How to evaluate a new counseling model or technique: Step one

Being a professor of counseling I get lots of questions like this: “What do you think of _____ (a new or popular counseling model/intervention)? These days, I’m being asked about coaching models, neurofeedback, EMDR, EFT, brainspotting, the use of SPECT scans, the use of psychiatric medications, nutritional supplements, and the like. In past years, I might have been asked about theophostic ministry, DBT, or ECT.

To be honest, I haven’t read every counseling model to the nth degree. I know a bit about a lot of models and a whole lot about some models. So, I try to be careful not to offer too much critique on what I don’t know first hand. That said, I do think there are good ways to go about evaluating any new model and proponents’ claims of efficacy. Over the next few posts I plan to show you how I try to investigate any new (to me) model:

Step One: Start with Suspicion

What? Shouldn’t we give them a fair shake? Yes, of course. And we will. But first, I do think it is helpful to ask yourself, a few key questions about what you are being sold.

  • Who is promoting this model/intervention? What financial benefit are they seeking?
  • What claims or promises do they make about their successes? Do they seem reasonable? Overly optimistic?
  • What supporting evidence is offered? Anything other than anecdotes from the inner circle of disciples? Any empirical evidence?
  • Do supporters distance from everything that has gone on before? How do they connect to mainstream models?
  • How transparent are the authors about what is being done?

None of these questions will answer our ultimate question of the value of any new model. There are excellent new models with almost no empirical evidence. Conversely, there are those who connect their intervention to a piece of mainstream research but do so only tangentially (thereby giving the appearance of scientific support but lacking validity and reliability (i.e., much of the change your brain popular models)).

A model that starts in the popular sphere may turn out to be good. Yet, we still want to gather the data about the motives and purpose of the new model. Take coaching for example. There is good evidence that coaching techniques work. However, much of what you find in popular places (bookstores and the Internet) is about someone trying to make a buck, either to coach you or to sell you a certification to become a coach. Thus, it is important to look at “packaging” to see what we are being sold. We may well want to buy the “product” but buyers need to know that sellers don’t usually talk about the weaknesses of their product.

Watch out for those models that over-sell their results, especially in the area of “complete freedom” from suffering. These are almost always unsupported by empirical evidence and certainly do not line up with good theology. We want complete removal of mental pain. This isn’t a bad desire, but it does set us up to buy the “next best thing” without proper critical evaluation. And well-meaning friends may tempt us to try out some new technique because it worked for them.

And yet, we need to be open to the possibility that there is something new on the horizon. Truthful anecdotes still have some merit. And so, tomorrow I will suggest that step two includes “reading with an open mind.”


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, Psychology

4 responses to “How to evaluate a new counseling model or technique: Step one

  1. Henk Van Dooren

    I agree with your approach to evaluating “new” models. The challenge is also to apply this to “Christian” models that might have a hidden secular base which is not acknowledged, and tehn claims higher credibility through being christianized. This readily dupes the unsuspecting consumer. What’s a good way for Christioan professional helpers to educate consumers without seeming to be self-serving or judgemental.

    • D. Stevenson

      Do you mean without ‘being’ self-serving or judgmental, or without ‘seeming’ (appearing) self-serving or judgmental, even if self-serving and judgmental is true? I would argue that ‘self-serving and judgmental’ exists to some degree in even the seemingly godliest of men/women. And, just because an individual believes their motives are pure doesn’t mean they are pure.

      I would argue that we should be suspect of any and ALL claims, counseling or otherwise; including, perhaps even especially, those who claim to be ‘Christian’ or ‘biblical.’ It is all too easy to suspend critical thinking when certain words and phrases are used. I think of the python Kaa in the Disney “Jungle Book” movie, singing “trust in me” as he slowly, seductively twines his body around Mowgli.

  2. Good comments all. I agree that it is easy to suspend judgment when we see some verses pasted on a model or read a theological statement. Also true is the fact that we can dismiss a model for its bad theology when we might not dismiss the same model in secular form. I think these same steps works for any model, christian or otherwise, Just as D. suggests.

    I suspect we want to try to talk to clients and others in ways that are for their best interest (avoiding the self-serving issue as much as we can). So, to do that we need to be willing to talk about the limits and weaknesses of our own models.

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