QUALITIES OF THE COUNSELOR: Genuineness, Empathy, Warmth, Unconditional Positive Regard
Genuineness, empathy, warmth, and unconditional positive regard are the core counselor qualities. Some people possess these qualities because of their philosophy and personality. Others can develop them through awareness and practice.
By genuineness I am referring to sincerity, and this is something that is conveyed by means of eye contact and facial expression. I am communicating non-verbally that what my client has to say is of the greatest importance and I am truly interested in it. So I speak of genuineness as opposed to being mechanical; a counselor who uses stock phrases or who uses too much or misplaced humour and does not take the client seriously enough is not going to be able to come across with genuineness and sincerity.
Being real; genuine. Which carries along with it the importance of being one’s self instead of putting on some kind of role. In other words the way you are as a counselor in terms of your overall style and the way you come across needs to be the way you are in any relationship or situation. It is not a role, or a hat that you put on and take off. Insincerity may be communicated when the counselor looks away, being easily distracted, looking at his watch, yawning; showing by these behaviours that he really is not interested in the client’s issues.
Is this sincerity and genuineness a cultural thing? Or is it cross-cultural? In North America there seems to be an emphasis on sincerity in relationships. If someone’s not sincere in a relationship people don’t like it as much, whereas in Europe there’s more give-and-take and they take on roles more easily.
There may be different signals of sincerity. For example, in some cultures the emphasis on eye contact wouldn’t be as great as in the Western culture. In native culture, or black culture, and some other cultures there’s a noticeable lack of eye contact or different eye contact as compared to Western cultures. For example, in some non-white cultures, the person may look at you when talking and look away when listening which you may interpret as not listening if you are not aware of the custom. Eye contact can be different for men and women; women tend not to look men in the eyes, especially in some Eastern cultures which are patriarchal.
Another point to make here is regarding seating arrangement and body language in counseling. In addition to frequent eye contact, sitting with your legs uncrossed and with your arms uncrossed resting on the arms of the chair, may communicate a relaxed openness to the client.
Also, in terms of the angle of the chairs, about a 100 degree or a little more than a 90 degree angle tends to maximize the comfort of the client because this allows him to look past the counselor without turning his head away. Whereas if chairs are directly facing each other, this tends to set up a sense of confrontation. The distance of the chairs should be no more than three feet and not closer than two feet. This range communicates support, whereas if the chairs are too close, I may communicate intrusiveness or if the chairs are too far apart, I may communicate a lack of support for the client. Non-verbal rapport is important to the counseling relationship.
The next quality is empathy. I am speaking specifically of accurate empathy, the ability to be connected to the feelings, to the emotions of the client. So if the client is feeling sad, the counselor needs to have a sense of that sadness and be able to mirror it in voice tone and facial expression.
For example, I had a client whose little boy was killed by a city utility truck, and as she talked about the incident she was feeling sad and I felt very sad as well. Now I think it was easy for me to connect because I have a little boy, and at the time he was six or so, about the age her little boy was. I found that I was able to feel very sad. In fact it was all I could do to keep from breaking down and crying.
A rule of thumb with your empathy is not to allow your own feelings of sadness to overshadow the expression of your client’s sadness. So if I were to break down and cry and my client is just feeling sad, but not crying, then that may have a particular effect on my client. Can you imagine what that may be? She’d feel like she had to cry. She becomes a caregiver. So the roles get reversed. She could become the caregiver. The focus would be taken away from the client. Also, I may be seen as fragile and as someone who needed to be protected from the client’s pain. So the client may tend to hold back her painful experiences for fear that I may break down and cry. I may appear to be overly sensitive and fragile.
Empathy is conveyed in non-verbal ways such as tearing or a frown if the client’s feeling is sadness. Keep in mind that empathy must also be genuinely felt and genuinely mirrored. Any insincerity from the counselor will erode the client’s feeling of safety.
Essentially I will be mirroring the emotional content or the emotions of my client whether the feeling is anger, sadness, fear, or some other feeling. Some counselors have said that empathy is the most therapeutic counselor quality because it lends support to the client’s pain.
Empathy may also be conveyed verbally in the voice tone. And so I will speak with empathic reflections. This is a statement that reflects back what the client has been saying, accompanied by a feeling word. An empathic reflective statement would be, “So you’re feeling sad because your good friend just moved away, is that what you’re feeling?”
When you as the counselor show tears what does the client perceive? Is the client going to think you don’t really understand or is he going to become defensive? If your tears are an accurate reflection of the client’s feeling, and if your expression of feeling is a little bit less than the client’s expression of feeling, your empathy is likely to be accepted as support. However, something else that may happen is that the client’s own engagement of emotion is scary for him so that he withdraws. This is an issue of the client’s not feeling safe with himself or perhaps with you, which I will speak about in a few minutes.
The next quality is warmth, and here I am talking about non-possessive warmth, as opposed to cool detachment. Warmth is caring that is conveyed in a soft and gentle voice tone and facial expression. Warmth may be conveyed in a non-verbal way and a non-possessive way. Now what would possessive warmth be? Smothering. Too touchy-feely. Smothering in that way. In a physical way, giving too much physical caring. Sometimes a counselor will like to give out hugs or want to hug a client more for the counselor’s own needs than for the client. And so that can become possessive.
A female counselor was mentioning that she would touch and sometimes have it misread. It wasn’t a prolonged contact, just a touch. So the client was interpreting any physical contact as something possessive. I want to talk about touching a little more when we get down to boundaries; touching is a boundary issue.
Verbal warmth can be experienced as possessive if it is excessive in terms of the warm voice tone or in terms of verbal content if it is overstated. This may be perceived as lacking sincerity or as superficial and shallow, or if it is perceived as sincere it is experienced as being too mothering and protective or condescending, treating the client too much as a child.
We can understand warmth by its opposite quality which is to be cold. In this case the voice tone is emotionally flat, detached and mechanical, and verbal content may tend to understate the client’s plight. It is a style which communicates aloofness, distance, and unconcern.
unconditional positive regard
Another important attribute is unconditional positive regard. Some people believe that this is the most curative or therapeutic thing that a counselor can provide. This implies a particular mental attitude: that the client’s problems and feelings are of the greatest importance. This session is the most important session for the client, and the client himself is as valuable as the most highly respected person on earth even if he does not believe that he is.
I am regarding the client’s behaviour, no matter how self-destructive or even destructive of others it may be, as having a story behind it that allows it to make sense, that makes it understandable even though the client is responsible for choosing it.
The belief is that a person will make choices that are best for himself if he is aware of all the possible choices. If I have this ability to convey unconditional positive regard it is going to be possible for me to sincerely validate my client, to bring all my best ability and expertise to the session, to listen and focus on the client, to accept the client’s pace and process of recovery.
That would be like having Charles Manson, the mass-murderer, as a client. Yes, he killed a lot of people, however, he does have the possibility or the potential for change. So he’s here and my task is to help him to be the best person that he can be from what appears to be the worst.
You see the person as having intrinsic value apart from his behaviour, and you see his behaviour as having an understandable story behind it. And that will allow us to be able to remain in a helping position with our client. There may be some types of people, such as Charles Manson, that we would not be able to maintain an unconditional positive regard for. What are some other types of clients that you may have trouble with? Perhaps sexual offenders, serial killers, rapists, child abusers.
Could that perhaps be why they are some of the hardest to cure or change? It’s hard to find people who are able to work with those types of individuals. It’s difficult for a counselor to work in those circumstances and still separate himself to such an extent that he becomes a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It can be a challenge to keep from reacting judgmentally and lose one’s effectiveness in that way. So what should we do if we cannot maintain unconditional positive regard for a client? Have him seek someone else, perhaps. In this circumstance you might say, “I’m not sure I’ll be able to help you as much as you may need.” Make a referral and own it as your problem that you don’t have the skills to help him.
When you say to the client, “I don’t feel that I have the skills that you need to get the help that you need,” you show you are accepting responsibility for your limitations, rather than blaming the client. Along with that goes the ability to be non-judgmental. I need to be able to regard the client’s behaviour in terms of behaviours which work well and which do not work well for the client’s functioning, rather than in moral terms. So we need to be aware of the range of judgmental terms to bee left out of the counseling relationship and left out of our counseling vocabulary.
Rather than say to a client, “Do you think that’s wise or do you think that’s right?” I’m going to say, “Does that work well for you?”
The question is what works well in relationships and what doesn’t work well, rather than what behaviour is right or what behaviour is wrong. Terms like inconsiderate, or imprudent, or unwise, irresponsible, right or wrong, good or bad, are judgmental terms. Unconditional positive regard goes beyond being non-judgmental and most certainly includes being non-judgmental. The client usually brings too much self-judgment with him, so he does not need ours piled on top of his.
You have unconditional positive regard for the client to the degree you have it for yourself; that same degree for someone else. So I think it’s a matter of degrees… possibly to realize how silly it would be and I’m at 60 or 70 percent of my ability to be non-judgmental and that’s the way it is; and putting aside that and still being as totally open as possible. I mean there’s no 100%.
There is a point where you choose not to be judgmental. I may feel judgmental but a client doesn’t have to know that. I can choose not to express it; I can filter that out. The choice of leaving your stuff behind and going there without your stuff so it doesn’t get in the way of your work with the client.
The client is already self-blaming enough; already bringing enough self-judgment and guilt with him, so he doesn’t need your judgment of him. The dependent client may allow you to judge him and he will return to the session. In any case, judgment tends to erode safety.
The counselor can be viewed similar to a defence lawyer who is appointed by the court to defend and support the client. You can’t make any judgments and you give unconditional support. It’s as if the client tends to be his own prosecutor and presents the negative self-talk, for example.
It has to do with a fundamental view of humanity that everyone is sincere and well-intentioned and that people have problem behaviours for understandable reasons. In other words, a client may not have been responsible for beginning his unhealthy patterns that were adopted as a means of surviving painful life experiences. However, although the person was responsible for starting the patterns and although they seemed to work well during childhood for example, the client is responsible for perpetuating those patterns in adult life, and they do not work well now or he would not be in counseling. Maybe there was an abusive background or there was unhealthy parental modeling, there was a tragic loss of a loved one, for example, and these experiences resulted in some adaptive behaviour that does not work well in adult life and relationships.
There’s always a story there that allows the client’s behaviour or problems to make sense and that allows us to remain non-judgmental of the client and to maintain positive regard. I recently heard a counselor tell a client during the first session, “What are you complaining about? What are you complaining about now?” Well that’s a very judgmental way to approach a client, to assign to her problems the word “complain” or “complaining.”
Some counselors may justify that by saying they are trying to elicit a transference reaction. In my view what they are doing is abusing the client to encourage the expression of feelings the client has been unable to deal with. But the end does not justify the means. It does not justify a non-professional approach; a destructive, abusive approach which could harm the client. If I can not predict a therapeutic outcome of my statement, I am not engaging in professional counseling.