Second of Two Parts

God in common grace showers humanity with many gifts. Both regenerate and unregenerate men may enjoy many of them. One of these gifts is sufficient light to live lives free of neurosis. In view of this the Christian can learn much from the non-Christian about counseling and psychotherapy.

This was the point of the first in this two-part series. This article takes up the findings of Truax and Carkhuff about the effective counselor. They have found that three characteristics mark the effective counselor, irrespective of his theory of counseling. They are accurate empathy, nonpossessive warmth, and genuineness.

Empathy is the capacity to feel along with the counselee. It involves getting in touch with his feelings and reflecting them back to him in synonymous terms. It is this that makes him feel “really understood.” The counselor does not merely understand the counselee’s ideas; rather, he tunes in on what is going on in the counselee at the feeling level. The effect of empathy is to relieve the counselee of the loneliness of his experience. He feels, At last another human being knows what I’m suffering!

To be effective, however, empathy must be accurate. One must neither overshoot nor undershoot. For example, a counselee may be merely peeved at her husband. For the counselor to say, “It sounds as though you are angry at your husband,” is to overshoot how she really feels. Or if she is in a fit of rage, it would be undershooting to say, “It sounds as though you are peeved at your husband.” To that obtuseness she might well reply, “Peeved? I’m so mad I could kill him!” When the counselor overshoots or undershoots, the counselee is left with the feeling that the counselor doesn’t really understand.

Accurate empathy is not difficult to develop. It is kin to the skill of active listening. This skill is one of three communication skills taught in the Intra family Communication Training Manual (I. C. T. Corp. Simi, Ca.) and also by Thomas Gordon in his book Parent Effectiveness Training. Despite the bad press given to encounter groups, a group is one of the best places to learn how to read feelings and develop accurate empathy.

Nonpossessive warmth is the ability to accept a counselee without condition as a worthwhile human being. Bad behavior is not accepted or condoned, but the counselee is accepted. Warmth is conveyed by attitude rather than word. Does the counselee detect a stiffness or aloofness in the counselor, or does the counselor appear to be relaxed, and to feel comfortable with the counselee?

Truax and Carkhuff make the word “nonpossessive” synonymous with “unconditional.” But the word nonpossessive should also be understood in its normal sense. The counselor must avoid playing the Jewish mother role—smothering the counselee with warmth. Ministers have been warned so long about the dangers of being unaccepting and judgmental, especially of gross sinners, that they sometimes go overboard with warmth.

Unconditional or nonpossessive warmth is something that cannot be produced through study and conscious effort. It is the natural overflow of a life that has developed self-love and self-respect. Unfortunately, some men in pastoral counseling have not learned that they have difficulty loving their neighbor as themselves because they don’t love themselves. Self-reproach and self-hate are bound to stunt the development of nonpossessive warmth.

Genuineness is difficult to define because the best operational definitions really describe its absence. It involves an intimate acquaintance with ourselves and the ability to accept ourselves, the good and bad, without defense or excuse. Sometimes the defense takes the form of a retreat into the pastoral role or a façade, as though the counselee prompted no emotional response in them. Countertransference is the unconscious reaction of the counselor to the counselee that draws the counselor into his game and under his power. Genuineness is needed at this very point. The neurotic is a master at pulling the response from people that serves his ends. The counselor may be genuine and avoid countertransference at the same time if he will say exactly what effect the counselee is producing in him at the feeling level without playing into his hands. The fact that the counselor communicates what is happening keeps it from happening.

An incorrigible teen-age girl was brought to my office by her parents. Her game soon became evident. She would goad adults until they became angry and would lose control. Then she’d back off, be sweet—and take control. I said to her, “B—, when you talk abusively like that I feel like smacking you out of that chair. But that’s exactly what you want me to do, because when I lose control, then you are in control.” Then I smiled and said, “I’m not going to play your game.” She laughed and said, “You really have me pegged, don’t you?”

The neurotic doesn’t know what it means to be genuine—to feel good about his strengths and to be candid about his weaknesses in a nondefensive way. He is committed to presenting a façade that he thinks people will like and that will help him cope with anxiety. Genuineness on the part of the counselor is a model that the counselee desperately needs. Not only does this model show him how to be genuine, but it also encourages him to relate to the counselor in a genuine way, without his façade. The counselor’s genuineness is a way of saying, “It’s O.K. to take off your mask here. I’m not afraid you will hurt me, and you don’t have to be afraid I’ll hurt you.” This does not mean that the therapy will be painless. It does mean, however, that the counselor will be completely honest.

Article continues below

God has made all men, Christian and non-Christian alike, responsive to the counselor who is accurately empathic, nonpossessively warm, and genuine. The Christian counselor, if he is to be effective, must make the therapeutic triad his own—not because he is a Christian but because he is a human being.—ANDRE BUSTANOBY, marriage and family counselor, Bowie, Maryland.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.