This week we looked at why theory is important in counselling work. Through a group discussion we identified several key aspects of why it is important, and I was quite surprised by the amount we came up with. First though, I think it’s important that I reflect on what is meant by the word “theory”. A theory is generally a set of principles or methods, an abstract concept that can be presented independent of its subject matter, as a kind of framework; much like scaffolding around a building.

Theory in counselling refers to distinct sets of concepts, techniques and presuppositions that form a therapeutic approach. Depending on which theory a counsellor works in, this theory determines how they interact with a client to help them overcome their presenting problems and the language and methods they use to do this. The theory that a counsellor uses also determines the point in the client’s life that is looked at, and which other factors are taken into consideration during treatment.

Why is theory important in counselling work?

As I wrote above, it is used as a framework upon which the counsellor and client can develop their relationship and ease the client’s inner turmoil. As an example, the basic framework of Person-centred counselling states that there are “necessary and sufficient conditions of Therapeutic personality change”. These are:

• A counsellor that is congruent in themselves
• A counsellor that strives for an empathic understanding of the client
• A counsellor experiences unconditional positive regard for the client
• A client that is incongruent in themselves and/or has a presenting problem(s)
• The psychological relationship between the counsellor and client
• The communication of the counsellors empathy and unconditional positive regard towards the client

Briefly, these core conditions are congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard. It must be noted that these conditions are almost universal throughout all major theories, almost like Person-centred counselling is the theory at the heart of all other theories. If all else fails, a Person-centred counsellor can fall back on the core conditions, and know that nothing else is needed. In this way, a theory is like the foundations of a building – it can provide consistency from session to session, throughout the entire therapeutic relationship, and is something to build the relationship on. Working with a theory also provides an overarching focus over the therapeutic relationship. It charts a course, sets the sails and then it’s out in to the open sea. I clearly love using colourful analogies in my writing.

Most counsellors have a favourite or preferred theory that they specialise in, and if this preferred theory aligns with their professional outlook then it contributes to their way of being. This is very congruent behaviour, and says a lot about them.

Angelo V. Boy and Gerald J. Pine published a paper in 1983 entitled Counselling: Fundamentals of Theoretical Renewal, and in it, they cited the six functions of theory in counselling as being:

1. It helps counsellors find unity and relatedness within the diversity of existence
2. It compels counsellors to examine relationships they would otherwise overlook
3. It gives counsellors operational guidelines by which to work and helps them evaluate their development as professionals
4. It helps counsellors focus on relevant information and tells them what to look for
5. It helps counsellors assist clients in the effective modification of their behaviour, cognitions, emotional functioning, and interpersonal relationships
6. It helps counsellors evaluate both old and new approaches to the process of counselling

Some theories are quite clear in their limitations. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does not tend to delve into a client’s past too much; it focuses on the here-and-now. If a client seeing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist in private practise wanted to explore their childhood, then referring them to a counsellor that works with a psychodynamic theory would probably lead to a much more productive outcome. This is massively helpful for both the counsellor and client. Knowledge of theories is useful for counsellors to recognise their own limitations as well.

Theory, as a set of principles and ethical standards, can keep both the client and the counsellor safe. It can provide a set of policies and procedures that ensure the wellbeing of both parties. Different theories have different vocabularies, which sometimes mingle and overlap, but it is the fact that they provide that language in the first place that is most important; a client can often have trouble finding words for the concepts they feel in their heads.

As an illustration of how theories can differ, the following two theories both fall under the counselling umbrella, but they focus on very different aspects of a client’s lived experience.

The basic theory behind Cognitive Behavioural Theory is that how we think, how we feel emotions, how we interpret our bodily sensations, how we act, and the situations find ourselves in all interact together; or more specifically, that our thoughts determine our feelings and our behaviour. Negative or unrealistic thoughts can cause distress in our bodies, and skew how we interpret situations, which can then have further negative impact on how we act. It revolves around the idea that the problem is not the problem – the problem is our attitude towards the problem – and that we have the power to change our perceptions to something more positive.

The theory behind the Psychodynamic approach is that we all have an unconscious mind as well as a conscious one. It states that the unconscious mind can hold on to painful memories and feelings, which interfere with the conscious mind through the creation of cognitive defences. Psychodynamic theory also states that our personalities are split roughly into three portions:

The Id: the primal aspect that wants pleasure and it wants it now
The Superego: the part that wants to keep us safe and take no risks
The Ego: which seeks to balance the wild Id and the sensible Superego

The idea here is to bring unconscious problems into the conscious mind so they can be resolved, and the defences that are impacting on the client’s life can be dismantled, and to strengthen the Ego so it can better control the other two aspects of the client’s personality.

As you can see, while the two theories have a lot in common, and both essentially help someone deal with their problems by talking about how they think, they use wildly different techniques, have distinct vernacular and they look at different aspects of a client’s mind to heal it.

I think that the many different theories are fascinating, especially when I consider how they all overlap and interweave. The role they play in counselling is so important; I see them as sets of tools that can access different parts of a client’s mind. It reminds me of the Self Puzzle I did on the level 2 course – each theory would work with a different aspect of my mind. I have looked a little bit into other theories that we have not studied on this course, and each one is as unique as the three we have covered, they are so diverse.

I think counsellors need to take theory into account in their counselling work because it gives them a set of best practises to adhere to, a frame of reference to work with, and an end goal to work towards. Practical counselling skills, such as asking open-ended questions and actively listening are useful on their own, but they become really powerful when they are used with a well-defined purpose in mind. Theories provide these well-defined purposes. Knowledge of the many different counselling theories, and how and when to apply them, combined with effective use of practical counselling skills, facilitates real change within the therapeutic relationship.

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