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Professional Issues

Bringing counselor expertise to court

By Jean Peterson November 7, 2017

As a counselor educator, I could have done more to prepare counseling students for involvement with the court system. Pertinent discussions were usually limited to child custody, records, privileged communication, subpoenas and counselors’ vulnerability in the courtroom. I had experienced depositions and had written clinical summaries, but I had never appeared in court. My own preparation had included nothing about being an external expert witness.

Then I had an experience that underscored the importance of teaching and learning about court involvement. Although attorneys might not think of counselor educators and school and mental health counselors first when needing an expert witness, a counseling perspective might be crucial to an outcome. Apparently, mine was.

A bit of history

During the 1980s and early 1990s, a number of articles and monographs addressed court involvement for helping professionals. During that era, psychologists were growing in number, assessment was valued and psychological witnesses were increasingly used. In addition, media outlets were discussing “recovered memory,” and a high-profile case led to criteria for admissible expert testimony. However, conceptual literature noted that attorneys did not always appreciate the expertise and objectivity of therapists in the courtroom, and, because expertise was not standardized, lawyers and experts with stronger credentials could challenge witnesses.

Roles and behaviors related to court processes were also being clarified for counselors. I paid attention to Ted Remley Jr., a helpful legal voice in the field. I learned that both general and expert witness roles are possible, with the former providing facts and the latter providing opinions. An expert witness educates judge and jury by reviewing and interpreting facts and records, making inferences and then informing in neutral, understandable language. School and mental health counselors are more likely to be general, or fact, witnesses, although experience and special training might make them desirable as expert witnesses.

Journal articles about counselors’ involvement have been rare since then, but thanks to contributors such as Carolyn Stone, school counselors can access guidelines related to subpoenas, court orders and privileged communication, for example. However, media interest in bullying and the growing number of states with pertinent statutes suggest that courts will increasingly be involved in cases related to school safety. In such cases, a school counselor or counselor educator may be asked to serve as an expert witness, examining counselors’ and others’ roles or perhaps providing an opinion about the climate or culture of a school.

A surprising request

Eventually, I was contacted from a distance by the attorney for Wendy (pseudonym), a bright 22-year-old, in a civil case against a school district. Alleged negligence in the wake of extreme harassment had contributed to two extended traumatic experiences for Wendy.

My purpose here, in describing my experience as an expert witness, is to provoke thought about counselor court involvement, roles and behaviors, institutional cultures, ethical behavior, systemic contributors to harassment, and potential developmental impact of harassment and retaliation after reporting. Details about the process and time involved might lessen counselors’ concerns if asked to be involved.

Traumatic experiences

I was told that, during ninth grade, Wendy was assaulted physically and harassed with graphic sexual language by a school bus driver almost daily for several months. Allegedly, he had groped her when she entered and exited the bus, jerked her clothing to expose her underwear and asked about her sexual behavior. Wendy observed another student’s similar experiences.

Wendy realized that her younger sister, beginning to mature physically, soon would be vulnerable. She talked with her sister, who talked with the elementary school counselor, who contacted Wendy’s mother, who in turn contacted the school principal, superintendent and sheriff.

The second traumatic experience occurred after Wendy’s parents filed a complaint. Allegedly, the bus driver began drug- and sex-related rumors about Wendy, which were then perpetuated by students who considered the driver an ally. Their unrestricted behavior on sports-team buses (e.g., beer, pornography) matched the driver’s voyeuristic interest in their social lives. He talked with them about Wendy’s parents’ complaint, and, according to an interview during the investigation, encouraged one student to lie on his behalf. At school, Wendy, who formerly had enjoyed social ease, was harassed and marginalized. At the end of her junior year, she transferred to another school.

During the criminal case, which took place after Wendy’s transfer, the bus driver was acquitted. According to Wendy’s new attorney, who contacted me, adolescent witnesses for the prosecution had not presented themselves well in court, even in how they were dressed. Wendy would tell me later that she herself was “not prepped.” This new attorney was now preparing a civil case, focusing on the school system.

Credentials

I was initially surprised to be contacted. Then I considered my professional background. I was knowledgeable about school culture. When the attorney met with me, I told him I had been a teacher, counselor or group specialist in schools for 25 years and a counselor educator for 15, supervising school- or agency-based field experiences. I had worked closely with school administrators in several schools.

In addition, principals-in-training at the university were required to enroll in my Introduction to School Counseling course, and they interacted with the school counseling students formally and informally about their respective professional roles. As a counselor educator, I had led a national study of bullying and was acquainted with trauma literature through a 15-year qualitative study of a survivor of trauma. Beyond that were coursework and clinical experiences in family therapy. I had licenses in school and mental health counseling. Thinking about these experiences gave me confidence. Still, I had anxiety: I would be a first-time expert witness.

An educational experience

What I was asked to do fit my expertise. Training and experience in school counseling were important for my first formal opinion, whereas experience in counselor education was important for my second. The attorney initially traveled to meet with me for two hours. He described what he had learned about the bus harassment and the responses of school personnel after Wendy’s parents filed the formal complaint.

We soon communicated again by phone. I explained relevant concepts, including the developmental lens I routinely used as a counselor, examining developmental tasks (e.g., identity, direction, relationships and autonomy), “stuckness” and task accomplishment. I described findings in my study of trauma and noted literature related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We discussed the bullying study and my study with John Littrell of a school counselor who transformed a school culture from bloody fights to harmony. In the latter, the school culture was deemed to be malleable, and a strong counselor-principal partnership was essential to the positive change. I assumed that principal and counselor roles and relationship, school culture and climate, bullying and PTSD all would be important to this case.

At that point, I formally agreed to be involved and was asked to keep track of hours. I said I would ascertain whether bullying legislation existed in that state when the alleged harassment occurred, and the attorney agreed to locate student handbooks of the school from that time. I subsequently met with a faculty member in educational administration at the university and consulted by email with a superintendent who was a former middle school principal, asking how he would respond to an anonymous scenario resembling Wendy’s. His details were helpful as the attorney and I considered what administrators did and did not do in Wendy’s case. I also received university permission to engage in the court process. This permission included a formal admonition that I be clear, both in oral and written testimony, that I did not represent the university or its perspective.

The attorney later sent me a thick loose-leaf binder containing documents and resources for me to study, including:

  • The student handbooks and the school district’s anti-harassment policies
  • Depositions from the superintendent and a teacher for the earlier trial and Wendy’s affidavit
  • Wendy’s mother’s formal complaint
  • Summaries of student statements in the sheriff’s investigation report
  • Polygraph results for Wendy and the bus driver
  • A letter regarding the bus driver’s disciplinary record and his responses to two sets of interrogatories
  • Wendy’s school attendance, academic performance and psychological evaluation records

I studied these materials in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Wendy. The attorney’s assistant arranged for my in-person interview with Wendy and clarified my focus:

1) Wendy’s experiences during the harassment

2) How experiences with the bus driver, students and staff affected her mentally, emotionally and psychologically

3) How she was treated by school counselors

4) Whether permanent damage had occurred

I then developed an interview protocol. The interview lasted 3 1/2 hours.

As I asked about Wendy’s experiences, including during the criminal case, I included questions about development. I also assessed her morale, alert to possible depression, suicidal ideation and PTSD. As directed, I asked about contact with school counselors, whether and how much administrators were aware of her distress, the responses of teachers and peers, and attendance and classroom achievement. Subsequently, I submitted a report to the attorney. Over the next three months, we conferred four times by phone as I prepared to write an affidavit.

The affidavit

Writing the actual affidavit required about seven hours. I needed to peruse the binder materials and notes from my interview with Wendy, communicate once with her by phone to verify details and develop a carefully written, facts-based document. In it, I first presented my credentials and professional employment record as well as a list of the documents I had examined. I explained that I had conducted an interview of a specific length, and I asserted that the information I had gathered from Wendy was the kind counselors rely on during assessment of concerns. Then I presented two formal “opinions.”

First opinion

The first opinion was that the district failed to exercise reasonable care to protect Wendy from a backlash of ridicule and retaliation by faculty and students that was foreseeable under the circumstances. Both action and inaction were part of this neglect. I then discussed pertinent aspects of school administration, school counseling and school culture. I first described some differences in the roles and training of principals and counselors. Pertinent to this case, a head principal sets the tone and establishes the professional culture and climate, including expectations of ethical behavior from counselors and institutional tendencies to ignore or address conflict and other systemic concerns.

I explained that a school counselor can be an oasis for troubled individuals while also staying alert to general student morale. Trained to be nonjudgmental, objective, proactive, collaborative and not a disciplinarian, the counselor is skilled in listening and responding and helping students cope with stressors and live effectively. The American Counseling Association’s 2014 code of ethics, which makes respecting the dignity and promoting the welfare of clients the counselor’s primary responsibility, guides decision-making and behavior. The American School Counselor Association’s ethical standards state clearly that school counselors’ primary obligation is to the student and that they are to inform officials about conditions that are potentially disruptive or damaging to school mission or personnel. All of these aspects were pertinent to the case against the school.

Inaction: Administrators’ inaction suggested a school culture not geared to ensuring a safe environment for learning. School became a hostile and dangerous place for Wendy. Her parents were her only adult advocates.

1) Administrators did not take Wendy’s situation seriously, even though they were aware of the sheriff’s interviews at school and an earlier complaint about the bus driver. According to a deposition, a key administrator did not read students’ statements.

2) Administrators did not suggest that Wendy see a school counselor, who could have focused on her emotional health, and did not partner with school counselors to ensure her protection after the retaliation began.

3) Administrators ignored the bullying. According to Wendy, “About 15 [students] routinely harassed me.”

4) Administrators did not direct teachers to be alert for situations needing intervention, an action that might have given teachers permission to support Wendy. She sensed distance from formerly approachable teachers. Only two teachers, over the course of two years, offered a supportive comment (e.g., “Sorry to hear about everything”).

5) The harassment was visible to teachers. On one occasion, a clique of high-profile students interrupted a class, asked for Wendy and bullied her in the hall with threats of rape.

6) An administrator did not honor Wendy’s request to see a counselor after she was accosted by the girl whom Wendy had witnessed being assaulted. The girl would not acknowledge being assaulted and denied that Wendy had been assaulted. Only Wendy was sent home.

7) Administrators and teachers never asked why Wendy was often absent in the afternoons (“because I couldn’t take it anymore”), even when they had seen her earlier in the day. One of Wendy’s parents usually came to the office while she signed out, in full view of a principal.

8) The bus driver continued to drive his school route for several weeks after the complaint.

The inaction of the counselor Wendy consulted was also pertinent. Wendy’s well-being was at issue, and an alleged sexual abuser/harasser was under investigation prior to the first trial.

1) The counselor did not intervene with the bullies/harassers (e.g., talking with them individually) and was not active on behalf of a student in crisis, especially in a complex situation that involved threats and a distressed target.

2) When Wendy wanted to talk with the counselor after being accosted (“I’d done the right thing and gone to him”), he did not advocate for her when the principal sent her home.

3) Unlike her sister’s counselor, who appropriately called Wendy’s mother, Wendy’s counselor listened during their several meetings after the retaliation began (“I was often red-faced and crying”), but did not validate feelings or speak of reporting the situation to administrators. The collaborative aspect of addressing serious problems was missing.

4) The counselor did not contact child protective services or discuss that possibility with administrators. The situation involved a school employee with responsibilities for minors (“full power,” according to the student handbook), alleged sexual harassment of a student and implied danger for other students.

Actions: The superintendent was not receptive to Wendy’s parents’ complaint and was not respectful when they initially met with him. Administrator actions suggested a toxic school culture that gave permission to school personnel to treat Wendy and the situation inappropriately.

1) After Wendy’s mother complained about the incident in which harassers/bullies asked that Wendy come into the hallway, the teacher who had deferred to them said to Wendy, “I can no longer trust you.” The implicit school-culture message was that students should not tell parents about distressing incidents.

2) Wendy’s mother learned that one junior high teacher had commented to a neighbor that “[the bus driver] always liked the young girls. … I thought it was consensual.” This indicated that at least one teacher was aware of the bus driver’s behavior and normalized it.

3) In class, a teacher compared “the bus driver thing to the McDonald’s hot-coffee case.”

Second opinion

The second opinion was that Wendy suffered long-lasting psychological injury — PTSD, depression and developmental stuckness — as a result of the school district’s failure to protect her.

Scholars have theorized that bullying inherently involves a power differential. The bully or someone with more power than the bully is responsible for stopping bullying, not the person with relatively little power. Wendy said the bus driver had “total control.” She said, “I tried to sit in back. If called to the front … I tried to laugh it off, told myself that I was just being oversensitive.”

Wendy’s behaviors make sense in that context. In addition, many adolescents do not report harassment because much is at stake, and they are not likely to know how to handle that level of embarrassment, especially in front of peers. The lack of a supportive and protective response from school administrators during the bullying had an impact on Wendy’s well-being and development.

Emotional development: Stuck in sadness, anger. With her experiences invalidated, Wendy said, “I analyzed myself to death.” Reflecting feelings of hopelessness, she said, “I feel like it’s never going to end. Why can’t I be done with this?” She was “nervous about the future,” asking, “Will I ever be able to move on?”

I concluded that her symptoms of depression did not reflect a neurological predisposition: “Other than this, nothing in my life could be called ‘unhappy’ — boyfriend, family.” All of her sad language was related to the situation with the bus driver and the consequent bullying. She felt deep anger about the situation being “pushed aside” even by people who were supportive in public. When asked to elaborate on her statement about “the system,” she referred to the school failing her and the bus driver being acquitted. She then said, “I can understand why people … seek violence instead of authority.” 

PTSD: Stuck in reactivity. Wendy described symptoms associated with PTSD in my study of trauma: hypervigilance; extreme, confusing emotions; and high reactivity to contextual reminders. She was “afraid I’ll run into the principal at a public event.” She was “terrified” when she saw the bus driver in the lobby at her worksite: “I wanted to hide in the back.” When seeing a school bus, “my hands become sweaty.”

Social development: Stuck in not trusting. Workplace relationships and friendships had been affected. In the past, she had “friends all over the place.” Now it was “hard to let people get close.”

Physical/sexual development: Uncomfortable, self-conscious. Wendy’s responses to my questions about physical and sexual development fit the literature about sexual abuse: “My body image was fine. … I wore anything, happy with myself.” Now there was doubt: “Maybe I let too much show.” She said she currently wore T-shirts and jeans with “nothing showing.” She worried, “Will they see me as provocative?” The bus driver’s comments had led to reactivity to even playful sexual comments, which affected her relationship with her boyfriend: “I’m still uncomfortable with sexuality.”

Career development: Stuck. This former honor student said her vision of her future was “absent.” When I asked where she might be now without this experience, she said, “I’d be a teacher.” About higher education, she said, flatly, “I thought about college, but I don’t know what I could do forever [as a job] to make me happy.”

Outcome and implications

After the attorney studied the affidavit, we had two conversations. Eventually, he reported that the school district had refused to settle out of court and that the defense would probably want a deposition from me. However, three months later, he sent news that the case had been resolved. The terms would remain confidential, but he added, “I do believe this case will do some good down the road for similarly situated students.” He said I could reference the case in the future, and he approved the manuscript for this article. He indicated that he had learned from me.

Wendy’s parents’ persistence and the attorney’s investment and instincts about school-system culpability were advantageous. During several years of struggle, Wendy and her parents demonstrated courage, first at school and then during two court cases. This case is a reminder to counselors and counselor educators of the potential impact of receptivity and nonreceptivity of school personnel to frustrated parents and distressed students. It also underscores the potential impact of adult and peer aggression on development.

I encouraged the attorney, when a trial was expected, to incorporate the concept of school culture, not just climate, into his argument. Cultures have norms, protocols, actual and de facto leaders, and implicit and explicit rules. Behaviors at many levels here reflected well-established constraints, permissions and toxicity. Wendy’s experiences in her new school were in stark contrast to those in the school she had left.

Counselor educators can raise awareness in their teaching that institutional cultures differ, reflect leadership and affect students’ and clients’ well-being. A school counselor’s actions and inaction can affect school culture just as any other school leader’s behavior can. Counselors elsewhere can similarly contribute to and be affected by institutional culture.

More situations such as Wendy’s are likely to generate court cases. State laws now define bullying and require school districts to address bullying behavior, giving children and their parents leverage for complaints. However, counseling professionals’ knowledge and experience, especially related to development, ethical behavior and systems, can be applied beyond bullying cases. Their expertise is potentially valuable across a wide range of cases with similar overtones.

I am now an expert witness for the second time, for another case involving bullying. Regardless of whether it goes to trial, I am reminded that counselors and counselor educators can indeed be expert witnesses. I believe that discussing such court involvement during counselor preparation can help counseling professionals be confident in that role if asked, and I hope that first-person accounts such as this one might help counselors embrace the process.

 

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Jean Peterson, professor emerita at Purdue University, focused most of her clinical work and research on the social and emotional development of gifted youth, with special interest in those not fitting common stereotypes. She received 10 national awards related to research and 12 at Purdue for teaching, research or service. Among her several books is Talk With Teens About What Matters to Them. Contact her at jeanp@purdue.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:

 

 

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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.

Building better counselors

By John Sommers-Flanagan and Kindle Lewis November 6, 2017

In the opening chapter of the sixth edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions (published by the American Counseling Association), David Capuzzi, Mark Stauffer and Douglas Gross make the case that the helping relationship is central to all effective counseling. Not many counselors would argue with this idea. Nevertheless, many counseling practitioners still feel pressure to implement empirically supported or evidence-based mental health treatments. Consider this case:

Darrell is a 50-year-old Native American. He identifies as a male heterosexual. In his first counseling session, he talks about feeling “bad and sad” for the past six months and meets diagnostic criteria for a depressive disorder. Darrell’s counselor, Sharice, is trained in a manualized, empirically supported cognitive-behavioral model for treating depression. However, as a professional counselor, she values collaborative counseling relationships over manualized approaches. She especially emphasizes relational connections during initial sessions with clients who are culturally different from her.

The question is, how can Sharice be relationally oriented and still practice evidence-based counseling? The answer: She can use evidence-based relationship factors early and throughout the counseling process.

Evidence-based relationship factors

Back in 1957, Carl Rogers wrote that “a certain type of relationship between psychotherapist and client” was “necessary and sufficient” to produce positive change. In contrast, if you immerse yourself in contemporary research on counseling and psychotherapy, you might conclude that relationship factors in counseling are passé and that, instead, cutting-edge (and ethical) practitioners must use empirically supported treatments. But you would be wrong.

Most reasonable people recognize that both relationship factors and techniques contribute to positive outcomes. However, it is also true that relationship factors in and of themselves have strong empirical support. More than 60 years of scientific evidence supports Rogerian core conditions of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. In fact, counseling relationship factors are just as scientifically potent (and maybe more so) as so-called empirically supported treatments.

Newer terminology for acknowledging the research base for therapeutic relationships has been coming for about 15 years. In 2001, a task force from Division 29 (Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy) of the American Psychological Association coined the phrase “empirically supported therapy relationships.” The task force’s purpose was to place therapeutic relationships on equal footing with empirically supported treatments. Despite those efforts, many (and perhaps most) psychologists value technical procedures (for example, cognitive behavior therapy) over relational factors. In contrast, because of counseling’s emphasis on therapeutic relationships, in some ways, empirically supported therapy relationships are much more relevant to professional counselors.

In this article, we use the broader phrasing of “evidence-based relationship factors” (EBRFs) to represent ways in which professional counselors can integrate research-based relationship knowledge into counseling practice. But what is an EBRF, and how can counseling practitioners implement them in ways that are more specific than simply saying, “I value the therapeutic relationship?”

EBRFs include the three Rogerian core conditions and other purposefully formed and implemented relational dimensions. Below, we provide concrete examples of 12 EBRFs that are empirically linked to positive counseling and psychotherapy outcomes. For each EBRF, we use the case of Sharice and Darrell to illustrate how Sharice can work relationally with Darrell and still engage in evidence-based practice.

Evidence-based attitudes and behaviors

Rogerian core conditions of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding are foundational EBRFs. Although Rogers described them as attitudes, they also have behavioral dimensions. Additionally, counselors bring other relational factors into the room, such as role induction, cultural humility and scientific mindedness. Together, these EBRFs create a welcoming, safe and transparent environment that fosters therapeutic relationship development. Simultaneously, counselors are responsible for managing their countertransference throughout the relationship development process.

Congruence

Congruence implies counselor self-awareness and involves holding an attitude that values authenticity. Clients typically experience counselor congruence as the unfolding of a genuine relationship with their counselor. Genuineness involves counselors striving to be mindfully open and honest in their interactions with clients. This usually, but not always, involves self-disclosure, immediacy and offering feedback.

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Sharice displays congruence in several ways. First, she presents Darrell with an informed consent document that is written in her unique voice and that includes information on how she works with clients in counseling. She also greets Darrell with clear interest in learning more about who he is and what he wants. To focus on him, she might sit and emotionally center herself before going to meet him in the waiting room.

During the session, when Darrell talks about details of his professional work, Sharice openly expresses curiosity, “Oh, you know, I’m not sure what you mean by that. Could you tell me more so I can better understand what you’re experiencing in the workplace?” After Darrell shares details, she says, “Thank you. That helped me understand what you’re up against
at work.”

Role induction

Role induction is the process through which counselors educate clients about their role in counseling. Role induction is necessary because clients do not naturally know what they should talk about and because they may have inaccurate expectations about what counseling involves. When it goes well, role induction is interactive, and counselors simultaneously exhibit Rogerian core conditions (“I hope you’ll always feel free to ask me anything you want about counseling and how we’re working together”). Role induction begins with the written informed consent form.

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Sharice includes in her informed consent document what her clients can expect in counseling. She also explores these topics with Darrell in their first session.

Sharice: I’d like to share a bit with you about what we’ll be doing in this first session. To start, I want to hear about what’s been happening in your life that brings you to counseling now. As you talk, I’ll ask a few questions and try to get to know you and your situation better. We’ll talk about what’s happening now in your life and, if it’s relevant, we’ll talk some about your past. Then, toward the end of our session, I’ll share with you some ideas on how we can work together, and we’ll start to make a counseling plan together. Please ask me questions whenever you like.

Unconditional positive regard

Unconditional positive regard involves the warm acceptance of clients. Rogers himself noted that unconditional positive regard was an “unfortunate” term because no counselor can constantly experience unconditional positive regard for clients. However, to the extent that it can be accomplished, unconditional positive regard involves acceptance of the client’s self-reported experiences, attitudes, beliefs and emotions. Unconditional positive regard allows clients to feel the safety and trust needed to explore their self-doubts, insecurities and weaknesses.

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Throughout their time together, Sharice shows Darrell unconditional positive regard by listening to his experiences, attitudes, beliefs and emotions without showing judgment. She’s open to whatever he brings into the session and encourages him when they encounter subjects he finds difficult to explore. She not only listens nondirectively but also asks questions such as, “What’s your best explanation for why you’re feeling down now?” and “What are you thinking right now?” These questions show acceptance by supporting and exploring Darrell’s self-evaluation rather than focusing on Sharice’s judgments.

Empathic understanding

Empathy is one of the strongest predictors of positive counseling outcomes. However, there is one interesting caveat. It doesn’t matter if counselors view themselves as empathic; what matters is for clients to view their counselors as empathic.

Although measuring empathic responding is challenging, there is consensus that using reflections of feeling and engaging in limited self-disclosure are effective strategies. Also, there is evidence from neuroscience research that resonating with or feeling some of what clients are feeling is part of an empathic response.

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When responding to Darrell, Sharice uses her facial expressions, posture, voice tone and verbal reflections in an effort to comprehend Darrell’s unique thoughts, feelings and impulses. She expresses empathy as he talks about work stress.

Darrell: I feel pressure coming at me from everywhere. Deadlines that need to be met, clients to make happy, bills that need to be paid, and I need to maintain this image in the community, you know?

Sharice: That sounds stressful. You have people counting on you, and it feels overwhelming.

Following an initial reflection of feeling, Sharice uses what Rogers referred to as “walking within” to emotionally connect on a deeper level.

Darrell: It’s starting to get to me in ways stress hasn’t before. Like, I can’t sleep, it’s harder to focus, and I feel like I’m going to burn out soon.

Sharice: It’s like you’re saying, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take, and I don’t know what to do.” Do I have that right?

Later, Sharice uses a reflective self-disclosure (which combines congruence with empathic understanding) in an effort to deepen her empathic resonance.

Sharice: As I listen to you, Darrell, and as I try to put myself in your shoes, I feel physically anxious. It’s almost like this pressure and pace make me feel out of breath. Is that some of what it feels like for you?

Just like Carl Rogers would do, Sharice intermittently checks in with Darrell on the accuracy of her reflections (“Do I have that right?”). Additionally, if Darrell indicates that Sharice is not hearing him accurately, she uses paraphrasing to refine her reflection and sometimes apologizes while correcting herself.

Cultural humility

Cultural humility is an overarching multicultural orientation or perspective that includes three dimensions:

1) An other-orientation instead of a self-orientation

2) Respect for client values and ways of being

3) An attitude of equality, not superiority

Like the Rogerian core conditions, cultural humility is an attitude that counselors adopt before entering the counseling office, but there are also behavioral manifestations of cultural humility.

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In their first session, Sharice creates a space for Darrell to speak about what his culture means to him. She notes that even though they come from different cultures, understanding his culture is important to her.

Sharice: Thank you for filling out the intake form, Darrell. I know it can be daunting with all the personal information we ask for. I see that you are Native American. I’m a mix of German and Swiss and grew up outside of Denver. What this means to me is that I’ll be trying my best to understand your life experiences. If at any point you think I’m not getting your perspective, I hope you’ll tell me. Sound OK? (Darrell nods.) Thanks. Also, whenever you’d like, I’d be interested in hearing more about your culture and how it informs your way of being in the world.

Scientific mindedness

Scientific mindedness is a concept and skill originally described by Stanley Sue. It refers to the process of counselors forming and testing hypotheses about clients rather than coming to premature, and potentially faulty, conclusions.

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As Sharice gets to know Darrell and the issues that brought him to her office, she uses scientific mindedness to hypothesize how culture may (or may not) be a salient factor in his experience of stress in the workplace. When he talks about “immense pressures” that he puts on himself, she’s reminded of how some individuals from minority groups can feel added stress because they view themselves as representing their entire minority community. Sharice keeps this hypothesis in the back of her mind and, eventually, when the time seems right, uses a reflective listening response to test her hypothesis.

Sharice: When you talk about the pressure you put on yourself to perform, it sounds like you’re performing not only for yourself but also for others.

Darrell: Absolutely. I can’t help but worry because my family depends on me to generate income. (Somewhat to Sharice’s surprise, Darrell doesn’t identify his tribe or the reservation community as an additional source of pressure to perform, so she explores the issue more directly.)

Sharice: I’ve read and heard from some of my other Native American clients and students that it’s possible to feel added stress because they might view themselves as representing their tribe or other Native American people. Is that true for you?

Darrell: I always tell myself that that’s not an issue for me. But if I’m totally honest with myself and with you, I’d have to say that being an Indian man in an intense business environment makes for more stress. In some ways, I think it has less to do with representing my people and more to do with how I think my colleagues — and even my friends at work — somehow expect me to be less competent. I don’t know exactly what they think of me, but I feel I need to work twice as hard to earn and keep their respect. (After listening to Darrell’s disclosure, Sharice updates her hypothesis about how race and culture might be adding to his stress at work.)

Sharice: So, it’s not so much that you feel like a representative for your people. It’s more that you’re thinking and feeling that you should do double the work to prove yourself to your colleagues. I can imagine how feeling discounted compounds the everyday workplace stress you feel.

Managing countertransference

Countertransference is unavoidable. Countertransference includes the counselor’s emotional reactions to any or all clinically relevant client material (transference, client personality, content presented by the client, client appearance and so on). These reactions may be related to the counselor’s unresolved personal conflicts or the client’s interpersonal behaviors. Countertransference can be a hindrance or a potential benefit to the therapeutic process; it can distort your perceptions of your client, but it can also inform your relationship with the client.

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During their work, Sharice notices that she gets impatient with Darrell’s pace of speech and finds herself feeling annoyed with him. She brings this to her consultation group to understand why this is happening and how it is affecting her work with Darrell. Talking about it with her supportive group helps her deal with her emotional reactions more effectively and build understanding for why she is experiencing frustration and how to adjust so she can provide the best service possible to Darrell.

The evidence-based therapeutic alliance

The therapeutic alliance was a psychoanalytic construct until Edward Bordin described it in pantheoretical terms. Alliance factors include three dimensions:

1) The emotional bond

2) Mutual goals

3) Collaborative tasks in counseling

Additionally, progress monitoring and rupture and repair can be viewed as EBRFs related to the alliance.

The emotional bond

Although it can be difficult to measure an emotional bond, in the counseling context it is usually defined as clients showing a positive affective response toward their counselors. In many ways, the counselor-client emotional bond is a natural byproduct of the Rogerian core conditions and of the work that counselors and clients do together. However, counselors lead in this process by greeting clients with a positive affect and consistently showing interest in what clients talk about.

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When Darrell arrives at Sharice’s office, she is visibly happy to see him. In addition, she expresses her interest in working with him and her belief that he possesses the ability to overcome the issues with which he is struggling.

After a few sessions, Darrell begins to show trust in Sharice. He no longer looks anxious to be in her office, his speech is less guarded and he smiles more during their interactions. He mentions that although counseling is difficult at times, he appreciates having time every week with Sharice to talk about his life and sort out what is troubling him. He has become emotionally bonded to Sharice and looks forward to counseling sessions.

Mutual goals

In the first few sessions, counselors and clients explicitly discuss clients’ personal problems and corresponding counseling goals. Eventually, and sometimes even in the first session, clients and counselors agree on which goal or goals to focus on in counseling.

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Sharice (after discussing Darrell’s presenting problems and possible solutions): Darrell, we’ve identified several goals that we can work on together: stress management, managing the negative or critical thoughts you have about your work performance and getting better sleep. Which of these would you like to focus on first?

Collaboration on tasks linked to goals

After working with clients to decide on counseling goals, counselors introduce tasks or activities in session (or as homework) that are meaningfully related to the agreed-upon goals. These collaborative tasks often constitute the “technical” part of counseling.

When applying techniques, relationally oriented counselors:

  • Are careful to listen closely to what clients have already tried
  • Use reflective listening to gain a mutual understanding of what has worked worse or better
  • Jointly brainstorm new options with clients
  • Ask permission to try out technical procedures
  • Jointly monitor client reactions to new strategies

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Sharice: We’ve been talking about everything you’ve tried to help yourself sleep better. It sounds like you’ve been working on this for years. How about we rank which strategies have worked better for you and which have worked worse?

Darrell: Sure. (Sharice and Darrell work on Darrell’s rankings.)

Sharice: One of the things I’ve noticed that seems to work better for you is
when you’re able to distract yourself from your thoughts about work. Does that sound right?

Darrell: Absolutely. It’s so hard for me to get my brain to stop problem-solving.

Sharice: One thing I’d add to your list of possible strategies is mindfulness meditation. It can be a powerful technique to deal with racing thoughts. What’s your reaction to that idea?

Progress monitoring

After counseling goals are established and collaborative tasks identified, counselors and clients work together to evaluate counseling progress. There’s a robust body of research attesting to the positive effects of progress monitoring.

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Sharice consistently checks in with Darrell in two ways. First, she uses the Session Rating Scale after each session to gauge her therapy alliance with Darrell. Second, she directly asks Darrell about his reactions to the counseling strategies they are working on together.

As a part of her progress monitoring efforts, Sharice asks Darrell to keep a log of his mindfulness meditation activities, along with his sleep quality and quantity. Each week, they discuss what went well and what was challenging. She offers empathy and makes adjustments to his homework as needed.

Rupture and repair

Rupture is defined as tension or a breakdown in the counselor-client collaborative relationship. Repair involves counselors making statements and taking actions to restore the therapeutic relationship. Rupture can happen at any time during counseling. Usually it involves clients withdrawing or showing irritation.

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After a few weeks of logging his mindfulness meditation, Darrell appears agitated. When Sharice asks about the log, Darrell says, “This is a waste of time, and I don’t know why you thought it was going to help. I’m done with this stupid meditation.”

Sharice responds empathically and then explores with Darrell the source of his frustration. She discusses how embracing a passive attitude during meditation can be extremely difficult, especially because of the pressured and problem-solving orientation he has at work. She apologizes for pushing the idea of mindfulness meditation.

Darrell’s response is paradoxical. He spontaneously shares how important it is for him to find time to get out of his hard-driving mentality. Sharice then tweaks the mindfulness approach they have been using. The new emphasis moves away from formal logging and embraces small moments of progress.

The relationally focused, scientifically based counselor

Beginning with Rogers and moving forward into the 21st century, counseling practitioners have embraced the therapeutic relationship as central to positive counseling outcomes. However, at times, allegiance to and emphasis on the counseling relationship has been viewed as anti-science. The good news is that, now, more than ever, we have growing empirical evidence to support the efficacy and effectiveness of a relational emphasis in counseling. In this article, we reviewed and illustrated specific ways in which you can emphasize the therapeutic relationship and be evidence-based. This is welcome progress for the counseling profession in general and counseling practitioners in particular.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

John Sommers-Flanagan is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana. He has co-authored many books, including Tough Kids, Cool Counseling (published by the American Counseling Association) and Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice (published by Wiley). Contact him at john.sf@mso.umt.edu or through his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com.

Kindle Lewis is a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at the University of Montana. She is a national certified counselor, holds a license in school counseling and has 10 years of experience working with youth in education and counseling settings both locally and internationally. Her areas of focus are youth and school counseling, community building and holistic wellness. Contact her at kindle1.lewis@umconnect.umt.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Nonprofit News: Taking safety seriously: Common issues found in small practices

By “Doc Warren” Corson III October 26, 2017

As a writer, educator and counselor certified in two countries, I find myself consulting with folks all over the globe. I belong to various counseling-related groups and find much inspiration therein. I’ve also found many a post or question that made me cringe. Not because these professionals were less bright, energetic or talented than others, but because it would appear that their educational programs and real-world experiences have been lacking in some key areas that would help ensure not just the highest quality of care but also the highest level of safety for them, their staff members and their clients.

I’m often asked why I write for so many places pro bono, and my reply is simple: I’m trying to give back to the profession that has enabled me to help so many in need while also providing a good life for me and mine. If we fail to feed our profession, if we fail to fill the current training and experiential gaps that currently affect our programing, then the future of the counseling profession will begin to look bleak. Sharing knowledge freely is one of the best ways to make lasting change in our profession.

As you read over the following issues that I have found to be very common, think about how they may apply to you or to someone with whom you work. If they apply, consider ways you can move to improve the situation. We are all on the same team, and we will ALL make mistakes in our work. Let’s do what we can to ensure that when we do make errors, that we remain safe, both physically and from a liability standpoint.

 

Issue: Having only one staff member working in the office when it is open for business

Concerns: Being the only person in an office (other than clients) increases the risk to a clinician in many ways. It can pose a physical safety risk should a client become physically or sexually threatening. It can pose a health risk should a major health issue such as an injury, heart attack or other collapse occur. It also can make it much harder to defend yourself should a current or former client ever make an accusation against you. Having another staff member available to report that nothing out of the ordinary happened that day and that no signs of impropriety were present can make a difference.

Ways to avoid: Always make it a practice to have at least two people in the office area at all times. This doesn’t mean that you need two clinicians. The people present might be a receptionist, an assistant, interns, a biller or even volunteers. My offices have a system in place to ensure that two people are in every office every day (last-minute health issues notwithstanding). Sometimes the “extra” person is a staff member; other times it is a graduate, doctoral or undergraduate intern or volunteer.

 

Issue: Not having documentation for services provided, often because you do not work with third-party payers

Concerns: I’ve seen this happen many times over the years. A clinician, often in a small private practice, decides that he or she will not take insurance payments and thus will no longer keep therapeutic records of any kind. Instead, the clinician determines simply to keep a tally of billable hours. I’ve also seen cash-only practices that keep no records whatsoever.

This leaves so many issues that it could be an article unto itself. Treatment record are required regardless of insurance. They are part of the profession and are subject to ethical and legal requirements (see Standard A.1.b., Records and Documentation, of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, as well as state and national laws).

Ways to avoid: Avoid going by what another counselor tells you and instead consult the ACA Code of Ethics and applicable laws. Review and use online resources, and develop documentation and a system to keep all records secure. Some free resources can be found here at docwarren.org/images/Documentational_Requirements_for_Practice.pdf and docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.

 

Issue: Little to no prescreening of clients

Concerns: Without proper screening, you risk accepting clients with needs that are beyond the scope of your practice, knowledge, experience and education. This lack of screening can lead to safety issues, such as in a case in which the client is potentially violent. It also can lead to wasted session times and time-consuming referral services and follow-up that could have been avoided with a simple screening.

Ways to avoid: Use a prescreening form and process at the time of first contact with potential clients to ensure that they are a good fit for your program. If they are, schedule them accordingly. Should they not be a good fit, have a list of more appropriate placements, complete with phone numbers and other contact information, at the ready to offer them. This will potentially save hours, both for you and for the prospective client.

 

Issue: Keeping a clear path between you and the exit

Concerns: In the case of client violence or client physical collapse, having a clear path between you and the office door can greatly increase your chances of a positive outcome. I have consulted with clinicians who were assaulted by clients and found that they had no system in place for keeping a clear path to the door. In addition, they lacked safety training (see below).

Ways to avoid: Furniture placement can do wonders to increase safety in an office environment. Place “your” chair or other furniture as close to the door as possible, while placing client seating a bit farther from the door (even a few extra inches can make a difference). When greeting or exiting the room with a client, try to be the one to open the door for them. Once the door is open, you can allow them to walk out before you because with the door open, there is less risk. Plus, chances are great that your office opens into a public space.

 

Issue: Lack of safety training/not knowing what to do if a problem arises

Concerns: In many instances I have consulted on after a clinician has been assaulted, the clinician lacked basic insights into or training for when a problem might arise. Don’t get me wrong — depending on the situation, an injury can result no matter the amount of training a clinician has received, but a lack of knowledge only increases the odds of injury.

Ways to avoid: Depending on the treatment setting, the use of body alarms, comprehensive safety training and awareness exercises can be beneficial. Body alarms may not be needed in the average program, but those who serve violent offenders or those with a history of violence can surely justify the expense. For the average counseling program, consider having someone conduct a safety assessment who is knowledgeable both about safety and your treatment setting. Conduct regular in-service trainings and exercises, and make basic skill training part of new employee orientation. The few hours and few dollars spent can make a huge difference.

 

Issue: No way to communicate to other staff should an emergency arise

Concerns: Some nonprofit counseling programs are small, with just a few offices that share common walls. Other programs have large campuses that utilize different buildings or are spread across multiple acres, making it difficult (if not impossible) to hear a staff member in distress and in need of assistance.

Ways to avoid: Have a means of communication in place for all employees based on the office or campus setup. In our programs, staff members use handheld walkie-talkies whenever they are out of range of the reception or other high-traffic areas. These radios are only used in the event of an emergency, so there is little worry of intrusion or distraction. Our reception staff always have one with them in their area so that they can call for assistance if needed. Systems can range from about $100 into the thousands, depending on the number of handsets needed and type of system.

 

Issue: No receptionist or other staff in the waiting area

Concerns: Often, treatment records, schedules, cash boxes and other vital information are stored at the reception desk. Failure to keep this station manned can lead to theft of charts, especially if a volatile legal case (such as a divorce or custody hearing) is going on that involves one of your clients. An unmanned reception area can also lead to the loss of valuable property, folks wondering around the building and interrupting sessions, and a host of other issues.

Years ago, two different local programs contacted me about potentially wanting to partner on a few projects with my program. Both had great credentials, and as the program director, I decided to explore the options. If nothing else, I figured they could be referral sources. One day, I had a last-minute cancellation and decided to visit the programs.

At the first one, I found the door unlocked and the reception area deserted. I was able to roam the halls and noticed no white noise machines or other means of ensuring privacy. I also found confidential mail in plain view next to a few office doors.

I was greeted by much of the same at the second program, in addition to unlocked chart cabinets and confidential information sitting on top of a desk. The desk was also unlocked, as evidenced by several partially open drawers. Needless to say, I passed on any possible partnerships or referrals.

Ways to avoid: Keep cabinets locked and valuables secured when not in use. Hire staff or take on interns and volunteers whenever needed and train them on privacy laws, safety and securing documentation.

 

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Although this article is far from comprehensive, it highlights some of the more commonly found safety issues in smaller programming. Do what you can to keep your nonprofit program running smoothly while addressing safety and liability concerns. With a bit of prevention and an eye toward being proactive, we can do much to lower our liability and keep ourselves (and our staff members and clients) safer. People are counting on us.

 

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Nonprofit News looks at issues that are of interest to counselor clinicians, with a focus on those who are working in nonprofit settings.

 

Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Making the counseling profession more diverse

Compiled by Laurie Meyers October 25, 2017

For many years, white men were presented as the face of the counseling profession and largely dictated its focus and direction. The American Counseling Association (originally known as the American Personnel and Guidance Association) was founded in 1952. Nineteen of its first 20 presidents — many of whom went on to become giants in the field — were white men. Given American society during that period, the lack of diversity at the highest levels of leadership wasn’t unusual.

When Thelma Daley was elected in the mid-1970s, she became the association’s first African American president (and only its third female president). Although women began ascending to ACA’s top leadership position on a fairly regular basis over the next two decades, it wasn’t until 1993-1994 that the association elected its second person of color as president — Beverly O’Bryant.

From those modest roots, there is little argument that the profession has grown abundantly in the emphasis it places on multicultural understanding in the practice of counseling. Conference programming, book titles and journal articles, continuing education offerings and other resources regularly address issues of multiculturalism. Updated and comprehensive Multicultural Counseling and Social Justice Counseling Competencies provide professional counselors guidance on working with diverse populations. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) has made social and cultural diversity a core curricular area in the counselor education programs it accredits.

Even as the profession stresses the need for counselors to continually strive for multicultural competence, however, there is a recognition by many that the profession remains challenged in its ability to diversify its professional ranks. Many feel that the counseling profession is still largely dominated by white culture. Others point out that in many areas of the country, clients struggle to find counselors with whom they can identify culturally.

Given these circumstances, Counseling Today asked a number of ACA members who study diversity to share their thoughts — in their own words — on a complex issue: What needs to happen to make the counseling profession more diverse?

 

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Thelma Daley

ACA fellow Thelma Daley, the first African American president of both the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association

Historically, the counseling profession has not been multicultural. In fact, many are still trying to define multiculturalism. When I became the first African American president of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and, a few years later [1975-1976], the first African American president of the American Counseling Association, there were less than 50 persons of color at the conventions. Additionally, not many women were holding key leadership roles. It is amazing to think that the governing board during my presidential term consisted of one white woman, and the remainder were white men, mainly from Southern universities.

Peruse the growth of the many divisions [in ACA], and one gets a picture that counselors from many aspects of life have fought for and are given recognition in an inviting place for expression, growth and development. However, the struggle continues.

We have come a long way, but the door has only been cracked. Institutional prejudice has not gone away. In fact, it has been awakened from its soporific state. More than ever, the profession is needed, and all racial/ethnic groups should have access to high-level counseling professionals with whom they can relate freely.

There is a need to survey the hiring practices, the working conditions and the pay, which might be repelling forces for those who might want to consider the profession.

People gravitate to where they see others who are like them. A stumbling block might be finding the means to recruit cadres of underrepresented populations and offering them the training and work sites with supervision, similar to AmeriCorps. A bold, creative step is needed. As we seek new populations, remember that we add and do not discard. Build upon the progress we have made. Whatever is done should involve a broad spectrum of professionals and citizens. The concern is beyond just counselor educators. Even the terminology used by the helping professions may rebuff some cultures.

In spite of the perceived deficiency, the association and the overall profession have truly advanced in making commendable strides toward inclusion and diversity. A laudatory foundation is in place that should make the forward thrust possible and achievable. It is my belief that most active members are open and ready to move beyond the status quo and will seek to enjoy and be enhanced by the amalgamation of rich new cultures of this wonderful world. Let us take a giant step and never shy away from expanding the realms of diversity within this great profession.

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Selma de Leon-Yznaga

Selma de Leon-Yznaga, past president of Counselors for Social Justice, founder of Texas Counselors for Social Justice, associate professor of counselor education at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and an expert on ethnic identity development and student success, issues surrounding Latina/o immigration, acculturation distress and racial discrimination

Confirming the representation of diversity among counseling students and professionals continues to be a challenge, despite our professed commitment to multiculturalism. CACREP reports some demographics in its yearly Vital Statistics Report, although this data is collected inconsistently by counselor education programs, especially for applicants not accepted and students who don’t complete the program. In addition, ethnicity is the only attribute assessed systematically, with little data available on students with disabilities, sexual orientation or transgender identification. If we aren’t even asking about and reporting it, it can’t be a surprise that students and professionals of ethnic and cultural diversity continue to be underrepresented in our programs and profession.

CACREP reported a slight increase from 2012 to 2015 in master’s-level enrollment by aggregated non-Caucasian students (38.81 percent and 39.45 percent, respectively). However, the graduation rate for total students enrolled in CACREP master’s programs was only 30 percent in 2015. It’s not clear how many of the 70 percent who didn’t complete [their programs] were ethnic minorities.

Enrollment of doctoral students in our programs narrows the diversity gap further: 41 percent and 46 percent of students in 2012 and 2015 were non-Caucasian. Again, the completion rate is disappointing: 16 percent (2012) and 18 percent (2015). Unfortunately, CACREP doesn’t provide disaggregated data by ethnicity for graduates; we have no way of knowing which share of noncompleters ethnic minority students comprise.

Faculty diversity rates in counselor education programs suggest that ethnic minorities in doctoral programs are not graduating at the rate of enrollment. Only 25.6 percent of the [counselor education and supervision] faculty reporting to CACREP in 2015 were ethnic minorities. With only one quarter of our faculty members reflecting the demographics of almost half of our master’s and doctoral students, it might be that students of color don’t feel a sense of belongingness or acceptance.

The counseling profession was developed by and for the American dominant culture (male, white, heterosexual, cisgender, nondisabled). In our counselor education programs, we continue to disseminate theories written for and normed on the dominant culture, despite rapidly changing demographics. More contemporary constructivist and feminist theories tend to be covered in courses as ancillary, not major, theories.

Until we can make counseling meaningful and practical for clients of all demographics,
the marketability of counselors will be low, and we will continue to attract students who represent the dominant cultural group, who in turn will attract clients from the dominant cultural group.

Until we can make counseling a service that is accessible to and valuable for culturally diverse communities, I think we will continue to struggle to attract and graduate diverse students. Until we attract and graduate diverse students, we aren’t likely to develop counseling theory and practice that meet the needs of diverse community members, and so the cycle is perpetuated.

Few people of color have had personal experiences with counseling, other than school counseling. It’s a service that is out of reach for many people of color. Priorities for ethnic minorities who tend to be overrepresented in poverty rates do not include one-on-one mental health counseling. A relatively long-term investment in time and money, counseling does not have an immediate or discernible return for the family. Without the experience or valuing of counseling, it’s hard to attract or interest potential students.

Living and working in one of the nation’s poorest, majority Latinx communities has taught me that counseling services are of little value to those who cannot afford them. Counseling as we currently conceptualize and provide it is a luxury that most in my community can only take advantage of through free social or school-based services. I don’t think we’re that different from other communities with high concentrations of ethnic minorities.

Many of the students in our geographical area are first-generation Americans and college students, and making the significant investment in college requires a commensurate return, whether it be financial or prestigious. Most of our families want their students to major in a discipline that they recognize and value, and that will “pay off” in the long run. The unfamiliarity with counseling is a big obstacle for potential students who usually have to get buy-in from the whole family to make the sacrifices necessary in graduate school.

Socially, a large-scale destigmatization media campaign aimed at ethnic and cultural minorities would educate communities in the process and benefits of mental health counseling. I recall a commercial sponsored by Johnson & Johnson for the nursing profession that ran during prime time on television and gave the public a sense of the multifaceted role of nurses. Making the public aware of our emphasis on wellness, client strengths and a here-and-now orientation might increase our practical value and attractiveness. A rise in public demand and job opportunities in diverse communities would most likely increase interest in counseling program enrollment for students of color and cultural diversity.

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Carlos Hipolito-Delgado

Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, former president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and associate professor of counseling at UC Denver; his research focuses on the ethnic identity development of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, the effects of internalized racism, improving the cultural competence of counselors, and the sociopolitical development of students of color

A colleague of mine at University of Colorado (CU) Denver, Diane Estrada, and I were talking about the lack of ethnic diversity in our graduate student body. At the time, we were a faculty of eight, and four of us identified as people of color. Counselor education at CU Denver prides itself on our focus on issues of diversity and social justice. Despite all of this, less than 15 percent of our students identified with a community of color. Dr. Estrada, our graduate assistant, Marina Garcia, and I ran a study [“Counselor education in technicolor: Recruiting graduate students of color,” published in the Interamerican Journal of Psychology] investigating factors that influenced graduate students of color to pursue counselor education.

Over the span of a year and a half, we were able to interview 19 graduate students of color from across the U.S. These students were enrolled in master’s-level and doctoral programs. They also represented private, public and for-profit universities.

There were two primary factors that seemed to influence our participants’ decisions to become counselors: exposure to the counseling profession and commitment to diversity and social justice. Graduate students of color who had been involved with counseling, had family who worked in the helping professions and who themselves worked in related fields described how these experiences pushed them to explore counseling as a career option. What is more, these students also mentioned how they benefited from encouragement from family members and professional mentors.

In terms of commitment to diversity and social justice, participants wanted to work in a career field that would allow them to serve marginalized communities. Further, they were attracted to counselor education programs that demonstrated a commitment to issues of multiculturalism and social justice.

If, as a profession, we are committed to diversifying our ranks, we must do a better job of reaching out to ethnic minority communities. We must educate these communities about the value of mental health, the role counselors play in promoting mental health and how counseling can be a tool for facilitating community empowerment. I would recommend that we target communities of color by creating career education programs to teach youth about counseling, encourage counselors to serve as mentors for youth of color, develop internship opportunities at the high school and college levels to give students of color experience in counseling settings and look to expand our undergraduate course offerings to attract more students of color.

Additionally, if we can continue to show how counselors promote social justice for ethnically diverse communities, we will attract more students. ACA has done a superb job of this this year by issuing statements supporting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and denouncing religious and ethnic discrimination. However, it is also time for counselor education programs to demonstrate this commitment. This goes beyond a diversity statement. It entails having faculty of color in leadership positions, infusing diversity and social justice into all facets of their programs and providing internship experiences with ethnically diverse populations.

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Cirecie A. West-Olatunji

Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, past president of ACA and AMCD, associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana and director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Research; she has initiated several clinical research projects that focus on culture-centered community collaborations designed to address issues rooted in systemic oppression, such as transgenerational trauma and traumatic stress

There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon [a lack of greater diversity in the counseling profession]. Scholars have documented the implicit bias in academia wherein entering faculty of color and women experience marginalization and bias related to their teaching styles and research agendas. Thus, even when individuals are chosen for faculty positions, they often do not get tenure and leave.

Even more concerning, many doctoral students of color are not groomed to enter the professoriate. As graduate students, they are not selected to participate in research projects with faculty mentors to gain opportunities to apply their classroom knowledge about research in grant writing, dissemination at conferences and in academic journals. Thus, they often do not have competitive CVs [curricula vitae] or noteworthy letters of recommendation from faculty when applying for academic positions.

At the master’s level, students of color are less likely to be mentored by faculty to prepare them for doctoral studies. They are frequently not regarded as doctoral material. Instead, they are considered to lack intellectual capacity or sufficient curiosity.

The Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) has been at the forefront of this issue since the late 1970s. After several heated Governing Council meetings, the Association for Non-White Concerns was formed to highlight the issues of non-white counselors in the association. Later, the name was changed to broaden the scope of the organization. However, this division within ACA has continually advanced discussion and social action regarding the marginalization of groups of individuals within the profession. Most notably, AMCD scholars drafted the Multicultural Counseling Competencies that are widely used today within and beyond mental health disciplines.

Even today, AMCD serves as a haven for ACA members who seek support, advice, validation and increased competence. Most recently, AMCD sponsored the Courageous Conversations panel series that allowed women and men to talk about their unique experiences in counselor education. This was such a successful endeavor that a national webinar series followed. In these sessions, panelists and attendees shared their stories of distress and resilience in the academy as graduate students took notes on what to do and what not to do.

Yes, progress has been made. Despite the need for increased multicultural and social justice competence among white faculty and administrators, in comparison with our sister organizations, ACA has been quite active in pursuing multicultural ideals. First, our CACREP Standards hold counseling programs accountable for providing multicultural training throughout the curriculum. This is not a suggestion as is the case with other disciplines; it is a requirement. Second, for NBCC (National Board for Certified Counselors) accreditation, individuals must demonstrate multicultural knowledge on certification examinations. NBCC has also funded a Minority Fellows Program that has a strong mentoring component to it. Third, [ACA CEO] Rich Yep has established a climate of multicultural acceptance within the culture of the organization. Thus, in the execution of the membership’s wishes, the staff is held accountable for multicultural considerations. This is key and vital to a living, dynamic commitment to multiculturalism. Most of the ACA membership may not be aware how diverse the ACA staff is.

Areas to work on are: 1) increasing the percentage of faculty of color, 2) augmenting the percentage of doctoral candidates prepared to assume faculty positions, 3) ensuring that graduate students and early career professionals of color are mentored appropriately to afford them the opportunity to engage in leadership and research experiences, and 4) connecting with minority-serving institutions (historically black colleges/universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges) to access larger populations of graduate students and faculty of color.

The major obstacle to increasing multiculturalism in counseling is structural bias. Until we are able to assist individuals in unpacking their implicit biases toward socially marginalized individuals, it will be difficult to make any significant headway in advancing multicultural competence or expanding opportunities for women and individuals of color in counselor education. This refers to ideological as well as interpersonal differences. Thus, even white faculty who advance critical concepts such as social justice in counseling are likely to be marginalized. In essence, our ideal goal is to flip the switch and establish diversity as the mainstream normative value and marginalize cultural hegemony (i.e., Eurocentrism, including white masculinity as dominant) within our profession. It’s a tall order but possible within what’s left of even my lifetime.

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Manivong Ratts

Manivong Ratts, past president of Counselors for Social Justice, chair of the committee that developed the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies and associate professor of counseling at Seattle University, where he runs the Social Justice Research Lab

To understand the lack of diversity in the counseling profession, one must examine the root of the problem. Higher education, and counselor education by extension, has largely been a predominately white institution. As such, institutions and programs continue to use admission criteria that advantage applicants from privileged groups over applicants from marginalized groups.

For example, graduate programs continue to look favorably at applicants who have volunteer experience. However, being able to volunteer is a luxury that is not always available to applicants who live in poverty. Such applicants sometimes work multiple jobs and, therefore, may not have extra time to volunteer. Many graduate counseling programs continue to also use the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as admission criteria. Yet, research has shown the cultural bias inherent in GRE scores. Most in the professoriate in counseling are also white. There is a tendency for people to admit applicants who look like them because such applicants make them feel comfortable.

Counselor education programs continue to use admission protocols that fail to reach communities of color. For example, many counselor education programs fail to recruit in communities where people of color reside. It is much easier for faculty to hold admissions fairs on university campuses instead of in the communities where applicants of color reside. In addition, counselor educators, many of whom are white, continue to lack understanding that recruiting applicants of color into their programs is just part of the challenge. Programs must focus on retention as much as they focus on recruitment. This requires programs to evaluate whether current structures that are in place favor white students over students of color. For example, teaching students of color who intend to return to their communities counseling theories that are individualistic in nature may lead such students to question the relevance of their training.

Many counselor education programs [also] fail to focus on the unique training needs of students of color. Programs must understand how being a member of a marginalized group shapes the counselor experience differently for counselors of color. Being able to address this issue will better prepare counselors of color for their work.

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Shabnam Etemadi Brady

Shabnam Etemadi Brady, a doctoral counseling psychology student at Tennessee State University in Nashville who studies and works with immigrants and is herself an immigrant to the United States

From a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling to a doctoral program in counseling psychology, I have been the token Middle Eastern, immigrant, ethnic minority woman surrounded by mostly Caucasian peers and colleagues. One of the greatest barriers I faced in applying to and considering graduate programs in counseling and psychology was that of the GRE. Here I was again post-ACT/SAT experiences, attempting to take another standardized exam that was not created for me; rather, it was standardized on a majority group unrepresentative of me and my background. Thankfully, my grade point average and work ethic supported my competency as a student. However, this process turned me away from considering many master’s and Ph.D. programs. This can be a point for programs to consider when desiring to recruit students of diverse backgrounds, especially bilingual immigrants. The GRE is not always a marker of our success. Inclusivity in application criteria is welcoming.

[Another barrier I] faced and continue to face is the lack of accessibility to the population that I am now specializing in — immigrant and refugee communities. I had to become self-driven in this regard with both graduate programs because they did not have partnerships with agencies serving such diverse populations. Programs can partner with local agencies to expand practicum experiences for students interested in working with diverse populations.

Both of my programs are very welcoming to diversity. They seemed open and excited about my experiences as early as the interview. Additionally, both programs have diverse faculty as part of the program, which aligns with this value and interest. One program had only one diverse faculty member, and she soon became my mentor. My current program has two diverse faculty members who are knowledgeable and in support of multicultural work in mental health.

The greatest support I have received in both programs has been constant encouragement when I have initiated practicum positions with agencies serving the population I am interested in helping. Both programs allowed for me to engage in this clinical work as well as in research concerning immigrants and refugees. They have allowed me to share my experiences in classes, workshops and conferences. Faculty at both programs have vocalized their satisfaction and delight with my work. Thus, their appreciation of work concerning immigrants and refugees in mental health has encouraged my continued efforts in the field.

My cohort in my master’s program consisted mostly of Caucasian students [along] with myself and one African American student. The program has made efforts to increase both diversity in faculty and in students with recruitment strategies. My cohort in my doctoral program consists mostly of Caucasian students, me and three African American students.

I am often surprised to be the only immigrant and the only Middle Eastern student. When I learn about organizations in mental health for Middle Eastern students, I quickly run to join. I often feel isolated, with few people who understand my pursuit of higher education from a collectivist culture. I am a first-generation college and Ph.D. student. Most of my family is thrilled and in complete support of my graduate studies, but they do not always understand what the work entails. I find myself overwhelmed negotiating cultural values (collectivist and individualist) in achieving my dream.

For both of my programs, I have been the expert in immigrant and refugee topics because my programs have been cohort models and not adviser-advisee models (i.e., being matched to faculty who are experts on a student’s research interests). In classroom dialogues, I find myself “teaching” other students about mental health work with immigrants and refugees. Multicultural curriculum needs to be more inclusive of these groups for students and faculty to gain such critical training in mental health fields.

A fundamental resource that I receive as a first-generation college and Ph.D. student is financial support. Both of my programs have helped me secure a graduate assistant position that has partially funded my graduate education. Many immigrant students may endure hardships due to the socioeconomic implications of immigration. Graduate assistant funding can be a form of support and motivation for students from this group to enroll and to succeed in the field of counseling.

Individual counselors and programs can do the following in support and in encouragement of diversity for our field:

  • Model multicultural competency in your work and demeanor. Ask students/clients how to appropriately pronounce their name(s), what they prefer to be called, and pronounce these correctly. Ask them their preferred pronoun too.
  • Provide an inviting environment. Display culturally inviting photos of those from different cultures in mental health, a globe or greetings in different languages.
  • Hear students/clients and support them. I’ve been OK with being the token Middle Eastern, immigrant ethnic minority woman because both of my programs listened to me and supported me. They have shown me that they care about my success through interactions such as meetings, mentoring and resource initiatives for me.
  • Do not generalize; rather, individualize. Ask diverse students/clients about their experiences without exploiting them for your learning process. Get to know your students. Their stories have value and are often the reason that they are in mental health.
  • Similar to a therapeutic relationship, promote genuineness, authenticity and a safe space for diverse students to enroll in your program or to succeed. Often, students of diverse ethnic backgrounds feel that we have to blend in with the majority culture [and] that our differences are not appreciated by society in the U.S. Thus, an environment that supports our true selves, inclusive of our ethnicity or culture(s), is rare and appreciated.
  • Prioritize multicultural competency development and practices. It’s OK to not know how to help those from different backgrounds, but it’s not OK to avoid or isolate this disparity in mental health. Attend trainings, read and expand your learning to reach diverse groups.
  • Mentor students of diverse backgrounds. If it were not for my mentor, I would never have entered the field of clinical mental health counseling. I always knew I wanted to accomplish a Ph.D. in psychology or mental health, but as I neared the end of my undergraduate studies, I wasn’t sure which programs to consider. Meeting a faculty member from my master’s program who was willing to answer my questions and who believed in me enough to tell me to apply changed my life. From observing my volunteer work with at-risk youth, she said to me, “You are a counselor.” We as therapists and counselors know that words have power. Such encouraging words can be powerful for students who do not always feel welcome, who are first-generation graduate students and who are simply new to the field of mental health.

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Courtland Lee

Courtland Lee, past president of ACA, professor in the counselor educator program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s Washington, D.C., campus and author of numerous books, including Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity

If we are thinking about attracting more people of color to the counseling profession, counselor education programs and the profession in general need to consider a number of socioeconomic and cultural factors.

First, from a very pragmatic perspective, given significant socioeconomic gains for people of color in the last 50-plus years, talented students of color have greater access to financially lucrative careers. While counseling is a noble profession, it does not pay as much as other career paths. This is a real consideration for many potential counseling students of color as they think about their futures.

Second, counselor education programs must consider whether the culture of their program is relevant and welcoming to students of color. Do they feel welcomed at an institution? Do they perceive the counseling curriculum to be relevant to their cultural realities? Do they see people who look like them as successful counseling professionals?

People of color and other economically marginalized groups have historically been underrepresented at college, and especially [at] higher degree levels. Given that the practice-level degree in counseling is a master’s degree, that basic demographic impacts the number of folks from these groups that have had adequate financial and other access to successfully pursuing the degree.

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Lance Smith

Lance Smith, associate professor of counseling at the University of Vermont and author of numerous research papers analyzing diversity issues in the counseling profession

We should address the lack of scholarship that explores levels of diversity among counseling master’s programs, along with the absence of literature identifying effective recruitment and retention strategies for students from underrepresented groups. To the best of my knowledge, there are currently no published articles that have purposefully gathered representation
data for CACREP-accredited master’s degree programs.

A few years ago, my colleagues and I attempted to address this gap by looking at the extent to which CACREP-accredited master’s programs attend to representation of people of color, individuals with (dis)abilities [and] lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons within admissions, enrollment and graduation data (“Attending to diversity representation among CACREP master’s programs: A pilot study” published in the June 2011 issue of The International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling). In a nutshell, we simply wanted to know if programs collect student admission, enrollment and graduation rate data regarding the social identity markers of race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability status.

We reached out to all 238 CACREP programs at the time, of which 85 completed our entire survey. What we found was that just over half of the responding programs did not retain representative diversity data, and of the programs that did, emphasis was placed on enrollment data and not graduation data. Moreover, most of the data were associated with race/ethnicity only — a little bit being associated with (dis)ability and none of it associated
with sexual orientation or gender nonbinary identities.

So, is this lack of attention to representative diversity an expression of institutional prejudice within the field of counseling? Perhaps not overt, intentional prejudice, but I would suggest covert, complicit prejudice is at play. To quote Paulo Freire, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” If we as counselor educators are not interested in gathering or keeping representative diversity data regarding enrollment, retention and graduation, then we are ignoring the white/straight/cis homogeneity within the profession and, thus, complicit in reinforcing the inequitable status quo.

The importance of retaining the demographic characteristics of accepted applicants who choose not to enroll is also very important when considering issues of recruitment. Counseling programs that maintain this information have access to data that can be very helpful in evaluating their strategies for recruiting diverse students. If such an evaluation reveals a consistent pattern of applicants from underrepresented groups choosing to go elsewhere, faculty need to sit together and discuss what they need to do differently.

In terms of attracting racially/ethnically diverse applicants, the materials that programs use to market their programs have been found to make a difference. There was a study … that found that professional psychology programs that provided materials emphasizing nondiscrimination policies, diversity-based financial aid, commitment to diversity training and recruitment, [and] multicultural minors and that had more racial/ethnic and LGBTQ-specific content attracted greater numbers of racially/ethnically diverse students.

Counselors who work in community counseling agencies can either become members of or form a diversity committee where their primary task is to address a representation of diversity in their agency to ascertain how diverse their staff is and then actively recruit more diverse staff members. This could happen at a community agency [or] it could happen at college centers, which are usually more active with this kind of recruiting. This could even happen in a private practice consortium, where a group of people in private practice are loosely connected. They can form a diversity committee there, and they can actively recruit counseling staff.

Counselors can also reach out to counselor education programs and actually request that they be an internship site for counseling students and specifically request that they would like to recruit and draw and mentor counseling interns who are from traditionally underrepresented groups. That would put a bug in the ear of local counseling programs that there are people who are specifically seeking to train, mentor and supervise counselors who come from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Counselors can advocate with state licensure boards and state legislatures to gather data about the diversity of counselors in their state. For example, here in Burlington [Vermont], we have one clinical mental health counselor of color [despite the fact that] we are also a refugee resettlement city — with a population of about 17 to 20 percent of residents who are refugees and people of color.

Practicing counselors can reach out to school counselors to offer to come to career fairs — specifically schools with diverse student bodies — and speak to students about the counseling profession and the need for a more diverse population of counselors.

Practicing counselors can also reach out to campus groups and clubs — African American Student Unions, LGBTQ groups, disability rights groups, etc., and offer to talk to undergraduates about the counseling profession and the need for counselors with more diverse stories
and backgrounds.

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Sylvia Nassar

Sylvia Nassar, member of the committee that developed the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies, a professor and doctoral program coordinator of counselor education at North Carolina State University, and a researcher and author with a focus on Arab American issues

The counseling profession, like other master’s-level professions, has increased in terms of diversity as a simple parallel to increases in diversity at rates of graduate-degree acquisition. Moreover, the efforts of CACREP as well as individual educational institutions and other groups to systematically recruit and retain more students from marginalized groups has strengthened the profession generally and, in particular, the professional counseling associations and special interest groups with specific diversity foci, thus positively perpetuating diversity at multiple levels throughout the profession.

The historical trend of vulnerable groups within the overall population needing within-group representation in their counseling and advocacy services within their own communities [and] at national levels continues to drive the need for additional diversity. For example, refugees, veterans, individuals from marginalized sexual identity groups, along with many others, present growing needs for counseling and advocacy and, thus, need to be better represented by counselors and advocates from their own population groups.

These areas of diversity need to be intentionally and systematically addressed within broader diversity initiatives such as those promoted by CACREP, educational institutions, etc.

The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCCs), endorsed both by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and the American Counseling Association in 2015, provide a promising perspective on recognizing and addressing diversity throughout the counseling profession. As the MSJCCs become operationalized for use by counselors and counselor educators and supervisors, professional counselors will ideally broaden their current thinking of diversity and challenge themselves to increase their inclusivity in conceptualizing diversity among their clients and students.

 

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To access the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies, visit counseling.org, click on “Knowledge Center” and then click on “Competencies” in the drop-down menu.

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

Behind the Book: The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors

By Bethany Bray October 17, 2017

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

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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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.