Tuesday, July 16, 2019 | ePaper

Breaking The Rules

Counselors Should Violate Standard Principles

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Marty Nemko :
Usually, I'm a good boy: I listen, ask facilitating questions and when offering a suggestion, couch it in tentative, client-empowering terms such as, "I'm wondering whether X might be a good idea. What do you think?"
But every once in a while, I forgo standard counseling principles and usually, it's for the better.
For example, yesterday, a first-time client (I'm a career counselor) came in saying he has no idea what to do for a career. But, within a minute, he changed his mind and said, "You know, I really want to start my own business, starting an alternative fitness center. (details omitted to protect the guilty.)
The more questions I asked, the clearer I got that he was committed to the idea-in my view, to a clearly stupid idea.
I decided that rather than be my nicey-nicey counselor self, I felt it was wiser to smash the concrete barrier of his undue confidence in his idea-the fancy term is disequilbrate. I told him, straight out, I thought it is a terrible idea and, of course, why. Understandably, to save face, he said he still wants to consider it. I shrugged my shoulders and we then moved on to explore other career and self-employment ideas.
At the end of the session, I apologized for having been so blunt and un-counselor-like, whereupon he said, "No. I didn't like hearing it. It was embarrassing but I think it was totally the best thing you could have done." I thought, "He may well just be saying that because he wants to keep working with me but that he actually hated my having been so judgmental." But that night, his mother emailed me to say that her son thought the session was amazing and it was because of my blunt advice-giving.
Of course, in my sessions, I do things to build a foundation that reduces the chances of a client being repelled by my often direct style. When they come in, my sweet doggie Einstein is a receptionist no human can match: always tail-wagging, sidling, even rolling on his back to get petted. He appropriately has his own business card with his picture and the title, "Einstein: Receptionist, Co-Counselor." When I come into the waiting room to walk the client to my office, I ask if they'd like something to drink and I give them choices so they feel cared about.
I might, for example, say, "Come look in my fridge and pick what you like." When we're in my office, I encourage a little bonding small talk and/or I'll say something like, "Hey, I grow these taste-test-winning tomatoes from seed and have a few extra plants. Would you like one?" And before being as blunt as I was with that client, I typically ask, "May I be super honest? Really?" And at the end of the session, I again might offer a little gift, for example, a rose I hybridized or I offer to play the piano. Finally, I typically end with a positive yet honest statement about our progress, for example, "We're off to a good start," or "Onward and upward!"
As I've stressed in a number of my articles, my reviews of the literature on counselor efficacy as well as my professional experience suggests that the field remains as much art as science. We might be wise to view even time-honored principles such as, "Resist giving advice" as, well, advisory.

(Marty Nemko, Ph.D., is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, California, and the author of 10 books).

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