Tag Archives: Relationships

Why reconciliation isn’t the best objective

At some point in our lives, we all experience a breach in a relationship. Division happens among friends, family, acquaintances, and members of the same faith. Sometimes the breach we experience is the result of a perceived wrong, sometimes a true injustice. Sometimes we are the ones who are hurt, other times we are the offending party.

Reconciliation a bad objective?

Not convinced? Consider this example. I grow tomato plants. I have the goal of eating tomatoes by early July. I set objectives such as when to plant seeds or purchase plants; when to water, fertilize, cage, etc. But, I cannot set an objective of producing tomatoes. It is not something I can make happen. I can only cultivate the plant in ways I understand will encourage tomato production.

When a breach happens, and you want the relationship restored, it is common to seek reconciliation as the primary objective. I want to argue that reconciliation is a mis-guided objective. Even though we are called to be agents of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16f), it is not a direct objective that any of us can accomplish. Recall from your strategic planning training that objectives ought to be tangible and obtainable. Objectives are designed to move toward an overarching goal or dream. Since reconciliation requires at least two parties to agree, it makes for a bad objective since we can’t guarantee that the other will be willing, able or ready to reconcile.

Better objectives

If you desire to reconcile with someone after a breach in a relationship, there are some achievable objectives you might want to consider. If you are the offending party, you might consider objectives such as,

  • Offer to hear (face-to-face or through others) of the damage you have caused or allowed due to complicity
  • Acknowledge the impact of your attitudes and actions, the harm done.
  • Make an apology
  • Provide ongoing evidence of repentance…without grumbling
  • Make sacrificial amends, seek to return what was wrongfully taken
  • Avoid pointing out the wrongs committed by the offended party; make no explicit or implicit demand for reconciliation

If you are the offended party, you might consider objectives such as

  • Speak the truth in love
  • Assert need for justice and grace
  • Avoid vengeance taking
  • Acknowledge evidence of repentance; point out evidence of deception
  • Clarify concepts of forgiveness, grace, restitution, reconciliation
  • Ask God for a heart prepared to forgive

When reconciliation isn’t possible

Notice that the above objectives can be met even when the overarching goal of reconciliation fails. There are times when reconciliation is not possible or desirable. Attempts to force the outcome will do significant damage—not only to victims but also to those who foreclose on repentance. Just as forcing a diseased tomato plant to produce fruit may result in the destruction of nearby plants, so also forcing reconciliation when repentance is not present may result in more injustice and deception.

So, the next time you find yourself in a broken relationship, focus first on objectives within your grasp and give back to God the final goal. Be open for him to do miracles but stick to the thing he has placed in front of you. Like the widow who has just enough oil and flour, bake your cake. Let God take care of the bigger picture.


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Counselors talking about themselves? Additional thoughts


Last week I described some research supporting counselor self-disclosures, research that suggests clients appreciate disclosures revealing (a) similarities between counselor and client, and (b) vulnerabilities or personal emotions. While this research flies in the face of conventional wisdom in most counselor training programs, I cautioned counselors to ask some questions first before talking too much about self. With this post, I would like to press the caution just a bit more.

Why do counselors talk about themselves?

Why do counselors talk about their personal life with clients? Read the following numbered list to see some of the main reasons (and the sub-points in italics as illustrations of that reason). Then, consider the bracketed sub point as an alternative to self-disclosure.

  1. We want to put clients at ease and we think knowing something about ourselves might help
    • I can see you are anxious about whether taking antidepressants is appropriate for faithful Christians. I take them and it has only helped my faith.
      • [You’re not alone with that question so let’s explore the pros and cons to taking an antidepressant. Why don’t you start by telling me the reasons you’ve heard or thought about for not taking Prozac?]
  2. We believe our personal history will help a client understand, accept, or challenge something about their struggle
    • I know this treatment for panic disorder is difficult for you but I can tell you it works. It worked for me.
  3. We want to please an inquiring client
    • Yes, I am married and I have 2 children.
      • [Sure, I don’t mind telling you who is in my family, but could you first tell me why that is an important question for you?]
  4. We want to earn their respect and believe that our history will help
    • Well, for starters, I want you to read my book. It is now in its second edition and has been translated into 4 languages. I think you will find it very helpful for your problem.
      • [I’d like for you to start reading about your problem. There are a couple of books out there that I think you might find helpful, including one I wrote. But, feel free to look these over on Amazon and choose the one that seems right for you.]
  5. We like talking about ourselves; our personal stories seem difficult to avoid
    • You and I have a lot in common. My wife has the same problems as your husband. So, I know how lonely you must feel. We’ve tried…
      • [Though you are not saying so, I wonder if you feel lonely in your marriage.]
  6. We see the relationship more like a friendship with mutual sharing
    • I’m so glad to see you today. You are a bright light in a dull day. I look forward to our stimulating conversations. Just yesterday I was thinking about you and wishing to have coffee with you to discuss your career future.
  7. We want to be seen as human rather than just professional
    • Yes, it has been a stressful day. I could use a back rub after all these sessions today.
      • [You know, some days are harder than others, but I’m curious why you asked this today?]
  8. We want the client to help us in some way
    • I was thinking about your need to work and my need to have someone edit my website. Or, I’m headed out on a mission trip next month. Well, I am if I can get enough donations. I’m about $1000 short thus far but I know God will come through.
      • [neither of these need to be said!]

Is it necessary? Is it helpful?

While self-disclosures may improve client perceptions of counselors, I suspect that empathic, client-centered therapists evoke these same feelings by asking good questions making observant reflections yet still minimizing disclosures, especially those where we initiate them and those that force the conversation to our personal history. There are some disclosures that are in response to client questions (e.g., have you ever struggled with addictions? Are you married? Do you believe in medications? Are you angry with me?) that warrant an answer. When giving this answer, work hard at keeping it brief and returning to the client’s story.

Don’t forget about social media self-disclosures

Clients sometimes “hear” our disclosures through social media. Imagine a client reading, “Well, that was a difficult session, glad I’m done for the day” having been that counselor’s last appointment! Blogs (like this!), Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can be forms of self-disclosure. Be wary of these. Conventional wisdom says to avoid social media contacts with most clients so as to avoid harm to the counseling relationship. While we need not require an outright ban of these connections, a thoughtful counselor will review connections via social media for potential harm.

Be human

Despite these efforts to avoid letting our selves intrude too far into the session, sometimes life gets in the way. A counselor has a health or a family crisis. Clients have ways of finding this out and often want to ask how things are going. Here it is appropriate to say something brief, thank them for their concern and then start the session. In other situations a client discovers a shared passion for food, a sporting team, a connection through mutual friends. Enjoy these connections, acknowledge them, but be sure not to linger there during the session proper. We are, after all human. Don’t be surprised when counselor and client humanness come into contact.


Filed under christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

How does small-time tyranny last?

Tyrants use fear to control subjects. Thus, we understand how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is elected by 100% of his constituency. To abstain or cast any other vote would be suicide. But since most do not live under such oppression we may wonder how individuals cave to lower-level tyranny here in democracies or locations where we have choice about who we vote for and where we live and work. Why do organizations allow dictatorial leadership? Can’t we all just walk away?

Thanks to one of my students, Dan McCurdy, I pass on this recording from This American Life about a “small-time” tyrant in an upstate New York school district. The story is about the dictatorial dealings of a facilities manager of the school district–not of a principal, teacher, or even a school board member.

How is it possible for one with so little power (so we would normally assume) could wield such power over employees? How could he set off bombs, fire individuals, vandalize homes, threaten others with harm, simulate sex, and more without getting fired?

How? It is simple. He was,

surrounded above and below, by people who looked the other way. (near the end of the above recording)

Why do we look the other way?

We look away for all sorts of reasons. Consider a few of them:

  • Fear that no one will come to our defense if we stand up to abuses (which of course will be true if no one else sees or responds)
  • Need to protect what we have (e.g., position, income, career, reputation, etc.)
  • Cover up own failings (e.g., if he goes down…I will go down)
  • Perceive benefits outweigh consequences (i.e., in this case, school board received lowered energy costs, fewer worker complaints)
  • The people who complain of injustice matter little to us
  • Believe psychological abuse does not really happen

In Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer, he describes the most powerful of dictators are ones who instill fear when present and yet also instill fear of what life might be when that person is gone.

What to do?

When we hear of crazy stories such as the one in the recording, we shake our head and imagine ourselves standing up to power, standing up for the little guy. Too often our imagination never see the light of day. So, how can we keep ourselves sensitized to injustice and ready to act for the good of the weakest community member?

  • Identify our current fears. Who has power over us? What does love and grace look like when responding to this power?
  • Identify places we have chosen safety over truth. Who can help us rectify this problem?
  • Identify those places where we have power over others. Who do we have power over? How do we wield it? Who has God-given us the responsibility to protect? Where do we need to give power back (when taken or used inappropriately)?
  • Fix eyes on how Jesus uses power. How does he wield it with those who have the most power? The least power?
  • Identify habits of cover-up. Where, for reasons of shame, guilt, or comfort do we cover up and present self as someone we are not?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, deception, Justice

What if your spouse acts the part of empathic listener (but really isn’t)?

You’ve had a bad day. Your spouse comes home and you proceed to tell them about your difficult, frustrating day. When you finish telling your tale of woe, your spouse says the following (with appropriate feeling)

Wow, that really was a tough day. I’m sorry it has been so hard for you. Why don’t you take it easy and I’ll handle…[whatever menial task you would normally do right now]

Normally, this validation would feel quite nice. But what if you knew that your spouse didn’t really feel the warm fuzzies they were trying to send your way? What if they were only saying what they thought you wanted to hear?

Would you still feel loved because of the effort they made? That they wanted to “fake it ’til they make it”?

A recent This American life radio episode covers this very issue. The fifteen minute episode tells of a man with Aspergers who needed to learn how to love his wife and did so by observing and mimicking others who had better social skills. At one point in the show, the interviewer asks his wife if it matters to her that her husband doesn’t feel the empathy he is trying to convey.

Her answer? No.

What would your answer be?


Filed under love, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized

Better objectives than reconciliation?

When you experience a broken relationship, do you long for the day when what is broken is made new? I do, even when I know that the chances of restoration and reconciliation are slight.

However, I’ve written a post over at our faculty blog suggesting that as good a goal as reconciliation is, it makes for a poor objective for us. Wonder why I think little of reconciliation as an objective? Click the link to find out and to consider some alternate objectives.

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Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity, conflicts, Relationships

Mistakes we make when responding to minor false accusations

Picture this. You are a manager. One of your subordinates, John, accuses you of playing favorites–giving more opportunities for development and promotion to one person and intentionally ignoring the one making the accusation. You absolutely believe the accusation is baseless due to a misunderstanding of workflow and skill sets.

What would be your usual response? Explain? Pull the, “I’m the authority here, I do what I think is right” card? Silence and an eye roll? I imagine most of us choose the explain option. If feels right that we should clarify the misunderstanding.

Why is explaining wrong?

Let me clarify. Explaining isn’t necessarily a sin (though it could be). Surprisingly it rarely helps the situation when offered first. Why is this?

  1. Pointing out the facts as you see them almost always sounds like a defense
  2. Defenses (AKA explanations) rarely address the root concern of the other leaving them feeling unheard

A better way

Contrary to our natural tendency to defend against an attack, the best strategy is to validate the concerns of the other. If the employee is concerned they are getting passed over (and you can imagine they have been feeling this for a long while when they finally speak it to you), your explanation of the facts does NOTHING to address their concerns. A loving, Spirit-empowered response will take to heart their fears. “John, I bet you’ve been feeling this for some time. It is important to me that I hear and understand what you are feeling. I do not want you having the impression that you are not valued. I would be happy to explain why Lisa got the new position and how I see your future here. Can we set a time to talk about this tomorrow?”

One of the reasons we don’t validate others first is that we fear our own view of the facts will be swallowed up in the opinions of others. In addition we fear that validation will be heard as agreement. Be wary of these feelings. In fact, when you give the accuser the chance to state their concerns/case first (and do so in a way that they feel heard), your own views are much more likely to be heard.

Now, if only I could employ this technique with better success (on my part) with my teenaged boys! If you don’t know already, such a simple technique of validation requires a massive dose of humility and self-sacrificial love. You cannot do this in your own strength!


Filed under christian counseling, conflicts, Family, Relationships, Uncategorized

The duty to confront your friends

You’ve probably read about the recent resignation of David Petraeus as Director of the CIA. While we could chalk this up to another episode of “be sure your sins will find you out” and explore the features of his downfall from squeaky clean (by appearance) to cheater, there is another angle you might consider. In the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper included a sidebar to the story telling of several colleagues and friends who recognized a problem long before it came out. They saw some things that didn’t look right, that didn’t fit with his character. They saw him being too chummy and spending too much time with “the other woman.”

The big question: did they bother to confront him? The story doesn’t tell us this, but it surely is the question we ought to be asking, not only of them, but also of ourselves. When we see friends acting in ways that appear out of line, do we love them enough to tell them so? Do we love them enough to risk losing the relationship should they become angry with us? I, for one, have been guilty of not saying something when I saw a friend spending more time with a colleague than is wise. I have no idea if my friend engaged in inappropriate behavior. But even when someone doesn’t engage in sexual activity with someone other than their spouse, this does not mean the person isn’t putting their life, their marriage, their soul in grave danger. Emotional affairs have torn apart marriages just as physical affairs do.

We have a duty to not let our fear of man get in the way when we see things that signal to us a problem. We don’t need to become accusatory, but a few loving questions (and more than just one!) are in order.


Filed under adultery, Relationships

What is therapeutic presence?

If you go to a counselor, you’d probably prefer that person to be awake versus asleep, to pay attention to you versus check their smart phone, to respond to what you are talking about versus make non sequitur responses. As I’ve noted here before, it is probably better to have a counselor who cares about you than one who has a big bag of techniques–though most of us would prefer our counselors to care AND be competent.

Therapeutic presence is a way of talking about the act of being with our clients in such a way as to build safe, trust-filled relationships where clients can grow and change. I think most people can easily identify failures of therapeutic presence. Try these on for fun:

CLIENT: I’m just so depressed.

THERAPIST: You think you are depressed? Let me tell you about depression. I have a client who just lost job, family, church, home. Now, that is something to be depressed about. You just had a bad day, that’s all.


CLIENT: I don’t understand why God would take away this job from me.

THERAPIST: Well, theologically speaking, God does things for all sorts of reasons. He sometimes does this to cause us to trust him more, to reveal some sin, to give him glory.

Notice how both responses fail miserably to be either therapeutic or present with the person in the moment of counseling. Not hard to miss, right? So here’s a question: Why do so many of us counselors, even seasoned ones at that, fail the “presence” test?

My answer? When we fail to be present in helpful ways, it reveals a lack of preparation and a lack of attention to purpose.

Shari Geller and Leslie Greenberg (in Therapeutic Presence: A Mindful Approach to Effective Therapy. APA, 2012) define the building blocks of therapeutic presence as

    • how therapists prepare for being present (in personal life and in session)
    • the process (or therapist activities) of being present (aka purposing to be present)
    • the experience of being present

Sound like mumbo-jumbo? Here’s another way of putting it. What does a counselor need to do to be ready to be in tune with their clients? What do they do to stay in tune when with clients, and are they aware of when they are failing to be in tune? (If I am unaware, then I am likely to get out of tune.)

Here are some things counselors ought to be asking themselves:

  • Do I have adequate space to move from my private life to being present with my clients? Do I have enough space between clients? The answer is not always an amount of time, but what we do during the space between.
  • As I prepare for sessions, what am I meditating and praying about? For example, if I pray for clients to be free from something that has them bound up, I could accidentally encourage myself to push for change or to talk about a subject that the client is not able or ready to talk about. I’m all for praying for healing. I just think we have other prayers to pray as well. “Lord, help me to be with the client today and not focused on my own personal goals for them.”
  • Am I staying present with their mood, their cognitions, their silences in such a way that it is as easy to talk about what is happening in the session as it is to talk about what happened in the past or might happen in the future?
  • When I sense a disconnect, am I quick to invite dialogue and learn (vs. avoid or defend/explain away)?

Therapeutic presence isn’t everything. I could be present with someone and no healing might take place. But without therapeutic presence, I will only be a barrier to whatever growth is taking place. When I do it well, I imagine that I might see just a tiny glimpse of how Jesus was with the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman, or with Peter after he had abandoned Jesus.

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“I tried that…it didn’t work”: Responding to failures in counseling

One of the things a counselor does in meeting a new client is to ask, “tell me what you have tried thus far to solve this problem.” We ask this question because we know we are not the first stop for most folks trying to solve a problem. Whether it is a parent seeking a way to manage a child’s misbehavior, a couple seeking help in changing the way they talk to each other, or an individual trying to address an ongoing anxiety problem, most people have tried and not found adequate success–which is why they come to see us.

But, let me tell you what goes through my head when I suggest a couple of options/approaches my client might try and they respond with, “I tried it…it doesn’t work.” My internal, private response?

Define try. Define work.

Now that probably sounds negative but I don’t mean it that way at all. What I mean to communicate is that I do not yet know what this person tried, for how long, and what result, if any, was achieved. What I do know is that my work is cut out for me because the client statement usually conveys a closedness to trying that particular intervention (or similar ones) again. My job is to ask questions to understand each word: try and work.

Tried it.

There are a couple of commons ways people try solutions to problems. They may try something without proper consultation. They may try something in an intermittent manner. Let me give you some examples. Parents may try a reinforcement strategy with a child but fail to find a powerful enough reinforcer to make the system work. Or, a couple may try a speaker/listener technique but revert in the middle back to a debate/invalidating mode. A couple may need to take a “time out” or break to avoid a conflict escalation but the one asking for a break may do so using it as a power move (“I’m outta here!) rather than a de-escalation attempt.

Didn’t work.

A good technique may or may not work, depending on any number of reasons. Some interventions really won’t work for a particular person or setting. However, it is important to recognize that some interventions fail to work for reasons already mentioned above and others may fail to “work” because of client expectations. For example, a parent may try a particular intervention with their child to reduce angry outbursts. Then, the parent returns to counseling the next week and tells the counselor the intervention didn’t work. Upon deeper investigation the parent does admit that the number of outbursts reduced, the duration of the outbursts shortened. Why did they feel that the intervention didn’t work? Well, last night they have a horrible blowout and very small irritating interactions each day. So, the intervention may have worked even though the parent is feeling very worn out and discouraged. Or, in the couple illustration, listening technique may enable the couple to fight less but one spouse feels that the other has a history of being self-centered and thus cannot trust the reasons they are now trying to do a better job. So, they interpret short-term success as not real or legitimate.

Setting the stage for homework

Counselors often give homework. For homework interventions to work, a counselor should: (a) make a very clear explanation of what should be done, when, and how often, (b) what results, if any, to note, (c) the short and long-term purpose of this intervention, and (d) follow up next week to see how the  client fared and what alterations might need to be made in the following week.

Counselors do well not to oversell the value of the intervention, admit that not all interventions work and that troubleshooting is an essential part of counseling, write down their homework requests for clients, and make sure that the homework given fits the client’s level of commitment to the process.

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State of the (Marital) Union: A time to review

Just prior to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night I thought of the above blog title and that it probably makes sense to every married couple to have their own state of the union review. Then I had fun imagining the similarities that such an occasion might have with the political review before the 2 other branches of power and the rest of the American public. First, the more dominant spouse speaks to what is going well with either cheers and/or ice-cold silence from the other spouse. Then the dominant spouse goes on to outline what they want to see happen in the following year. Afterward, the minority spouse rebuts and/or counter proposes his or her plans for the coming year. Since there is no media present to breakdown and critique the arguments, each spouse takes the role of reporter  to give a replay of the key points and also that of pundit by debating the merits of said points.

Sounds like most couple fights. I guess we don’t need a special night for this!

All kidding aside, it is good for couples to do an annual “take stock of our marriage” review. Here are some ideas that might be more constructive:

  1. Start with remembering why you got married and what you really like about each other. Too often we focus on the negative and allow those issues to skew the picture. Remind each other of their strengths and of their value to the marriage.
  2. Take time to listen to the dreams and concerns of each other. Take the lead in seeking out the mind of your spouse. What are their dreams and concerns? Don’t debate the merits of these dreams and concerns…and don’t problem solve to make them happen just yet. Just listen and validate everything you can! Oh, and if you are sharing your concerns…make sure you do two things: share them in a way that doesn’t accuse and attack (“I’m concerned that you don’t love me” may not help as much as “I’m concerned about how little time we spend together.”) and be sure to return the favor by asking about their dreams and concerns.
  3. Acknowledge your own weaknesses and ways you know you need to improve (could be anything from eating better to giving more compliments). And when your spouse does admit the need for improvement, resist piling on or adding to their list. Be bold. Ask for and extend forgiveness!
  4. Name the hot spots or threats to your marriage (external, internal, controllable, uncontrollable). See if you can’t find agreement on a couple. During this time, don’t go too deep into the complexities or get into problem-solving. Just name them in a matter-of-fact way.
  5. Set one goal and a simple means to start moving. Goals need to be something you can control. “Get our kids to respect us” isn’t one either of you can control. It also helps to be specific. “Spend more time together” is pretty vague. Try, “spend 2 hours one night per week together doing something other than talking about kids or watching television.” Then consider what barriers might block you from meeting the goal. Keep your efforts simple, doable, easy to repeat. This doesn’t mean you are setting the bar low but that you are trying to be faithful in the little things and trusting God for the bigger things.

One last thing: don’t wait til the following year to review. Otherwise you might have a mutiny at the next mid-term elections and get voted out of (dominant spouse) office.


Filed under Communication, love, marriage, Uncategorized