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Inward Bound: Entering the World of your Counselee

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What would be your initial response if you saw a young woman walk up to a man at the bar and within minutes invite him to her room? What would you think if you saw on the news that your neighbor was arrested for a hit and run accident?  What would you think if your girlfriend who you invited for dinner picked at the food and never really touched it?  What would you think if your son got suspended from school for fighting?

If we are honest, all too often we tend to be judgmental and dismissive. We may raise an eye brow in disgust, or shake our heads in disapproval.  One thing is for sure, we don’t often think about what caused that behavior. Now, obviously if we said the ultimate cause was sin we would be theologically accurate. However, this alone does not help us engage people with gospel truth. Just naming sin and calling them to repent is only part of the equation. We must be willing to enter someone else’s world of struggle and hurt, working hard to avoid uninformed, insensitive communication or bible bludgeoning which only further isolates them from the gospel truth they need to hear and embrace. We must always be intentionally moving from the “WHAT PEOPLE ARE DOING” to the “WHY THEY ARE DOING IT’.

So, as counselors how should we enter to the counselee’s story? I would propose three elements that will cultivate openness and maximize your helpfulness.

Enter their story as an equal(Rom 12:3): It is critical that we not fall into the trap of thinking we are above or beyond the current struggle of the counselee. We are all sinful and prone to sin no matter what our theological training. At TS we often say “same chocolate, different wrapper” The humility to acknowledge that you have not arrived cannot be underestimated to the ears of someone struggling with the shame and consequences of their sin or the sin committed against them. Peppering your counseling with snapshots of your own struggles is a powerful way to develop credibility, influence, and hope in the life of your counselee.

Enter their story as a listener (Prov.18:13) I must confess that early in my counseling years I could have been called a “truth ninja”.  I would fire what I believed to be the biblical solution to a your problem so fast that I had given you the solution before you had finished sharing the problem!  However, God has graciously helped me to hang up my “Biblical Nunchuck’s” in exchange for a more powerful and helpful method: “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him. LISTENING! Entering the world of hurt of another is centered on  humble, intentional, and accurate listening. Without it you are guaranteed to miss the big picture and communicate that you don’t really care. We need to listen carefully for themes and patterns that have developed and shaped the person's understanding of God, the world, and themselves. Another powerful benefit of listening well is that the counselee will become more confident that your really have heard them and understand the context of their lives. This fast tracks credibility and receptiveness of your counselee.

Enter their story as a friend (Prov 17:17) If you have been counseling for a long time or even just have a high volume of counselees, a battle in which we must engage revolves around viewing people as projects while losing sight of their personhood. In other words, we tend to just see people through a rubric of problems. It can be hard, when you are dealing with the “same issue, different face” scenario, not to just go into autopilot.  But the danger of this is cold, sterile, communication that can often come off as insensitive, simplistic, and harsh. As counselors, we need to enter counseling praying that God would give us wisdom and insight into how to come alongside the counselee as a friend. Now obviously the level of friendship that you can engage in varies.  Nevertheless, we must be diligent to remember that an arm around the shoulder will always be more effective than a finger in the face. Our counselees are not projects to be worked on, but friends to be loved.

You see, if you entered the world  of the people mentioned at the beginning, as equal, listener and friend, you would have found out that six months ago the young woman at the bar was rocking back and forth hugging her knees tightly, sobbing uncontrollably, as a result of her boyfriend taking her innocence by force.  The hit and run was a result of a husband struggling to contain his rage and pain at the news of his wife’s infidelity.  He secretly began to drink without anyone close to him knowing. The girlfriend who refused the food was battling with her father’s voice playing repeatedly in her head, “ You are too fat”, resulting in her staring at the bathroom scales, overwhelmed with the thought that at 78lbs she is too fat to be loved. And the son suspended from school once sat in his room drawing a razor blade across his wrist convinced that he couldn’t take another day of the taunts and names hurled at him at school. We must go inward bound if we want to engage effectively.

Craig Mercer

Click here to learn more about Craig and Twelve Stnones.  

Posted on February 25, 2013