Challenge in counselling
The skill of challenge in counselling is also sometimes known as the skill of confrontation.
Challenge in counselling is used to…
Definition of Challenge in Counselling
Definitions can be dry, but they’re useful and necessary when writing assignments. Such a definition of challenge/confrontation might be: ‘When the counsellor highlights an incongruence between the client’s verbal and nonverbal communication so as to facilitate the client’s awareness of conflicts relating to particular issues/topics’. In other words, it’s about highlighting what the client is bringing, and showing the incongruence/mismatch so that the client can see that for themselves and choose to move from rigidity to fluidity, experiencing a moment of movement and questioning what is going on for them.
Purpose of Challenge
To me, the words ‘challenge’ and ‘confrontation’ don’t fit with my understanding of counselling. If I look to the dictionary definition of challenge’.
We see words like ‘disagree’, ‘dispute’ and ‘take issue with’.
The last thing I want to be doing in a counselling session is confronting the client. If I’m supposed to be with a client empathically, within their frame of reference, standing next to them no matter how scary things get, confrontation just doesn’t fit.
The words also bring stuff up for me as a person. In fact, I don’t like confrontation. I feel a little panicky when I hear the word. It’s very common to hear people say, ‘I avoid confrontation.’ Yet we have this advanced skill that we should be using in counselling.
Of course ‘confront’ can also mean ‘face up to and deal with’. So maybe it’s about the client facing up to and dealing with whatever it is that’s going on for them – they’ve challenged themselves by coming to you for help. So why might we, as counsellors, use challenge within the therapeutic relationship?
Sometimes, a client – in bringing their material – might show incongruence or mismatch between their thoughts and their feelings. We can’t see this because it happens internally, but very often the client will give us a clue by saying something like, ‘I shouldn’t really be feeling like this.’ Within the emotional world of this client, they’re feeling a heaviness or pain, but within their head (cognitively), there’s a thought that’s saying, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way.’
Where else might we see a mismatch? It might be between the client’s words and body language. For example, they might say. ‘I’m OK. I can cope with this. I have no choice,’ yet the tears are streaming down their face, their head falls into their hands and they sob as they speak. So despite those words of apparent coping, the body language is very clearly showing extreme pain and emotional distress; there is a definite incongruence.
The key things to consider when challenging gently include:
How might we actually go about being able to challenge the client in a gentle way, and from their own frame of reference?
If we look back at the example of a client saying, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way,’ we could respond, ‘I hear you saying that you shouldn’t be feeling this. I hear those words coming out of your mouth, but at the same time I recognise that what you’re carrying at the moment is really heavy.’
There’s a very gentle challenge: all we’re doing is highlighting the incongruence of what the client is bringing to us within that moment. It’s not from our frame of reference as the counsellor – we are fully integrated in the client’s world. It doesn’t feel challenging, but nevertheless it is. Think of it as an invitation to the client to have a look and say, ‘Yes, I’m saying it’s OK but, my goodness, I’m feeling terrible.’ We may see a moment of movement there, where they drop that thought of ‘I shouldn’t be thinking this’ and they say, ‘Yes, it is terrible,’ fully submerged within that feeling. That incongruence can disintegrate in front of us.
We could also challenge the client who says, ‘I’m OK. I can cope with this. I have no choice,’ as the tears stream down their face. In that situation, we might say, ‘I hear you saying that you’re coping with this because you have to, yet at the same time I can’t help but notice the tears that are streaming down your face, and it feels like you’re totally broken with this.’ The client has been acknowledged for that emotion that they’re feeling, but the words that they’ve said are highlighted – that incongruence is once again brought out into the open. Again, it’s an invitation to explore that mismatch.
Using Challenge Safely
Challenge is an advanced skill. So don’t go into a first session with a client, pull out the skill of challenge and pop it right there on the table! Doing this could bring about defensiveness. It could feel like criticism to the client, and mean they feel negative, put down, and judged. I believe that if we are going to bring challenge into a session, there needs to be an established rapport. There needs to be a high level of support, so that the client perceives our unconditional positive regard (UPR) and knows that they are in a safe place when we use challenge.
Sometimes, a client may view us as the expert, with all the answers. If we challenge before we’ve built up trust and addressed the balance of power within the counselling relationship, the client could feel like there’s something wrong with them. They could leave saying, ‘Oh, there’s something really wrong with me because the expert has pointed this out to me.’ So we’ve got to be really careful when we’re using challenge.
Recognising Good Challenge
What does challenge look like when it is used properly? As noted above, good challenge is really gentle and supportive; most importantly, it accurately reflects only what the client has shared. In other words, we put aside the thoughts and feelings that may arise within us ourselves and we bring only what the client has shared with us.
In her book Skills in Person-Centred Counselling & Psychotherapy (Sage, 2016) – a book I love and would thoroughly recommend – Janet Tolan asserts that by the counsellor demonstrating the core conditions of empathy, congruence and UPR, challenge naturally arises within the client’s self-concept.
For example, the client may believe that crying is a sign of weakness. So they tend to block their pain, swallowing their emotion – they don’t want to show this to the world because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. Of course, this is a faulty belief, but it feels true for the client. When the client brings their pain into the counselling room, the counsellor is fully there with them in that emotion (empathic understanding) and completely accepts it and them (UPR). This naturally challenges the client’s idea that crying is weak.
Next Steps in Challenge
In closing, I want to acknowledge that challenge in counselling is not confrontational and negative: used sensitively, it can be so supportive and positive. For example, at the end of a series of counselling sessions, a client might say, ‘Wow, I feel real movement and I’m now in a very different place.’ We might reply: ‘You know, when you came in, I noticed that you were like [that]. But now, you sit in front of me and you tell me that you are like [this].’ That is a challenge; it’s a challenge to the client to look at the progress that they have made within the therapy.
I challenge you to speak to your peers about challenge. I challenge you to look for challenge within your own life. I challenge you to record your skill sessions and look whether you’re using challenge. It is a powerful skill – an advanced skill, but a necessary one. Challenge exists in counselling.