Wright, N. & Hallervorden, N. (2003) ‘Up Close & Personal: Personal Development in Counselling’, Christian Counsellor, July-September, Issue 18, pp12-17.
This is the third article in our series on spiritual, personal and professional development. In the first article, we introduced a new development model which focuses on the connections between these three aspects of development. In the second article we explored elements of spiritual development and outlined implications for counsellors, supervisors and churches / agencies.
In this third article of the series we will focus on personal development.
The Relevance of Personal Development
While there is no universally accepted definition of Christian counselling, most counsellors would agree that counselling is deeply concerned with matters of personal growth and development. Counselling facilitates growing self-awareness, enabling us to recognise and change unhelpful patterns of relating, behaving, thinking and feeling. It goes without saying that anyone engaged in facilitating this process for others ought to take their own personal development seriously, since “You can only take a client as far as you have gone yourself”.
Most counselling courses include a focus on personal development and many require students to undergo a minimum number of personal counselling sessions. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that counsellors will have accomplished all the personal growth they will ever need once they have completed their formal training. Personal growth and development should be seen as ongoing processes, rather than a prerequisite level of maturity which can be reached once and for all.
Aspects of Personal Development
There are many different aspects of personal development which facilitate the counsellor’s effectiveness. Depending on the orientation of the counsellor (person-centred, cognitive-behavioural, psycho-dynamic, etc.), counsellors will tend to emphasise one aspect over another. We would argue, however, that all of the following enhance the counsellor’s ability to be attuned to their clients and to tailor their responses to their clients’ needs:
An understanding of one’s own personality preferences An awareness of the counsellor’s unique pattern of reacting and responding to particular triggers An awareness of one’s priorities in life/value systems
An understanding of one’s own personality preferences
There are numerous approaches to personality profiles, tests, etc., and any number of these can give the counsellor helpful insights into both their own preferences and possible difficulties when interacting with people whose preferences differ markedly from their own. In their discussion of learning styles, Honey & Mumford suggest that while we all need to move through a learning/processing cycle which includes experiencing, reviewing, concluding and planning, people tend to have different points at which they prefer to enter this cycle.
Accordingly, people can be divided into four broad categories: Activists, Reflectors, Theorists and Pragmatists. Activists tend to be comfortable trying out new things spontaneously, even if they know nothing about related theories and ideas. Reflectors, on the other hand, need time to review and think about experiences, compare them to different experiences and points of view before coming to conclusions. Theorists take this process one step further and integrate their reflections into a coherent system or theory, preferring to make sure the system is perfect and free of any contradictions before they put it into action. Pragmatists like to seek out new ideas or techniques in order to put them into practice to see how well they work.
Counsellors need to realise that their own learning style will tend to influence their counselling style in terms of their choice of interventions, timing of interventions, etc. It is equally important to become aware of our clients’ learning styles, so we can adapt our interventions to suit the client’s preferred style – this is particularly important when the client’s learning style differs significantly from our own. Consider the following example:
Sarah, a pragmatist, has just returned from an introductory course on Gestalt techniques in counselling and is eager to try her new ideas out in practice. When Sarah’s client James decides that he would like to explore his relationship with his deceased mother in more depth, Sarah immediately suggests an empty chair dialogue with James’ mother. James is quite taken aback, very doubtful, and reluctant to try the intervention.
Being a theorist, he not only needs to know what the purpose of the intervention would be but also how to integrate it into his wider worldview – couldn’t this be seen as an attempt to contact the dead? How could this be compatible with his Christian theology? If it is such a helpful intervention, why didn’t the counsellor use it 6 months ago, when they were working on James’ relationship with his father? Since Sarah hasn’t had time to think through these questions for herself, she will either be unable to answer them or may give ill-considered answers which seem unsatisfactory to her client. As a result, James’ confidence in Sarah might be seriously damaged.
Personality preference can be established via personality profiles such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, Enneagram, Taylor-Johnson, etc. Many organisations offer short workshops on the use of these tools, with experiential components. Supervision may also highlight personality preferences and can help the counsellor to become more aware of how they affect their counselling.
An awareness of the counsellor’s unique pattern of reacting and responding to particular triggers
Counsellors’ reactions to clients tend to be based on their view of themselves and others. In turn, these will have been shaped by previous life experiences. To illustrate this, imagine you have a client who begins a session by saying to you, their counsellor: “I’ve felt terribly frustrated by this whole counselling process. It seems to me we’re going round in circles and we haven’t achieved any of the goals we set initially.” How would you respond to this?
Here are a few counsellors’ responses to this trigger statement:
Counsellor A: “Well, whose fault is that? You’ve consistently refused to stick to the focus we’d agreed to, so don’t blame it on me!” This response, of blaming the client, may well be based on the counsellor’s view of other people as a potential threat. If the counsellor’s self-image is based on his or her competence as a professional, the client’s frustration may be seen as a direct attack against which the counsellor must defend him/herself.
Counsellor B: “I’m so sorry you feel that way, I was worried I might not have been clear enough.” In this scenario, the counsellor immediately assumes responsibility for his or her apparent failure and apologises. This may be the counsellor’s way of avoiding conflict and appeasing others, a behaviour often learned quite early on in life to protect oneself against anger/disapproval.
Counsellor C: “Why don’t we take some time to review our progress so far - I have a review sheet I like to use to help us assess just how much we’ve achieved together and to think about what still needs to be done.” While this may appear to be a neutral response, the counsellor is in fact making a choice to pursue only the factual side of the client’s statement. This may lead to a helpful discussion of the client’s progress but it avoids the exploration of emotional content. Sticking to factual information and related techniques may simply be another way of avoiding confrontation.
Counsellors who are aware of their tendency to be uncomfortable with criticism/ anger/confrontation may still note a certain amount of discomfort when they hear the above trigger statement. However, due to their increased self-awareness, they will recognise the source of their discomfort and be more fully attuned to their client’s needs. As a result, they will not feel the need to attack, apologise or avoid but can encourage further exploration of feelings and related issues, by saying something along these lines: “It sounds as if you’re experiencing quite a lot of frustration at this point – can you tell me a bit more about this frustration?”
Personal counselling is generally the most helpful way of discovering our patterns of relating and behaving as well as the underlying causes. Frequently, supervision may highlight such patterns or unresolved emotional issues but supervisors are likely to address these issues only in so far as they are directly related to client work. Further exploration needs to be done in a separate setting. Journaling, a method that involves the counsellor recording his or her experiences and emotional responses over a period of time, may also help to identify patterns.
An awareness of one’s priorities in life/value systems
Over the past decade, organisations have begun to recognise the importance of ensuring that there is a good match between a person’s overall priorities in life and their current work situation. Many organisations now actively encourage employees to write mission statements for themselves and to consider how their work fits into their overall life priorities.
This consideration is not only important within an organisational context but should be taken seriously by counsellors working on their own as well. We need to ensure we continue to be fit to practise. A counsellor who gives time grudgingly because he or she feels overwhelmed is unlikely to be providing the client with their personal best as a counsellor. Similarly, counsellors who use the close emotional contact with their clients as a substitute for close friendships/intimate relationships runs the risk of emotional exploitation of clients. Consequently, it is a good idea to review our priorities regularly, making sure that we are achieving a healthy balance in our own personal and professional lives.
As ‘life coaching’ has become increasingly popular, the concept of “life audit” has become more widespread too. The general idea behind a life audit is to address different areas of one’s life, e.g. home environment, finance, work/education, family, friends, social life and spirituality, in order to identify how important each of these areas is to the individual, and to establish which aspects may need to be changed as a result of reviewing these priorities. This can be done with the help of a life coach but it can also be done on one’s own or with the help of, say, relevant books.
Many people find it helpful to set aside regular time to review their spiritual life as well through processes such as spiritual direction or retreats. This is particularly important for the Christian counsellor who is often called upon to help clients facilitate a closer relationship with God.
Supervision and Personal Development
The points outlined above apply equally well to supervisors, especially since most counselling supervisors tend to be counsellors themselves. However, there are a few additional aspects to be taken into consideration as far as the supervisory context is concerned:
Supervisory tasks and personal development Encouraging personal development in supervisees
Supervisory tasks and personal development
Interaction with supervisees can be affected by personal issues in ways quite similar to those outlined above. Supervisors need to monitor their responses to supervisees and to ask themselves whether personal issue may be affecting the supervisory relationship. For example, supervision is generally considered to involve three main elements or tasks: the normative, formative and restorative. The normative task of supervision is related to accountability and the monitoring of standards of ethics and practice. The formative task is related to education, training and learning. The restorative task covers aspects of support and providing a safe space for the supervisee to unburden themselves.
Supervisors may find that they tend to overemphasise one of these tasks. In that case, they will need to examine what is causing them to do so – is it, for instance, related to particular supervisees or is it a general tendency with all supervisees? What might the supervisor be avoiding, and what would make him or her feel more comfortable about engaging in those aspects that are being avoided?
Encouraging Personal Development in Supervisees
In addition, supervisors have a dual responsibility – they need to take into consideration not just the counsellor’s well-being but also, indirectly, the well-being of the counsellor’s clients. Consequently, the supervisor has a responsibility to point out when personal issues appear to be affecting the counsellor’s effectiveness and to encourage him or her to address these issues in ways such as those outlined above. Supervisors can also model a responsible approach to personal development by ensuring that their own personal development needs are being addressed as well as by self-disclosing, as appropriate, how they address their own personal development.
The Church / Agency Context
Churches and other agencies which employ counsellors should be aware of counsellors’ on-going need for personal development. Agencies can facilitate this process by taking a proactive approach to personal development needs in the following ways:
Monitoring staff development needs and providing relevant training Exploring parallels between personal and institutional experience Utilising the team context
Monitoring staff development needs and providing relevant training
When monitoring staff development needs, it is important to recognise that personal and professional development are often inextricably linked in the counselling context. An organisation may include reference to the importance of ongoing personal development in their induction process for new staff. They may also encourage counsellors to suggest relevant training topics which may be of interest to the whole counselling team.
Exploring parallels between personal and institutional experience
Occasionally, personal issues can be recognised at an institutional level too. Consider the following example:
Janet was a pastoral counsellor working in a hospice that, owing to various reasons, was under threat of closure. Janet was surprised that, although closure would mean redundancy for all employees, none of the managers or nursing staff was prepared to talk about how they felt in light of this uncertain future. The most common response was a form of denial: “We don’t want to think about it. We want to just carry on with things as things are.” On reflection, Janet noticed how similar this response was to that of many patients in the hospice who were facing terminal illness and death. When Janet raised this with the management team at a subsequent meeting, it became quickly apparent that some form of counselling service would be needed for both managers and staff in order to help them to face the impending ‘death’ of the hospice itself.
Our conclusion is that the denial experienced by patients at a personal level was in some way being paralleled and experienced collectively by the managers and staff at an institutional level. This approach to exploring parallel experiences at different levels (e.g. individual – team – organisation) can be particularly helpful when a situation doesn’t seem to make sense in its own right. Is something happening at a different level in the same ‘system’ that could help shed further light on it?
Utilising the Team Context
When working in a team context, it may be possible to address personal issues within the context of the team, especially if the issue appears to affect a number of different members of staff. For example:
Terry, the director of a church-based counselling service, noticed that all four members of the counselling team had a tendency to come to him with complaints about the other members of the team but shied away from addressing these complaints directly. It was apparent that the team had a tendency to avoid conflict and so Terry had to decide whether this should be addressed directly during a team meeting or indirectly via training in, for instance, conflict resolution.
Since Terry felt confident about his ability to facilitate a team discussion about this issue and that the team knew each other well enough to feel safe addressing the issue together as a group he raised his concern at the next team meeting. A joint decision was reached to devote a series of team learning seminars to this issue. As part of this, each team member (including Terry) shared experiences and brought in their own perspectives on conflict, providing the team with the opportunity to learn from one-another and to handle conflict more effectively in the future.
 Paul Wilkins, Personal & Professional Development for Counsellors, London: Sage, 1997, p1.  Honey & Mumford, The Manual of Learning Styles, 1992.  Inskipp & Proctor, Making the Most of Supervision.