verbIt is easy to confuse the noun “counsel” (i.e., the content of the advice we offer) with the verb “counseling” (i.e., the relationship through which that content is communicated). This confusion often accounts for whether people view counseling as something that is complex or simple.

The questions people ask when attending a counseling seminar often reveal an emphasis on content (noun) over relationship (verb). They want to know, “What do you say to someone who is depressed… whose spouse has been unfaithful… who is struggling to bond with their step-child, etc…?” They want to know the particular passages or truth they need to communicate in order to make change happen; or, at least, make change easier.

With this mindset, if they do not feel like they know “the answer” before the conversation begins they frequently shy away from the conversation. After all, without “the answer” what does a counselor have to offer? Let’s use an illustration in order to challenge this noun-only view of counseling.

Imagine you are at a large baseball stadium and a child approaches you crying. He has become separated from his parents. Do you know the answer to his question, “Where is my mommy and daddy?!?” No. Can you help him? Yes. Why? You care enough to walk through a wise process of identifying a solution: remaining calm, finding a police officer, and waiting while an announcement for parents is made.

This is often what goes on in counseling. The counselee comes with a situational, emotional, or relational crisis for which there is no immediate, obvious answer. So what does the counselor do? Remains calm. Asks questions until the struggle is understood. Directs the counselee to resources that are beneficial. Waits with them through the process of change.

Sometimes counseling is more answer oriented than what is described above. But, if in a given counseling situation, you are intimidated by the noun “counsel” (i.e., what to say), it is often sufficient, even advisable, to rely on the verb “counseling” (i.e., developing a quality relationship of understanding) before offering advice.

Now let’s flip the script and approach the same noun-verb distinction from the opposite angle.

Simple Counsel; Complex Counseling

How hard can counseling be? Really, “healthy” doesn’t change that much. Honestly, 90% of counseling problems could probably be remedied with this prescription.

  1. Get 50 hours of sleep per week
  2. Don’t spend money more than you earn
  3. Don’t consume more calories than you burn; which means exercise a few times per week
  4. Treat other people like you want to be treated
  5. Don’t engage in long-term, high-commitment relationships with people who won’t follow this rule
  6. When you are offended, forgive instead of harboring bitterness
  7. Take yourself less seriously without surrendering your personal dignity
  8. Don’t do things you would tell your kids not to do
  9. Invest most intently in the relationships that are most meaningful (spouse, kids, parents, close friends)
  10. Invest your time in the things that will matter a decade from now

Secular or sacred, those ten points cover the basic content of counseling. Meaning, if people would actually follow those basic principles, they would not find themselves with many life-dominating problems. Regardless of what the counseling issue may be (i.e., emotional, relational, identity, etc…) some combination of these recommendations is given in most cases.

This brings me to my first point:

Solutions are usually less complex than problems; that’s why we dismiss them.

Most people prefer a pyramid scheme to a family budget and a fad diet to a gym membership. Somehow we feel like it “honors” the mess we’ve made if the solution requires advanced math or a confusing diagram.

But here’s what we must remember:

Solutions must be simple to be sustainable.
There’s not much hope in complex change schemes.

So does that mean advanced degrees in counseling are a charade? I don’t think so. While counsel (that content of good advice) must be simple, counseling (walking with someone in the process of change) can be complex. Yes, this is the inverse of the noun-verb relationship with which this post began.

But pain is often complex – the nightmares and flashbacks of PTSD, the phone call from creditors and difficult decisions of bankruptcy, the battle with your own loss of hope and motivation during an extended bout with depression, the looming unpredictability of panic attacks, or the mixed allegiances and priorities of a blended family.

The importance of the 10 prescriptions above does not change, but the ability of a counselor to understand a counselee’s experience, win their trust, help them see the relevance of “healthy” for their particular struggle, and maintain focus when life resists the changes that are needed is the hard part.

For instance, take the example of panic attacks. The “ten points of healthy” would be immensely beneficial for anyone who has experienced high levels of anxiety. But to start a “just do this” conversation with someone who lives bracing against the next time their mind/body revolts would likely be dismissed and (rightly) viewed as simplistic, uncaring, and “missing something important.”

However, if you can help this person

  • identify the areas of their life that are creating the most stress,
  • help them see how this stress accumulates to the point of panic,
  • eliminate, if not present, other possible causes of panic (i.e., PTSD or drug reaction),
  • weigh the alleviation of stress medication may provide, and
  • identify the priorities and values that undergird any unhealthy contributing lifestyle factors,

then you are in a position to give them counsel (practical steps to change their life, which will sound a great deal like the 10 simple points above) that is much more likely to be both heard and implemented.

Their trust in you and better understanding of themselves will have gained a hearing for living a healthy life and considering how their priorities and value (those things that emanate from the heart) revealed a lifestyle that was trying to seek comfort or identity outside the person of Jesus Christ.

Final Question

Which is harder, the noun “counsel” or the verb “counseling”? That answer is “it depends.” Either can be the more complex-intimidating aspect of helping a given individual. Hopefully, after reading this post you are better equipped to do three things.

  • Identify whether the content of advice or the guidance through relationship is what is more challenging in a given counseling session.
  • Understand how the verb “counseling” (i.e., relationship of trust and understanding through which guidance is given) undergirds the noun “counsel” (i.e., the content of the advice we provide).
  • Rest in the fact that even if the content of what you need to say is unclear, you can be significantly helpful by building a quality relationship of trust and understanding.