The critical dimensions of counseling

by Judy Harrow

Counseling is the process of helping a person who has come to you with a problem to sort out what's happening and how they feel about it, to look at their options, to choose a course of action that fits their values, resources and lifestyles (not yours), to implement their decisions, and to evaluate the practical and emotional results. Counseling is not about mental illness, except rare cases of emergency "first aid" and referral. It is about helping normal, functional people handle the usual problems, opportunities and choices that come up in any life. We do this primarily by providing them with a safe time and place in which to figure out their own situation, and secondarily by sharing our specialized knowledge and resources with them when asked.

There are five "critical dimensions" of counseling, developed by researchers in the field, and also described in other words by workshop members. We think of these as the five points of the counselor's pentacle. Here are some short definitions of the critical dimensions:

Empathy is our ability to perceive the client's feelings, and to demonstrate accurate perception to the client. When the client feels understood, a sense of trust ("rapport") and safety develop. As rapport grows, we may begin to perceive feelings of which the client is not yet conscious. By cautiously and tentatively communicating that perception, we may enable the client to understand and accept ("to own") more of his or her complexity of feelings ("additive empathy"). Additive empathy is not adding feelings the counselor might feel; it is adding conscious understanding of feelings the client is already feeling. The counselor's open acceptance of all feelings permits the client to own feelings that are not conventionally respectable. Knowing how one feels as fully as possible is essential for making proper decisions. (note: feelings here means emotional states, not opinions, judgments or physical sensations, although the word is commonly used to mean all of these.)

Warmth is also called "unconditional positive regard." It involves accepting and caring about the client as a person, regardless of any evaluation of her or his behaviors or thoughts. It is most often communicated through our non-verbal behavior.

Respect is our belief in the client's ability to make appropriate decisions and deal appropriately with his or her life situation, when given a safe and supportive environment in which to do so. Often, we show respect best by what we do not do, as when we avoid facile advice giving or cheap comfort. Our ability to sit in silence during a session while the client works out a solution is a manifestation of respect, and so is our willingness to provide information and resources for which the client has asked. A more familiar term might be "empowerment." By respectful behavior, the counselor demonstrates that s/he values the integrity of the client.

Congruence (or genuineness) is being honest and authentic in our dealings with our clients. The minimum it requires is that we only work with clients for whom we can have real empathy, warmth and respect, rather than role-playing or "techniquing" those qualities. It also involves know our limits in terms of skills, time and energy and not committing ourselves beyond those limits. Another important component of genuineness is to be aware of how engaging in counseling (or coven leadership) fills our own old and unmet needs and how our own emotional agendas from other times and places can color our reactions to our present relationships with clients and coven members.

Confidentiality normally means that anything discussed during a counseling session is held as absolutely private and not discussed elsewhere. This is essential to the client feeling safe in speaking about intimate and painful matters. Secular counselors have a legal duty to break confidentiality when there is danger that the client will harm self or others. Legally, religious counselors may be exempt from this requirement, especially in those states which have major Catholic political power. Our religious tradition forbids revealing that anyone else is a Pagan or Witch, and normally requires that we avoid discussing whatever happens within a cast Circle with those who were not there. So, we would have a thealogical basis for invoking the absolute protection of religious confidentiality, but may not have the resources for the major test case that might follow. Beyond that, we may not in conscience want to stand back and allow harm to be done. Perhaps the Wiccan Rede mandates limited whistle-blowing? Although the basic question must remain with the individual priest/ess counselor's conscience, the counseling dimension of genuineness requires an open discussion with the client, before receiving their confidences, of the counselor's position regarding confidentiality.

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    Contents of this page are copyright © 1996, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.