Who Determines the Counseling Agenda?

Style of counseling

This is a subject of serious debate among counselors. On one end are proponents of Carl Rogers and others, who believed that clients are the experts in their own lives and need a little guidance to figure out their problems on their own. These are primarily non-directive counselors who ask open-ended questions to get their clients to work through their issues. For really highly functioning clients, this may work well.

On the other end are directive counselors who take charge of the session and are more likely to give specific advice. For example, they might argue that counselors are the professionals and the experts, and you wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic and tell them how to fix it.

For Cardinal Point Counseling, the virtue is generally in the middle. I debated with a highly directive counselor who almost always tells clients what they will do that day. I argued that there are times (especially if clients are only seen once a week, bi-weekly, or monthly) when something may have come up that is more important than what the counselor had planned. This happens all the time with relationships. If there has been an affair between sessions, it probably makes sense to talk about the affair and not whatever the therapist had planned. So, you may not go to a mechanic and tell them how to fix your car, but you may go and tell them what you would like fixed. At the very least, it’s a collaborative dialog. A mechanic can recommend they fix a cosmetic dent on your car to improve the future resale value, and you can tell them you couldn’t care less but need the engine to start. A good mechanic isn’t going to fix things without your permission and then send you the bill. A good mechanic will tell you what problems they see, make a recommendation, and then let you decide. Unlike working with a mechanic on your car, you also can’t just drop it (you) off and pick it up when everything is fixed. You and your partner are the most vital part of the process.

 Ideally, therapy is based on treating your relationship goals. If your relationship goals are to figure out how to separate unquestionably amicably, your therapist’s hopes for you are irrelevant. But you may also know something is broken or stuck and need help figuring out what that is. You may know your car won’t start but have no idea why. You may need direction if you are not treating each other in a manner that is likely to bring about helping you meet your goals. You may need guidance regarding specific techniques to enhance communication (if that is something you want to improve, but some couples are perfectly content to yell at one another and brush it off two minutes later).

 Cardinal Point Counseling sessions start by asking you if there is anything on your mind you want to be sure to cover. If not, you may be asked about your goals for counseling multiple times throughout the process (because they often change or one goal is achieved and two new goals arise). We recommend that clients take a Relationship Checkup Assessment from the Gottman Institute. This often leads clients to arrive at new or other goals they didn’t know they had. So, I suppose the long but accurate answer is that it is a collaborative process. At the end of the day, it is your life as the client, and you and your partner must make the most critical decisions. You may ask for input on how certain situations typically turn out, whether your relationship is healthy, etc., but the big decisions are yours. For example, sometimes clients come to counseling hoping their therapist will tell them if they should get a divorce. What these clients need is guidance in helping them decide. The “I’d rather someone else make a decision, so I don’t blame myself if it’s wrong” mentality is not a healthy one to take to couple’s therapy but is one that sometimes appears. The “I don’t trust myself to make my decision” mentality often means more work is needed to figure things out.