Guidelines for Using Congruence in Counseling and Psychotherapy


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Consistent with my recent preoccupation with evidence-based relationships in counseling and psychotherapy, I’m posting a short excerpt from the 6th edition of our Clinical Interviewing textbook (check it out here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1119215587/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0)

Here’s the excerpt, coming at you from Chapter 7: Evidence-Based Relationships.

Students often have questions about how congruence sounds and looks in a clinical interview. Common questions (and brief answers) follow:

  • Does congruence mean I say what I’m really thinking in the session? [Usually not. Your thoughts may mean something important and may warrant being shared at some point, but initial spontaneous thoughts and reactions to clients should stimulate personal reflection, not immediate disclosure.]
  • What if I dislike something a client says or does? Am I being incongruent if I don’t express my dislike? [No. If you have an aversion to something your client says or does, reflect on it, rather than reacting with judgment. As Rogers (1957) recommended, if you have a negative reaction, try to transform it to your internal experience and find a way to express it in a positive manner.]
  • If I feel sexually attracted to a client, should I be “congruent” and share my feelings? [Absolutely not. As discussed in Chapter 2, you should NEVER share feelings of sexual attraction with clients. Doing so is manipulative and unethical. Deal with your sexual issues and attractions in supervision and on your own time.]

One general guideline for determining when and how to be transparent or congruent is to ask: Would the disclosure help facilitate my client’s work?  Making this decision involves relying on your clinical judgment—which is difficult for everyone, but especially for new clinicians. Too much self-disclosure—even in the service of congruence or authenticity—can muddy the assessment or therapeutic focus. The key is to maintain balance; self-disclosure in the service of congruence should be limited, purposeful, and based on solid theoretical foundations (Ziv-Beiman, 2013)

Rogers (1958) was wary about excessive self-disclosure:

Certainly the aim is not for the therapist to express or talk about his (sic) own feelings, but primarily that he should not be deceiving the client as to himself. At times he may need to talk about some of his own feelings (either to the client, or to a colleague or superior) if they are standing in the way. (pp. 133–134)

Imagine that you’re working with a client and you feel the impulse to self-disclose in the spirit of being congruent. If you’re not confident your comment will be facilitative or will keep the focus on the client, then you shouldn’t disclose. Given the challenges inherent in deciding how to be congruent, you should discuss struggles with self-disclosure with peers or supervisors. This can deepen your understanding of how to be therapeutically congruent.

Based on recommendations from the literature (Farber, 2006; Kolden et al., 2011; Ziv-Beiman, 2013) and our own clinical experiences, we offer the following guidelines for self-disclosures:

  • Examine your motives for the self-disclosure you have in mind.Is it more about you or more about your client?
  • Ask yourself if the disclosure is likely to be facilitative.
  • Ask yourself if the comment will keep the focus on the client or will it distract from the client’s process and issues?
  • Consider the possibility of a negative reaction. Could your client respond in a negative or unpredictable manner?
  • Remember, congruence doesn’t mean you say whatever comes to mind; it means that when you do speak, you do so with honesty and integrity.

Case Example 7.1:

Congruence Across Cultures

Cultural identity has many dimensions (Collins, Arthur, & Wong-Wylie, 2010). In this example, during an initial clinical interview with an African American male teenager, the clinician uses congruence across several different cultural domains.

Client: This is stupid. What do you know about me and my life?

Clinician: I think you’re saying that we’re very different and I totally agree. As you can probably guess, I’ve never been in a gang or lived in a neighborhood like yours. And you can see that I’m not a Black teenager and so I don’t know much about you and what your life is like. But I’d like to know. And I’d like to be of help to you in some way during our time together.

This clinician is being open and congruent and speaking about obvious differences that might interfere with the clinician-client relationship. It would be nice to claim that being open like this always improves clinician-client connection, but nothing always works. However, as researchers have reported, congruence tends to facilitate improved treatment process and also contributes to positive outcomes, at least in small ways (Kolden et al., 2011; Tao, Owen, Pace, & Imel, 2015).

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