As professional counselors, we are often faced with challenging clients who express the desire for their life to be different yet continually make the same choices. We do not fill the role of advice givers as counselors, but if we’re not asking questions that encourage our clients to explore what’s true for them, then we are doing a disservice to them and to ourselves.
It is important for every counselor to have some pragmatic tools to assist in the counseling session. As clients explore “new territory,” it is not uncommon for them to face new challenges, feel like quitting or even decide to no longer seek counseling. With the steps below, I invite counselors to explore five easy ways to encourage “change” and facilitate clients toward redefining the foundations of their lives.
When we say “foundation,” we are talking about the fixed points of view that someone has either been taught or discovered from their own life experience and from which they create their basic belief system. Foundations give us a false sense of security while constantly providing us with information to make decisions. Although we must have a way to form our decisions and make choices, it is important to allow for a flexible foundation. When the foundation your client is using becomes too solid or too fixed, it does not allow them to make changes in the systems that govern their beliefs.
Step No. 1: Acknowledge what is no longer working. The first thing in redefining the foundation of clients’ lives is to get them to acknowledge what is no longer working. By simple definition, acknowledgment is the acceptance of truth or accepting that something exists. It is the ability to see that something is simply what it is — no more and no less. Acknowledging choices that have been made without placing a judgment on them (i.e., making them “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad”) creates a safe space for clients to explore their life stories.
Facilitating clients’ acknowledgment of everything that isn’t working also creates more flexibility in their understanding of different life events, such as having a parent leave or the ending of a marriage. Although this concept is existential, in its basic nature, this tool empowers clients to see the choices they have made, recognize the role they have played in every situation, and practice nonjudgment of themselves in a way that begins to unravel the barriers they have built.
What if acknowledgment of what is no longer working was the most freeing concept that your client had encountered?
Step No. 2: Determine the points of view in place. Once clients have acknowledged what is no longer working, it is time to determine the points of view they are using to create their lives. One of the fundamental beliefs in psychotherapy is that the way something or someone is perceived determines the likelihood of creating patterns, judgments and fundamental beliefs on which future choices are based. For example, if we perceive an individual as being rude, we may make every effort to avoid that person in the future.
By processing the points of view clients have taken around the events in their lives, we are inviting them to determine what is known to be true versus what they think to be true. Exploring a point of view about any area of their life can result in new insights, new awareness, new choice and new possibilities that clients may not have imagined previously.
How different would your life, business and practice look if you had no points of view on which you based your decisions?
Step No. 3: Explore the possibilities. Think of this step as a giant brainstorming activity in which clients and counselors welcome every possibility and do not label anything as impossible. Although it is important to be realistic and have measurable goals, counselors have to allow their clients to explore the new foundations being formed. At this level, counselors have challenged clients to be open-minded and flexible in their beliefs. To turn down ideas as dumb or to discount clients could create mistrust and new judgments.
What if you were willing to explore the infinite possibilities of the new foundation being formed?
Step No. 4: Make a new demand. Considering the possibilities that have been discovered, it is time to acknowledge what is reachable at the time of the session. Keep in mind that what is available now may be different in future sessions as clients get more comfortable. Making a demand is about clients accepting “what is” and then committing to doing, being or having something different in their life. This is the stage at which they get to choose whether to continue in the same pattern they have been repeating or begin to create something new. It is about taking responsibility and playing an active role in the creation of their life.
How different would things look if you made a different demand in your own life?
Step No. 5: Encourage clients to create for themselves. A risk of individual therapy is that relationships can change as clients change. It is important to discuss with clients that they can change only themselves and their own roles in their lives. Clients are the experts in their lives, so they must learn to choose what their lives will be like. Many factors play into the success of clients beginning a new chapter, but the most important thing they must learn is to do it without the counselor.
How can you encourage your clients in every session to explore something new for themselves?
In closing, please note that it is not a counselor’s place to push clients to change their foundations. As counselors, we do not have the right to push our agendas or beliefs on our clients. The pragmatic approach I have outlined will work best with clients who have a high motivation to change, express a strong desire for something different, and demonstrate a willingness to be more flexible with their views on life. This is a more directive approach to counseling, and counselors should always use their best judgment in determining whether this approach might best suit their clients’ needs.
John Wheeler is a licensed professional counselor in Dayton, Ohio, and a certified facilitator of Access Consciousness. His focus in therapy is on providing a space that allows clients to be the experts of their own lives and encouraging them to take a proactive approach to fostering lifestyles that work for them. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit john-wheeler.com.
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