During my first internship as a master’s student, I provided in-home family counseling and quickly became overwhelmed by the needs I thought I saw in my clients’ lives. Most of my clients had low incomes, and some lived in subsidized housing. With excellent supervision, I did my best to provide counseling, but as a new counselor, I was desperate to see that what I was doing was actually making a difference. My clients’ lives continued to be difficult on many fronts.
Perhaps to make myself feel useful and wanting to help others on a practical level, I began volunteering with a refugee resettlement agency — providing transportation, teaching English and helping with paperwork. I lived in two worlds — one where I tried to impact what was going on externally and one where I tried to impact what was going on internally. At the end of my counselor training, a part of me was not convinced that counseling was an effective way to help people with significant day-to-day needs. Was it a counselor’s job to attend to every level of Maslow’s hierarchy? I questioned what impact, if any, I had made on my counseling clients’ lives.
I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on the experiences of the refugees I had gotten to know. They had joys and very real struggles. Meanwhile, questions still lingered for me: Was counseling what they needed? Was I really helping?
It took a trip across the Atlantic to realize that my cynicism regarding the role of counselors had softened. In 2014, I spent three weeks in Lilongwe, Malawi, in southeastern Africa. Malawi calls
itself “the warm heart of Africa,” and indeed it did provide a warm welcome and a tropical respite from a cold U.S. winter. Malawi is the same size as Pennsylvania, where I now live and work as a counselor educator. But Malawi has 4 million more people than my home state, and it is one of the poorest countries in the world economically.
I traveled to the African nation as part of the Malawi Counseling Institute, organized by Old Dominion University and NBCC International (NBCC-I), a division of the National Board for Certified Counselors. Institute participants from the United States partnered with the Guidance, Counselling and Youth Development Centre for Africa in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. The center is run by counselors and educators from all over Africa and serves as a hub for training counselors and professionalizing counseling.
On our first day at the center, the staff greeted the U.S. participants with jubilant hugs and kisses and lingering handshakes. They wanted to know how we had slept, how our travels were, what we needed. On our second day, we again were greeted with jubilant hugs and kisses and lingering handshakes. The center staff already knew all 11 of us by name. The same warm welcome was repeated each day until we boarded our plane home three weeks later. We spent our time in Malawi putting on a conference for local counselors, collaborating with the center staff on professional advocacy projects and providing consultation and encouragement for counselors/teachers and students in primary and secondary schools.
The young people who attended the schools we visited were not referred to as students but as learners. I like this naming tradition because the role of “learner” captures something that “student” does not. To study something is to know more about it, but to learn something is to make it part of yourself. Learning changes how you operate in the world.
When I reflect on my time in Malawi, I see myself as a learner. Being there changed how I saw counseling. It became clearer to me what a counselor’s role could be when the needs are numerous. In Lilongwe, these moments of clarity came to me as lessons (plus I like titles with alliteration: Lessons from Lilongwe).
Lesson No. 1: The relationship is the task
Toward the end of our time in Malawi, the U.S. participants arrived at the counseling center eager to have a productive day of collaboration with our hosts. Our time was ending, and certain tasks felt unfinished. We were there to share our expertise, and I wanted to feel useful and productive.
But a change of plans was announced; we were going to spend the day sightseeing and getting to know our African colleagues better. Complaining about our thwarted agenda, we loaded into the vans.
It turned out to be a wonderful day of simply being together and learning about Malawi’s history and culture. Our hosts knew better than we did that it would be a productive day because strengthening our relationships was the task. Instead of checking things off of my self-affirming to-do list, I found myself truly having to “be” with my hosts and fellow participants.
Task versus relationship orientation has been used as a leadership theory paradigm, but I think it also applies to counseling. When we lean too heavily on a task orientation in counseling, we end up with clients who feel pressured or defensive and counselors who feel frustrated and ineffective. When counseling is only about the relationship, clients and counselors can feel lost and unsure. Techniques such as motivational interviewing help us focus on goals in a relationship-friendly way so that we can attend to both task and relationship.
But there are times when you prioritize one over the other. This lesson was brought home to me recently when we learned that the person who organized that day in Lilongwe — the director of the center — had died. He was a remarkable person who stopped corruption at the center and literally got it out of the weeds. How thankful I am that we accomplished “nothing” with him that day.
Lesson No. 2: Hospitality matters
The cultural value placed on relationships in Malawi means that a significant amount of time and energy is invested in formal hospitality for visitors. This is in stark contrast to American casualness.
Our African hosts dressed formally in our presence, and tea was served every afternoon. Meetings began with elaborate introductions and expressions of gratitude that revolved around hierarchies that were somewhat vague to us. This level of pomp and circumstance sometimes felt embarrassing or superfluous. Then I realized how much Americans eschew ritual and traditions for the sake of efficiency and personal comfort. Formal hospitality sends a message: You are valued and you are important.
Once when I was conducting a family session as a 20-something counselor, a client directed a remark at me to the effect of “why should I listen to this teenager in a hoodie?” The sweater I was wearing did indeed have a hood. Although I am (and was) aware that this client’s reaction was about more than my attire, I now think he was right. I wasn’t dressed in a way that conveyed how important my work was or how important the client was.
There is much we can do as counselors to make our clients or students feel important and valued. How welcoming are the spaces we invite them into? How welcoming are the words we use when we see them? Admittedly, it takes thought, effort and resources to decorate a waiting room or to dress more formally. It doesn’t take much, however, to say, “I’m so glad you are here today.” I see no downside to causing ourselves a little bit of discomfort for the sake of valuing others.
Lesson No. 3: Dependence is dehumanizing
One of the highlights of our trip was a private meeting for our group with Joyce Banda, who was then the president of Malawi. Of course, to say that we met her might be an overstatement; she talked and we listened. Still, I was moved and sobered by what she shared.
Banda was Malawi’s vice president when her predecessor died in office, leaving her in charge of a government that was being accused of corruption. Her opponents claimed she was part of the corruption, whereas she claimed she had helped to eliminate it. The corruption scandal, called Cashgate, triggered an audit that brought international donors, including the U.S. government, to Banda’s door to demand house cleaning and, in some cases, to stop funding. Roughly 40 percent of Malawi’s budget is dependent on foreign aid. One thing Banda said about this reckoning was that she hoped one day she could meet with foreign leaders and “just have tea in the garden.”
What I took away from this encounter was the dehumanization that occurs when a relationship is based solely on dependency. When roles are constrained to “giver” and “taker,” no one feels satisfied. The “giver” feels frustrated if the gifts are not used as intended, whereas the “taker” feels oppressed and belittled.
There are more eloquent speakers on the problems of foreign aid, but I see this dynamic playing out on the micro level. When counselors get into the mindset of “us” helping “them,” we have started on the path to dehumanization. Although there are times when clients and students legitimately need us in healthy ways, as counselors, we should be looking to put ourselves out of business. We work not just to heal wounds but also to equip. Yes, we pass along skills and ideas that are useful for the client’s or community’s goals, but we should also know when to get out of the way. We should be alert to when “helping” is actually making things worse or simply benefiting the helper emotionally or monetarily.
Lesson No. 4: There is no hierarchy of needs
The idea of a hierarchy of needs, proposed by Abraham Maslow in a paper in 1943, was among the first things I was taught as an undergraduate psychology major. I think it has stuck in my memory because the idea is alluringly intuitive.
Maslow believed that people’s behaviors would drive them to satisfy one need before focusing on the next. In the pyramid-shaped illustration of the concept, physical and survival needs make up the base of the hierarchy, and then at the small top is self-actualization.
Although many scholars agree that the needs themselves exist in people, there is almost no empirical support for the hierarchy. Yet it is referenced frequently. Recently, at a gathering of counselors, someone mentioned working with clients with limited resources and followed it up by saying something like, “It’s Maslow’s hierarchy — you can’t do counseling with someone who doesn’t know where they will sleep tonight or get their next meal.”
So, what is a counselor to do in a country full of people experiencing daily threats to their survival — high rates of HIV and maternal mortality, floods and food shortages? In that context, is counseling irrelevant? Is it only for those who are privileged enough to move toward self-actualization? Or should counselors work only to feed the hungry while ignoring their emotional needs?
Counseling was born out of meeting both practical and emotional needs. The first counselors did vocational development for soldiers returning from World War II. There is still a strong force within the counseling profession that reminds us not to ignore the daily realities of those we are serving. We are called to pay attention to those realities and get involved in them. I certainly advocate for advocacy, but I also know it is tempting to substitute it for good counseling.
As counselors, I think we should be about what we are about. Counseling is what we are good at, and counseling is a tool useful to people with all different kinds of needs. Physical and practical needs are not necessarily unrelated to emotional needs. A mother is better able to provide food for her children if traumatic flashbacks are not stopping her from going to work. Parents can better support their child with a learning disability if they figure out how to value each other’s strengths. A fifth-grader can focus on taking an exam when he is not worried about being bullied.
I have come to fully value counseling and have made peace with its limits. It might feel good at times to try, but I cannot be all things to all people, nor can the profession of counseling. When it comes to other cultures, I want to be a learner who takes in how other groups of people care for and help one another. I hope this will allow me to be a really good counselor for those who cross my path as I pass along the tools I have learned.
I hope that in southern Africa or anywhere else, counselors who know the needs of their communities can draw on what counseling has to offer. And if you are ever in central Pennsylvania, I hope you will stop in for tea.
Leah K. Clarke, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, is assistant director of the graduate counseling program at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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