world where people can’t see one another, but this really helps you see another person.”
Although Morgan is attracted to the spiritual context of the Enneagram, she emphasizes that it can be and often is used from a strictly secular perspective. “You can use it without any reference to the spiritual life, which is really good for people who don’t value that, like in the business world,” she says. “There were corporate execs in my training group [who were] interested in understanding personality and motivators and how to energize their teams to be more effective.”
She did part of her Enneagram training in England with participants from various countries. “We could see that it was not a culture-bound tool either,” Morgan says. “We all could relate to one another based on our personality type. We knew each other’s interior experience.”
Such assessments can help clients see that their struggles may be related to their personality type and the unique point of view it affords. Morgan offers the example of a 60-year-old female client with cancer who was struggling with deep anger. The Enneagram “showed her to be a ‘1,’ which is a personality type that can be so rigid that it often leads [those individuals] to become physically sick,” Morgan says.
With the help of the Enneagram, Morgan and the client were able to identify that the client’s rigid expectations of perfection were making her very angry with her daughter, driving a wedge between them, while exacerbating her own physical illness. As a result of this new level of self-understanding, the client began noticing when her expectations were unrealistic and started building a new relationship with her daughter.
“When she died, they were in such a good place,” Morgan says. “I really believe it was the Enneagram work she did that allowed her to look at what she was doing and how it impacted relationships with her loved ones.”
Deepening the therapeutic alliance
Arthur Clark, an ACA member and professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., thinks personality assessments are a natural fit for counselors. He wishes more professionals in the field would consider how easily the assessments can be integrated into the work counselors are already doing. Clark has been using projective techniques to help assess personality since the 1970s.
From the public’s perspective, the most well-known psychological projective technique is likely the Rorschach test, an assessment that asks clients to interpret a set of inkblots. But a variety of other projective techniques invite clients to explain their own perspectives on an ambiguous stimulus, such as an open-ended sentence or a blank sheet of paper on which they are asked to draw a picture. Clark became interested in projectives as a middle school counselor, while looking for an effective way to better understand students without sending them outside of the school for testing.
“I wanted to find something that I could blend into the counseling process, and I had some familiarity with the projectives, but it was minimal, as it is in most counseling programs,” he says. “So, I started using the sentence completion task, where you ask clients to complete a sentence stem with their true feelings. For example, you would say, ‘I wish that …’ and then they would say, ‘I could do better in school.’ I found that particularly helpful as a springboard for discussion. If a kid wrote, ‘I get angry … mostly at my parents,’ that was a lead-in.”
Eventually, Clark developed a protocol of three projective tests that took about 45 minutes to complete and interpret. The three tests involved human figure drawings, oral sentence completion tasks and asking about early recollections.
Clark posits that projectives have lost popularity due to the emphasis on empirical evaluations to determine a client’s progress. “It depends on how the projectives are seen. If they are viewed as standardized assessments, they don’t fare well because the reliability is not high,” Clark acknowledges. “I think a better way to look at projectives is to see them as counseling tools. They are informal devices that yield information much like you would find by talking to a client over an extended period of time, but they can be done in a single session. … There’s a way to use and look at projectives not in competition with the objective tests, but more as a set of hypotheses that can be confirmed or disconfirmed later.”
“I find in terms of assessment, the objective evaluations — the Beck and MMPI and Millon battery — are all important. But the projectives can supplement and give a more well-rounded view of a person,” he says. “With the many issues and challenges facing clients today, I don’t think we want to leave anything behind.”
Clark also thinks the testing process can help build rapport between the client and counselor. “Rather than simply asking a person questions, [with the use of projectives, clients] are emitting information. They are involved in the projectives inherently. So, if you are drawing or completing sentences, there is direct involvement and participation,” he says. Projectives “also allow freedom of expression, and during that time the counselor can observe the client and be encouraging. That is enhancing the counseling relationship.”
Clark adds that many clients are wary at the start of counseling, coming into session with their defenses up. He has witnessed how projective exercises encourage clients to lower their guard, in part because the client and counselor are participating in something together.
Clark says projective techniques and other personality assessments are an obvious match for counselors because the field emphasizes relationship building. “[Counselors] know empathic understanding is important and that it’s essential to involve the client in the counseling process,” he says. “It wouldn’t take too long before counselors, on their own, could find a way of using the projectives and building them into their own styles.”
When and where?
Some counselors ask clients to complete a particular assessment prior to their first intake session. Others take some time to determine whether such work would be useful or even welcomed by the client. Though Morgan thinks most of her clients would benefit from the stronger sense of self-understanding that the Enneagram potentially offers them, she doesn’t automatically introduce it in every case. “Some people are really trying just to keep their heads above water, so it’s not always my first suggestion,” she says. “Then there are other people who are really interested in learning about their full potential.” In most instances, she adds, the decision to use the Enneagram with clients boils down to a judgment call.
Counselors engaged in career development work may be the most comfortable and familiar with personality assessments. Wall describes the process of interpreting the results with the client as “the sweet spot where data science meets career development” and says the assessment experience can put into words the truth about a client’s life experience.
“The results confirm both positive and negative experiences from a client’s work and personal life,” says Wall, adding that this provides an essential guide for career planning. “As a counselor, I find deep satisfaction in translating assessment data to concrete, practical action steps. Witnessing the ‘aha!’ moment in a client’s new understanding of their life is when I know I have empowered the client with a valuable tool to help them in their personal career development process.”
Wall has discovered particular success working with clients who are facing job transitions, often due to company downsizing in a postindustrial economy. She mentions one client who lost her job during a restructuring. The client’s assessment results showed that she placed a high value on the social bonds formed at work, which made losing the job all the more painful. Armed with this knowledge and a stronger sense of which work settings would maximize her natural talents, the client was motivated and able to find a new position.
Wall asserts that the value of the career counselor is in being able to craft a strategy and work through it with a client who may be stuck due to exhaustion, frustration or fear. “The antidote is client-centered, customized information curated by a career development expert,” she says. “The assessment process is an important piece.”
For those counselors who see more general client populations, an assortment of assessments may be useful. Lounsbrough has discovered particular success using personality assessments as part of the treatment for attention-deficit and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders. “What I have found is that, sometimes, the symptoms associated with these diagnoses can in part be a product of the patient’s personality versus being entirely related to these particular diagnoses,” he says. He adds that this realization often provides clients with a greater sense of hope and an enhanced sense of control over their symptoms.
Lounsbrough also finds assessments especially useful in helping clients understand communication issues. “Personality profiles shed light on various communication styles and how differing individuals may be clashing or not connecting. This information is particularly helpful in family and couples counseling,” he says. “Not only does it explain many of the difficulties relative to communication, [but] it allows individuals to understand those differences and make sense of them. I have found many individuals obtaining a tremendous amount of relief in simply understanding the barriers to their communication.”
Lounsbrough would like more counselors to consider using assessments with their clients. “It seems that few therapists actually take advantage of these assessment tools. In my work, assessment tools significantly improve outcomes and move therapy along at a quicker pace,” he says. “Additionally, given the added information that these resources provide [clients], the therapist can have a bigger impact on the [client’s] overall life.”
This is a partial list of some of the most commonly used personality assessments available to counselors. Many of these assessments require certification to administer, while others offer online scoring and reporting.
- Enneagram of Personality Types: A typology that identifies nine separate, yet interconnected, personality types. It has been used widely in business and spiritual contexts. See enneagraminstitute.com.
- Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory: A tool to assess psychopathology that considers personality characteristics and their impact on clinical diagnoses. See millon.net/instruments/MCMI_III.htm.
- Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory: A psychometric test that measures adult personality and psychopathology. See www1.umn.edu/mmpi/.
- Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, the MBTI helps people identify themselves within 16 distinct personality types and provides information about how those types can influence life and work decisions. See myersbriggs.org.
- NEO Personality Inventory-Revised: A 240-question assessment of the “Big Five” personality domains. See www4.parinc.com.
- Prepare/Enrich Relationship Inventory: Aimed at couples, this inventory helps clients learn about their relationship expectations and communications styles. See prepare-enrich.com.
- Strong Interest Inventory: A vocational interest inventory that can help people learn more about what their true interests are before selecting a career path. See cpp.com/products/strong/index.aspx.
- Student Styles Questionnaire: A tool for assessing students in grades 3-12 for personal learning preferences that are rooted in the Jungian theory of personality types, much like the MBTI. See pearsonclinical.com.
- Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis: Often used in family and couples counseling, this assessment aims to help clients understand their individual personality traits and thereby reduce conflict with loved ones. See tjta.com.
- Thematic Apperception Test: A projective psychological test that invites clients to tell stories about pictures provided by the administrator. See pearsonclinical.com.
Contributing writer Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago relationship therapist practicing in Washington, D.C. To contact her, visit stacymurphyLPC.com.
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