On Developing a Process Focus in Counseling

Where we focus is where our energy goes. So we want to ensure that when we are conducting a counseling session we are focusing our attention on the most relevant and potentially helpful issue or issues for our clients. This is critical if we are going to create an experience that offers the most therapeutic benefit to our client.

Ask yourself the following questions: What grabs your attention when you are working with a client? What issues deserve your attention? What issues don’t? These questions are critical because they will help you identify if what you are doing is consistent with the outcome you are hoping to produce.

When I am working with a client I use the following attitudes to focus my attention:

  • I focus most of my attention on the process that is unfolding moment to moment because I want to promote an awareness of the power of the process of awareness.

  • I listen to what the client is not saying or to what is missing in his behavior that will help him cope more effectively and organize himself better.

  • I know that the problem is never the problem; the real problem is how we are coping.

    I will discuss each of these points in turn.


    The Moment-to-Moment Unfolding of the Process

    We often talk about the here and now as though it was a static event, but it is not. It moves from moment to moment and reveals (to a trained eye) all that we need to know to help a client. Dr. Walter Kempler, my mentor, used to tell me that in the first five minutes of a session the client will tell you what is wrong and what she needs to do to function better. This historical approach to counseling is grounded in the notion that it is what we do or don’t do right now that will determine our wellbeing.

    I’d like to use a case study to make my point. This past weekend I was doing a demonstration of this approach to counseling with a young man who was working with one of the students in my training group. This young man was quite shy and presented himself with a forced smile and a quiet voice. I asked him to be aware of the volume of his voice and the smile on his face, but I didn’t dwell on it because it would have made him even more self-conscious than he already felt sitting in front of a group of therapists.

    When I asked him what he would like to get from this time together he identified his lack of self-confidence as the most important issue for him to address. I typically invite a client to be more specific than this but he couldn’t – he froze and couldn’t think of any specific incident where he felt a lack of self-confidence. He was overwhelmed with his anxiety and he shut down. I said to him that we didn’t need another example because it was happening for him right now. Because I was able to identify the process in the here and now I was able to help him unpack how he undermined his confidence.

    I had him externalize the conflict he was experiencing. He was torn between a part of himself that was telling him how he should behave by criticizing and chastising the other part of himself that just agreed with the bully that he should be different than who he was. This was the process that was causing his lack of self-confidence. We cannot be confident if we are putting ourselves down. Self-confidence is the result of learning to stand with oneself rather than act against oneself.

    I noticed at one point in the dialogue, when he was being the top dog part of himself, that he looked sad. I asked him to speak to his sadness. He said that he felt bad because he had nothing to offer himself other than criticism. He didn’t know how to be supportive and stand with himself. After declaring this reality he started to cry, a really deep sadness surfaced because he had nothing to offer himself. When he switched and became the underdog, he immediately reached out with compassion to that part of himself and then, unexpectedly, a huge, authentic smile appeared on his face. He spontaneously stated that he realized that what he thought was the stronger part of him wasn’t as together as he thought it was and that this part of himself that he was ashamed of was actually something he, at that moment, felt very proud of. His voice changed and he immediately felt more self-confident than ever before.

    Everything I needed to help this young man better organize himself was present in the process that unfolded in the here and now.

    Listen to What a Client Isn’t Saying or Ask Yourself What is Missing

    What a client isn’t saying helps me understand the next developmental step that a client needs to take to become more mature, integrated, and self-supporting. In the case example above, the client didn’t know how to stand for himself against the top dog. All he could do was to try to control the top dog by being the underdog. This futile self-improvement game kept him stuck and unable to develop any true self-confidence.

    Another concept that helps me identify what a client isn’t saying is to ask myself what was missing. When I think back to the session I described above, what was missing was the client’s ability to stand for himself and own his shyness without the other part of him making him feel bad for who he was. He falsely believed he needed to be someone other than himself to be OK, when in truth he needed to own who he was and stand with himself to be OK.

    The Problem is Never the Problem

    Virginia Satir reminded us that the problem was never the problem; the problem was how we were coping. In order to identify how a client is coping we need to understand the client’s process. It is what a client is doing and how they are doing it that will help us identify what is missing.

    Using the tools that I described above can help you see where the real problem lies – which is to say that the real problem is discovered in the client’s process, not in the problem they are facing regardless of how painful or traumatic that problem may be.

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