In the field of counseling, we spend a lot of time researching, writing, and talking about different treatment approaches. Some disciples of certain theoretical orientations or interventions seem to be quite invested in making sure theirs are the “best.” But data (and experience) keep telling us that what we “do” as therapists matters less than how we do it—or maybe even who we are. We use the term “common factors” to refer to things like genuineness, empathy, hope, warmth, and unconditional positive regard—things that characterize good therapists whose clients experience improvement. Sometimes we conceptualize this as “being,” contrasting it with the “doing” of interventions.
I’ve always believed in the idea that the most important thing is that I care about my clients, but sometimes, in session, it doesn’t feel like enough. I can care all day long, but what if I don’t know what to do? I’ve begun to trust my instincts a lot more than I did at first, but sometimes I still wonder if the “common factors” are really all they’re cracked up to be.
But Alexander and I had our third pre-marital counseling session with our pastor on Sunday, and it really restored my faith in the idea that being is more therapeutic than doing. You see, our pastor is 1) very young and 2) not a counselor at all. He makes no bones about the fact that he is not trained in counseling and is largely winging it. I have to admit that I sometimes find myself silently assessing what he’s doing and thinking about all the ways I would do it differently if I were in his shoes. For example, this week, Alex and I completed a questionnaire about the “five love languages” (based on this book), and our session focused on a discussion of our results. Except there was no “processing” of our experience completing the questionnaire or even of our initial responses to our results. We turned them in, he interpreted them, he talked about what they might mean for us. It was several minutes before either of us had an opportunity to say anything at all. Our pastor didn’t ask us if his words made sense to us; he didn’t ask us for examples (though I gave some anyway.) Knowing what I know about using psychological assessment in counseling, I would say that he did it all wrong. And speaking in this technical sense, I might even say that what he “did” was a waste (at least for me), because the information that the questionnaire gave us was not news to me—I already know how I communicate love. I already know how Alex communicates love. I already recognize that these aren’t always the same, and I already work hard both to communicate love in the way he receives it and to recognize when he’s communicating love to me. From an intervention/treatment/ “doing” perspective, it was useless.
And yet… it wasn’t! At all! It was a really, really, really positive experience that I enjoyed quite a lot. Our pastor is very intelligent, and a really nice guy. He’s real with us. He’s present with us. He welcomes us, he likes us, he deeply desires for us to be blessed and fulfilled in our marriage, and he faithfully believes that we will be. We left our session feeling happy, refreshed, confident, supported, loved, and excited about what’s ahead. And what more could I want for my clients than that?