Here is our question, “How much and, in what ways, does a counselor’s personality impact the effectiveness of counseling?” That is a fascinating question. It is a question we could approach from a dozen different angles. I would encourage you, before you read further, to pause and think about the different ways you are prone to approach this question.
For clarity, here is an angle we are not taking. We are not asking whether personality variables should change the content of our counsel. It is not that an extrovert should say one thing to a person struggling with depression and an introvert should say something else. That would center counseling on the personality of the counselor. The counselor is not, or at least shouldn’t be, the main character of the counseling relationship.
Instead, we will be considering how the personality of the counselor impacts the effectiveness of counseling via trust and rapport built with the counselee. We will also consider how the personality may impact the effectiveness of counseling based on the type of life struggle the counselee is seeking to overcome.
Here is where we will start. We must acknowledge that counselors have personalities. Counselors are somewhere on the introversion-extroversion spectrum. Counselors have some innate level of risk aversion or risk enjoyment. Counselors, to some degree or another, value logic more or less than emotions. Counselors have a preference that their life be organized or spontaneous. To put is simply, counselors are people too.
This pushes us to realize that personality encompasses more than the differences between introverts and extroverts. The less we understand the variety of non-moral values that comprise someone’s personality structure (a more robust concept then personality type), the more our personality is prone to negatively impact our counseling. When we can’t articulate what accounts for our differences from another person, the more we are prone to think our preferences that impact how we approach their challenge is how things ought to be.
Often in Christian circles, we think that if our counsel is “right” (that is, biblically grounded and theologically faithful) that is will inherently be “effective.” This conceptualizes counseling as a riddle; getting the right answers to the puzzling question of what makes each counselee’s life difficult. But this misses the journey aspect of counseling. A good map doesn’t remove the skills necessary to traverse the terrain of someone’s life and relationships. What we are exploring here is focused on counseling-as-journey more than counseling-as-riddle.
It is fair to assume that the counselor’s personality qualities impact the counseling journey. These qualities can impact the questions a counselor asks, what seems “off” in a given conversation, whether a counselor intuitively resonates with the way a counselee approaches life, and how much a counselee feels understood by or trusts the counselor. To put it simply, counselees aren’t blind; they pick up on the counselor’s personality.
This brings us to our first evaluative question, “As a counselor, how much rigidity or elasticity do we have with the preferences tied to our personality?” The reality is some of us would have to say “more” others will say “less.” Some of us have a hard time getting outside of our natural way of thinking and relating. Others of us are good at perspective taking; that is, the skill of being able to mentally-emotionally enter another person’s world and experience it as they experience it.
Perhaps in ministry circles, we might be prone to distinguish those whose ministry instincts trend towards truth telling versus those who instincts more naturally emanate compassion. This is another personality spectrum. Both truth telling and compassion are good. Both can be developed as a skill. But for most people, they more naturally lean in one direction or the other. Again, you should be able to see how this could influence the effectiveness of counseling; a grieving person would prefer a compassionately-bent counselor while someone in the throes of addiction might benefit more from a counselor prone to cut through deflections.
But now we ask, “Is this effect permanent? Can it be changed? Can someone with one personality effectively counsel those whose struggle might benefit from the strengths of another personality?” I will risk using an athletic metaphor to explore this question. Don’t worry, even if you’re not a sports person, I think the concept will be relatable. Imagine with me the progression of a young baseball player learning to hit.
- Growth Phase One: When a child first starts to play baseball their natural swing hits everything in the same direction. For a right-handed hitter, that is usually towards the third base side of the field. If they get a pitch that can/should be hit that direction (i.e., on the inside half of the plate), they hit it well. If not, they miss it. Their swing (i.e., their natural personality in this metaphor) largely determines their success.
- Growth Phase Two: As a player matures, their next phase of development is the ability to “hit the ball where it’s pitched.” They understand that hitting an inside pitch is different than hitting an outside pitch and the adjustments that go along with it. Now, the pitch determines the results of their at-bat.
- Growth Phase Three: Finally, a player matures to the point that the game situation determines where they hit the ball. The player learns how to adjust their swing to hit an inside pitch to the first base side of the field if that is what the situation needs (I recognize this is getting complicated, but its almost over). Now, the game situation determines the result of their at-bat.
Now, let’s use this as a parallel for the development of a counselor and how their personality impacts the counseling relationship.
- Growth Phase One: Initially a counselor’s personality has a large impact on the effectiveness of counseling. When the counseling process is new, the attention given to facilitating the session, distracts the counselor from being intentional in how he/she engages the counselee. The result is that the natural bent and tone of the counselor becomes the dominate tone of the session. When the needs of the counselee match the personality of the counselor things go really well. If not, things go less well.
- Growth Phase Two: As the counselor matures, their ability to match their tone to the type of struggle a counselee is experiencing improves. This is partly due to the counselor being less overwhelmed by cognitive requirements of managing a session and partly due to growth in their understanding of various life struggles. To oversimplify, the counselor takes on a compassionate disposition for suffering-based struggles and a loving-but-firmer disposition for struggles rooted in personal responsibility and resistance.
- Growth Phase Three: At this level of counselor development, the counselor can intentionally adapt their dispositional approach not only to the life struggle (one dominant disposition for the duration of the counseling relationship), but to the emotional ebb and flow within each session. For example, the counselor may be, overall, more firm with their counselee experiencing addiction, but more compassionate towards vulnerable disclosures of hardship that are not made as an excuse for relapse.
Part of the benefit of our baseball metaphor is that it helps us realize we are discussing a skill. Just like a baseball player can swing a bat for years and not improve if they are resistant to instruction, a counselor can meet with people for hundreds of hours and not grow in their perspective taking ability if they remain rigid in their personality preferences. But also like a baseball player can make significant improvement when they realize the importance of a small adjustment, so can a counselor.
With that in mind, I will leave you with four questions to help you grow in the skill of adapting your dispositional qualities in a way that best serve your counselee.
- Can you see the strengths of each personality variance? When we can see the good in personality qualities that are not intuitive to us, our conscience is less likely to be aggravated as we counsel in a way that affirms these qualities in our counselee. When we do this, we are not being fake. We are embodying (i.e., incarnating) our understanding of our counselee.
- Do you have the ability to enter other people’s experience? You can practice this skill of counseling when you’re not counseling. If you are a person who prefers structure, can you “feel alongside” someone who describes the joy of spontaneity? If you are a person who prefers spontaneity, can you savor the satisfaction that comes with a well-executed plan maximizing the efficiency of a project? In casual relationships, this is an expression of loving our neighbor as ourselves. In formal helping relationships, it is an essential skill for building rapport and trust which foster change.
- Can you distinguish each person have their own values from each person having their own morality? This is where we, as Christians, often get tentative. Personality variables are non-moral qualities. The difference between being an introvert or extrovert is not like the difference between being prideful or humble. It would be a moral compromise and disservice to our counselee to embody and affirm a domineering attitude (i.e., an immoral quality). The ability to distinguish personality traits from moral expressions is an essential skill of counseling.
- Do you understand your role as helping each person make the decisions that steward their life best? As counselors, we are not guiding people towards what we would do in their situation. Our personality, life context, skillsets, and a myriad of other factors are different. What is a good fit choice for us may not be a good fit choice for our counselee. Decentering how we think about the challenges our counselee is facing from our preferences is a foundational difference between being a friend answering the question “What would you do in my situation?” and being a counselor.
As with any skill growth material, there are two questions you should ask yourself at this point: (1) Where am I now? and (2) What is the next step in my growth? As you look at the phased growth model we developed, which best fits how you relate to your counselees? Don’t let the fact that there is a next step create an insecurity that throttles your self-awareness. Based on where you are, what are the skills you can begin to practice decentering your personality from your counseling relationships? This doesn’t devalue the strengths of your personality, which are real and good. It honors counseling for the unique relationship that it is.How much and, in what ways, does a counselor’s personality impact the effectiveness of counseling? Click To Tweet
This article was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “The Counselor’s Personality and the Effectiveness of Counseling” The webinar will be Thursday August 12th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.
These are great events for:
- Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
- Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
- Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
- Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
- Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times