Have you noticed that you have different kinds of conversations with the people close to you? You have planning conversations, reflective conversations, playful conversations, problem solving conversations, etc.

Chances are, you “just know” when you’re having a particular type of conversation, but occasionally you get off – perhaps one of you thinking you’re having a reflective conversation while the other thinks it’s a problem solving conversation – and it creates tension.

In a purposeful relationship like counseling, it can be helpful to know different types of helpful conversations that can be had. There are at least three benefits that emerge from identifying different types of helpful conversations.

  1. Helps you orient the counselee to the counseling process. Think of this as therapeutic hospitality.
  2. Helps you identify what type of conversation best fits a given moment. This allows you to be intentional within a given counseling session.
  3. Helps you assess whether you are displaying balance in the type of care you are providing. This helps you evaluate your counseling ministry as a whole.

For the purposes of this article, we will consider four types of helpful conversations. It may be more accurate to think of these as four elements that can exist within any given conversation. This list is not exhaustive, but meant to provide some initial categories to assist you in thinking about type of counseling conversations.


Assessment conversations revolve around questions like: What is going on? What is most important? What is the cause of a given life struggle? What secondary, contributive influences make the life struggle worse or better? Who is available to help? Who bears responsibility for the various elements of the life struggle? What categories (i.e., sin, suffering, wisdom decision, preference, biology, addiction, etc.) provide the most accurate lens for understanding the struggle? How motivated is the counselee to make the changes being discussed? Is the sin being discussed just immoral, or is it also illegal? Are there reasons to be concerned for a counselee’s safety?

In assessment conversations, it is better to think of beneficial answers being “accurate” instead of “right.” The question is whether we have accurately articulated the experience of the counselee rather whether we have made theologically true statements. Accuracy about the counselee is a first step towards theological rightness about what should happen next.

If we neglect assessment conversations (usually meaning we pick up with whatever the presenting problem the counselee provides), then we can give good advice in ways that are counter-productive to what needs to happen first/most.

Quality assessment conversations cultivate greater confidence within the counselee for the guidance provided and, thereby, increases counselee’s efforts at implementing what is advised. While assessment is the primary focus early in a new counseling relationship, it is something that is being perpetually refined and verified throughout the counseling relationship.

Character Formation

Character formation conversations revolve around questions of holiness: What temptations exist within this hardship? What would Christ-likeness look like in your situation? What are you learning about God as you grow due to this experience? What actions, thoughts, or beliefs do you need to repent of? What would faith, hope, and love look like in your context?

Character formation conversations are encouraging in nature when virtue is identified in the life of the counselee and directive in nature when vice is discovered.

If we skip or neglect character formation conversations, then we help counselees become more functional in their area of struggle without helping them understand the moral significance of honoring God in our day-to-day choices and relationships; counselees miss the life-as-worship principle that undergirds biblical counseling.

Quality character formation conversations tend to be very practical and allow for direct Bible references to support the advisements being made.

Narrative Reframing

Narrative reframing conversations revolve around how we understand the “little events” and “key characters” contributing to the “big story” of our life: What makes life meaningful to you? Why was that event encouraging or discouraging? Do you view God as for you or against you? How do you respond to or make sense of suffering? How do you determine if actions are good or bad? Why do key people in your life play the role (have the power) that they do? What makes the sacrifices you’re making “worth it” to you?

Narrative reframing conversations often address motives and meaning of life issues. If character formation conversations address “what” we should do (i.e., obedience), narrative reframing examines the “why” questions (i.e., trust and worship) that would be necessary to undergird these changes.

If we neglect narrative reframing, then counseling can easily feel legalistic or behavior-focused. However, for counselees who struggle with abstract thinking, narrative reframing can seem difficult to connect with.

Quality narrative reframing conversations tend to be more theological and allow us to discuss “the big picture” of how the gospel makes sense of life.

Relief-Focused Conversations

Relief-focused conversations revolve around: How do we help a counselee alleviate hardships that character formation and narrative reframing do not remove? How do we help a counselee with life interferences that Christ-likeness and good theology do not resolve?

Relief-focused conversations are usually targeted at the effects of suffering or consequences of sin that repentance does not resolve.

  • An example of the former would be sensory exercises for a traumatized counselee to ground themselves in the “here and now” during a flashback when their five senses are registering information from “then and there” as if it were happening now.
  • An example of the latter would be managing the withdrawal symptoms or cravings related to addiction which persist after repenting of the excessive, self-destructive behavior.

If we neglect relief-focused conversations, then we inadvertently communicate that holiness and good theology are all that is needed to navigate a broken world, or that God cares more about our character (sin) than He does our suffering.

Quality relief-focused conversations tend to be very pragmatic. Often they require a well-studied understanding of how the different aspects of the body-soul relationship or how major experiences (e.g., trauma) impact people. In order to counter the impact of profound suffering or life-dominating sin, we need to understand how those experiences impact us.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which of these four types of counseling conversations are you most/least skilled in? Which do you default to in counseling conversations?
  2. How does having an awareness of different types of helpful conversations help you to be a more hospitable host for your counselees?
  3. What other types of conversations would you add to the list and how would you describe them?

This article was originally released on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog on May 1, 2019.