A Relationally-Oriented Evidence-Based Practice Model for Mental Health Counselors

This paper is an adapted summary and extension of an article recently published in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling (April, 2015, pp. 95-108). The original article was titled: Evidence-Based Relationship Practice: Enhancing Counselor Competence. This abbreviation and adaptation is primarily designed to summarize the content, but also to focus more directly on the implications of developing an evidence-based model especially for mental health counselors. This paper ends with an “Appendix” outlining specific parameters of an evidence-based mental health counseling model. The Appendix material isn’t in the original article. If you’re a member of the American Mental Health Counseling Association, you can find the original article here: https://amhca.site-ym.com/?JMHCv37n2


There are two domains that serve as a foundation for all competent mental health practice. These are:

1. Ethical practice
2. Multicultural sensitivity.

Professional counselors must practice ethically. At minimum, this means abiding by the ACA (2014) and American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA; 2010) ethical codes. Ponton and Duba (2009) referred to this commitment as a covenant professional counselors have with and for their clients.

Traditional theoretical perspectives must be modified or expanded to address cultural diversity (J. Sommers-Flanagan, Hays, Gallardo, Poyralzi, Sue, & Sommers-Flanagan, 2009). Clients should not be expected to adapt to their counselor’s theory; rather, counselors should adapt their theory or approach to fit clients (Gallardo, 2013). Although multicultural competence is an ethical mandate, the need to embrace multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills is also a practical reality. [The original article lists six evidence-based ways in which mental health counselors can adapt their counseling services to be more multiculturally sensitive.]

Evidence-Based Counselor Competence

Given the nature of professional counseling and counselor identity, it seems obvious that mental health counselors should embrace a model for counseling competence and EBP that emphasizes therapeutic relationships. That is why the model I propose considers both theoretically and empirically supported relationship factors and specific interventions (procedures). . . .

The reality is that relational acts and treatment methods are so closely interwoven that in counseling sometimes it is difficult to discern which is operating at a given moment (Lambert & Ogles, 2014). Consequently, the following Relationship-Oriented Evidence-Based Practice (ROEBP) behavioral descriptions incorporate both relational and technical components. The ROEBP behavior list primarily focuses on evidence-based relationship factors, although these relational factors are nearly always teamed with technical procedures.

Evidence-Based Relationship Factors

Each mental health counselor will inevitably display therapeutic relational factors in unique ways that may be difficult for other practitioners to replicate, because anything relational or interpersonal is alive, automatically unique, and therefore resists sterile descriptive language. Nevertheless, counselors can implement the following core relational attitudes and behaviors in their own unique manner and still adhere to EBP principles.

Congruence and Genuineness

In mental health counseling, the counselor is the instrument through which treatment is provided. This is probably why Rogers’s original core condition of congruence (1957) is still central to counseling efficacy. However, because Natalie Rogers (Sommers-Flanagan, 2007) once told me that she believed very few mental health professionals in the U.S. really understand her father’s work, let me make four brief points about congruence [You can read the original article to get the details on this].

The Working Alliance

In 1979, Bordin described the working alliance as a three-dimensional and pan-theoretical therapeutic factor. The three dimensions were (a) forming an emotional bond; (b) counselor-client goal-consensus or agreement; and (c) task collaboration. Researchers have affirmed that these working alliance dimensions contribute to positive treatment outcomes (Horvath, Re, Flückiger, and Symonds, 2011). [Practical ways in which mental health counselors can apply these three dimensions in their work are described in the article.]

Unconditional Positive Regard or Radical Acceptance

Originally, Rogers (1957) described unconditional positive regard as the counselor “experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience” (p. 98). This is, of course, often impossible. Though unconditional positive regard is easy and natural when counselor and client values are aligned, the competent counselor recognizes that there will be many discrepancies, small or large, between what the counselor thinks is right and what the client thinks is right. I recall a Pakistani Muslim supervisee who reported that hearing people talk about being gay or lesbian made her feel physically nauseated. To her credit, she worked through this (over a period of two years) and was able to embrace an accepting attitude. . . .

In addition to Rogers’s work, I’ve found Marsha Linehan’s dialectical behavior therapy concept of radical acceptance (1993) very helpful. As someone who has logged many counseling hours with clients who display challenging behaviors, remembering radical acceptance helps me greet even the most extreme and disagreeable (to me) client statements with a genuine accepting response (usually something like, “Thanks so much for sharing that with me and being so honest about what you think”).

Empathic Understanding

You should already be thoroughly familiar with Rogers’s ideas about empathy and the robust empirical support for empathy as a contributor to positive counseling outcomes. However, one important caveat about empathy is that the personal feelings of counselors and ratings of their own empathy are relatively unimportant. What matters is whether and how much clients experience their counselors as empathic. This is a crucial distinction. It is all too easy for all humans—including counselors—to focus on their side of interpersonal experiences. When it comes to whether empathy is a facilitative therapy condition, it is the client’s judgment of whether the counselor was empathic that predicts positive outcomes. . . .

Rupture and Repair

Getting it wrong is a natural part of life and counseling. There will always be empathic misses, poorly timed disclosures, and intermittent disengagement. These should be viewed as inevitable problems in the working alliance. As in many other areas of life, tension in the counselor-client relationship offers both danger and opportunity.

The danger is that counselors will ignore, overlook, or be unaware of relationship tensions or ruptures, in which case clients will be more likely to drop out of counseling and outcomes will be adversely affected. But the chance to correct our missteps is an unparalleled therapeutic opportunity. It involves the powerful process of self-correction and refocusing on the client and the counselor-client relationship. . . .

Although there are many ways to repair or work through relationship rupture, the original article discusses two overarching approaches.

Managing Countertransference

Thirty years ago Steve de Shazer (1984) not only reported that “resistance” had died as a therapeutic concept, he held a funeral for it in his backyard. Similarly, some counselors and psychotherapists might like to bury the whole idea of countertransference, putting it out of sight and out of mind. However, renaming or ignoring constructs will not make them go away.

Counselors are more effective when they are aware of and deal with their own unresolved emotional and behavioral reactions (Hayes, Gelso, & Hummel, 2011). Personal counseling or psychotherapy, clinical supervision, participation in peer supervision groups—such practices can help counselors become aware of and gracefully work through their countertransference reactions.

Implementing In- and Out-of-Session Procedures

Proponents of ESTs and EBP emphasize the importance of employing specific psychological or behavioral procedures with clients. Among the procedures that have empirical support are relaxation, exposure, behavioral activation, and problem-solving (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2012). In addition, some procedures, such as eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), have significant empirical support even though it is not clear whether the eye movements themselves or other parts of the tightly controlled EMDR protocol are the “active” ingredients. To be consistent with an evidence-based mental health counseling model, professional counselors should implement empirically supported procedures, but should do so using a collaborative interpersonal process. . . .

Progress Monitoring

Progress monitoring (PM) is a relatively new phenomenon on the evidence-based scene. PM is robustly related to positive outcomes and relatively easy to apply (Meier, 2015). Although not covered by many professional counseling publications, all practicing counselors should integrate some form of PM into their practice.

PM simply means that, formally or informally, counselors consistently check with clients about “how things are going.” Data from empirical studies consistently show, however, that practitioners who use formal progress monitoring rating scales tend to have both more favorable outcomes and fewer negative outcomes or treatment failures (Meier, , 2015). . . .

Concluding Comments

Mental health counselors can and should integrate evidence-based approaches into their practice. Although it might be useful for counselors to seek training in ESTs, embracing and applying evidence-based relationships as a core component of counselor competency is more consistent with professional counselor identity. The purpose of making this distinction and providing the information in this article is to advocate for an alternative evidence-based identity—one that counselors can more wholeheartedly embrace.

In this article I focused on nine relational factors that are empirically linked to positive counseling outcomes. This is only a beginning. Research will continue, and for space reasons I neglected several dimensions of counselor-client relational interactions that are consistent with professional counselor identity. For example, other than a brief discussion of PM, I did not address the potential merits and problems of formal assessment. In the future I would hope for a more distinct assessment model that specifies how counselors interact with clients, emphasizing transparency and collaboration. But that discussion must wait for another day. Until then, I wish you all the best as you incorporate relationally-oriented evidence-based counseling principles into the exceptionally important services you provide.

References are included in the original article


[This is added material]

A General Practice Model for Evidence-Based Mental Health Counseling

Different professional groups use different terminology for describing their usual and customary standards for clinical practice. In psychology “empirically-supported” is often, but not always used as a means for identifying an approach that meets scientifically-based standards. Physicians and psychiatrists establish “practice parameters” for treating specific disorders. For example, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has a Committee on Quality Issues that has generated practice parameters for depressive disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, multicultural competency, and many other areas of child and adolescent psychiatric clinical practice.

Given that psychology and medicine have their own language for referring to evidence-based standards, it might be useful for professional counseling to come up with its own terminology. This would be terminology that reflects an emphasis on achieving wellness (rather than the medical model) as well as the relational emphasis consistent with counseling. In the Journal of Mental Health Counseling article I referred to this as: Relationship-Oriented Evidence-Based Practice (ROEBP). This isn’t bad, but I’m guessing someone might be able to do better at capturing counselor identity within an evidence-based practice.

Here’s a first try at outlining an ROEBP for mental health counseling. I recognize that this is mostly a rough outline, but also believe that any practice guidelines that are established for professional mental health counselors should be broad so as to include many different and unique styles that exist among individual counselors.

1. All mental health counselors embrace their professional ethical guidelines and use multicultural sensitivity and appropriate multicultural adaptations when working with individual clients. These foundational competencies and commitments must be present for a professional counselor to claim he or she is practicing evidence-based mental health counseling.

2. Mental health counseling is initiated using a collaborative informed consent process. This process should include both written informed consent (consistent with HIPAA), but also verbal interactions to help make every specific counselors approach and style explicit to prospective clients.

3. When referral information is available to mental health counselors, at least some of this information is shared directly with clients using a positive and strength-based format and interaction.

4. Mental health counselors intentionally employ empirically-supported relationship factors throughout counseling. These include, but may not be limited to:

a. Having an office-setting and interpersonal demeanor that contributes to the development of a positive emotional bond between client and counselor

b. Developing a list of mutually agreed upon problems or goals that constitute the main focus of counseling. This involves a collaborative and empathic process.

c. Working with clients on in-session tasks or procedures that are explicitly linked to the mutually agreed upon counseling problems or goals.

d. Congruence and Genuineness

e. Unconditional Positive Regard or Radical Acceptance

f. Empathic Understanding

g. Managing Ruptures and Engaging in Repair

h. Managing Countertransference

5. Recognizing that clients are sometimes drawn toward and benefit from the application of specific therapeutic procedures, mental health counselors seek permission to use these procedures with clients if they are appropriate for the remediation of a particular problem and/or for client personal growth. The procedures employed should be empirically supported. If they are not empirically-supported (e.g., procedures from energy psychology) clients should be informed that the procedure may be promising, but is not a standard and accepted counseling procedure.

6. Mental health counselors use either a formal or informal progress monitoring procedure to consistently check with clients regarding the client’s perception of counseling progress.

Feel free to email me at john.sf@mso.umt.edu with comments about this article summary and ideas about evidence-based mental health counseling practice.


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