Warmth and Respect: the polarity of counseling

by Judy Harrow

Some say that magic is any process not yet sufficiently understood. Others - most of us - say that magic is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will. By both of these definitions, counseling is magic. We don't completely understand how it works. What we do know is that it works best when the counselor can maintain certain attitudes while working with a client.

Empathy is the extraordinary ability and responsibility to explore the inscape of another person, to see their world through their eyes. Empathy is so contrary to the way most people usually think or act in this culture that we even had to make up a new word for it.

By contrast, warmth and respect are everyday words, used to mean something very close to their common-sense meanings. Warmth means acceptance of and caring about the client. Respect means believing and expecting that they can do what is needful to make their life work. These exist in dynamic tension with one another. Either can be overdone. Each balances and complements the other. Together, they form a polarity that can be described in metaphors that come right out of our own traditions: between mercy and severity, people change, heal and grow.

Warmth is caring about a person without any desire or attempt to own, judge or control them. It is prizing them exactly as they are here and now, even if they are "stuck" or seem to be deteriorating. That's why some of the older counseling literature refers to warmth as "unconditional positive regard." There are no conditions to warmth; warmth is not earned. In reality, most counselors and priest/esses are naturally warm, nurturers by instinct and nature, and drawn to work as helpers by our own strong inclinations.

We express warmth best when our non-verbal behavior shows focus on and concern about the client. This is called "attending behavior." Although some of these techniques can be practiced and learned, it far more important just to let yourself be free and spontaneous in expressing your naturally warm feelings. Warm feelings are a pleasure both to give and to receive.

The paradox is that this open and unconditional acceptance is just what best creates a safe environment for the client's self exploration. So by not demanding or requiring that they grow, we allow them to grow at their own safe and comfortable pace.

Self-exploration is an inner activity, primarily about feelings. Feelings cannot be forced and should not be judged. All feelings are acceptable, even if they are unpleasant and uncomfortable. Only by facing these feelings, understanding and owning them, can the client know enough to make proper decisions about their own life.

Here's the catch: all feelings are acceptable, but not all behavior. Unconditional positive regard can sometimes give people the mistaken idea that what they do doesn't really matter. Behavior does matter. Some actions are harmful to ourselves, other people, or the Earth. Should we, as counselors, accept behavior that is manipulative, malicious, coercive, destructive? I don't think so. Sometimes we need to draw some lines, even if saying no is uncomfortable for us. Some other human behavior is particularly generous or creative or brave. We want to honor and reinforce such actions. If we treat people as though the way they act doesn't matter to us, we disempower those that are acting well while giving covert permission to those that are acting poorly.

Warmth is appropriately unconditional because it is primarily about feelings. Respect, in contrast, is about behavior. Setting and maintaining appropriate standards is respectful of the client's ability to do well: to make and implement wise decisions concerning their own life. Respect includes the faith that the client can, and should, learn, grow and overcome obstacles, even if they are not doing so right now.

This is even more obvious in our role as priest/esses. The ethical limits that we set don't just help our coveners feel safer, they actually increase their safety. When we set goals and standards - even challenges - for a student, the achievement adds to their sense of personal competence. But - and this is hard for us - the only real test is one that is failable. When they don't quite make the mark, we will have to give them honest and specific feedback, which is stressful for both sides. If they persevere, the end result is their empowerment. People take more pride in passing a tough course than an easy one.

The practice of respect can demand self-restraint, holding ourselves back to give the client room to grow, instead of facile advice or cheap comfort. Sometimes we sit with them in silence, allowing them to work through a problem and develop a solution. Sometimes we back off to give them room to try their wings. Sometimes, as every parent whose child has learned to skate or ride a bicycle knows, a person's growth is facilitated by allowing them to take risks, and even to take the occasional fall. Respect is tough love.

So, warmth to support and nurture, respect to challenge. Held in balance within the mind and heart of the counselor, these create an important part of the necessary and sufficient conditions for growth.

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  • Originally published in Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter (Beltane, 1995)
    The address of this page is http://proteuscoven.com/counsel/warm.htm
    Contents of this page are copyright © 1995, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.