The art of counseling: Why interpersonal process is (almost) everything

Counseling is both art and science, relationship and action. Academic programs want to focus on both aspects, but the nature of academics leads to a greater emphasis on knowledge and less on interpersonal process. Frankly, its easier to grade tests of knowledge and harder to grade interpersonal process. Further, we outsource the practice part of the program to supervisors that may not be capable of providing the same kind of detailed assessment that we do in our classes.

Most students seeking to learn the art of counseling focus on knowledge and interventions. It makes sense to do so: If I know more then won’t I be able to understand my clients and their problems? (Probably.) If I understand how these problems develop, won’t I be able to help at risk individuals avoid bigger problems? (Probably.) If I learn and practice tried and true interventions won’t I be a more successful counselor?

But the art of counseling trumps knowledge and intervention. Knowing what to do is of little value if trust hasn’t been fully formed. There’s no substitute from having repeated interactions with another and getting detailed feedback related to one’s relational habits and idiosyncrasies. Jay Adams once told me that teaching counseling should be like teaching art. You don’t have a lecture on colors and shades and expect them to know how to use them well. Instead, you give them a brush and you expect them to do trial and error while providing good feedback. This means we really have to focus not just on what we counselors intend to communicate when respond to client content, but what they actually hear and take away from us.


Filed under biblical counseling, counseling skills, Uncategorized

4 responses to “The art of counseling: Why interpersonal process is (almost) everything

  1. Great post.
    “…but what they actually hear and take away from us.”

    I pray that my clients hear and take away God’s grace, love and peace.

    My tendency is to tackle problems by acquiring information and expertise (the scientist in me), I dig into researching and books and try to read my way through. I have been praying more and more to model “being”, being at peace, being accepted, being reconciled and redeemed. Even though some clients may come to me hoping for “an expert” what they often need is someone committed to loving them in Christ’s name.

    I’m also an athlete and tend to think of therapy as coaching and training and use metaphors and techniques from that arena.

    Thanks for the reminder to be an artist. Therapy as Art, that’s risky (it’s not as readily controllable) but that is where beauty, meaning and healing can flourish.

  2. Very nice article, truthful and to the point. Whenever academia tries to make art an academic subject, a lot is lost in the translation.

    • Alice

      Just recently I was counselling a client whose baby had just died. It is my first client in my first practicum as im still at uni.
      There was no proper model I could apply, no CBT or psychoanalytic or narrartive, maybe Carl Rogers client centred was the only appropriate thing.
      I just had to listen, and listen and listen and listen. Maybe we need to occasionally put our tools down and sit with the wreck at times.
      There will be a time once the rawness and shock of peoples trauma has subsided, but right now I believe listening and connecting and empathy are the most valuable things.

  3. I am a therapist and a Christian and I agree with your blog that knowing what to do is of little value if trust hasn’t been formed. Why follow the advice of someone you don’t trust? Every person is unique and a person is much more than his/her problems. Though I certainly believe there is great value in education, it is not more important than caring and compassion. “…the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). We tend to focus so much on talk and forget about what we learn through behavior. We learn by how people act and treat us too. Therapy is a rather complex mix of relationship and wisdom, art and science, based on research, yet developing in its own unique way like a piece of art. I do my best to describe the process in my article on therapy here:

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