How to Help Clients Deal with Change

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Change occurs in the life of everyone. It is persistent, ongoing, and unending. Much of it is accepted with scarcely a thought, or at most a brief pause of recognition that things are different, and then we resume the onward flow of our lives. Sometimes we resist change and seek ways to return to the former status quo because we like things the way they were. Thus we may find change an irritant, a disruptive force that we fight against as we attempt to resume an earlier pattern. Sometimes change becomes a major compelling force that is threatening or even incapacitating until it is managed.

The difficulty we encounter in dealing with change is not necessarily a product of the size of the change required. Each of us, at different times and in varying circumstances, has confronted a very major change that we handled effectively, wisely, and with resulting satisfaction, and at another time we faced a relatively trivial change that caused us worry, confusion, despair, and dissatisfaction. Regardless of size or intensity, if the situation confronting the individual prevents that person from moving forward with his or her life or opening new opportunities, attention must be directed to resolving that problem and enabling change to occur before devoting major attention to career counseling. Sometimes the early steps of career counseling can proceed as the client is helped to resolve restricting problems, but until the client has faced the difficulty and developed a plan for handling it, he or she cannot assess accurately how to deal with problems of choice and care development. The situation that is restricting or blocking the individual must be seen as also likely to restrict or block that individual's efforts make plans or implement those plans. Thus, ordinarily, restricting problem must be resolved before proceeding with career counseling. Tyler (1969) states: The most basic evaluation the counselor must make if he is to be of assistance to the client is whether the person's present possibilities are adequate enough so that a course of action he might now choose is likely to lead to a kind development that will be rewarding to himself and to society. If so, the counseling emphasis can be on the kinds of thinking and activity that will lead to good choices. If not, the counseling emphasis will be on changes in the person's behavior or situation designed to open up one or more promising possibilities for constructive development so that good choices can then be made.

Clients with quite disparate concerns can be classified properly as change cases. For example, a client may be fully aware that certain behaviors, attitudes, or lack of skill interfere with interpersonal relationships and or pursuit of tentative or definite career plans, but be unable to instigate coping or resolving actions to produce change. On the other hand, another client may see only vaguely that problems exist complicating his or her life and frustrating his or her plans; this client is unable to define those problems, much less contemplate action leading to change. Further, another client may be able to focus clearly on a personal or interpersonal problem but is unaware of its intrusion on career planning and development. The essence of the change category is that those clients reveal the existence of obstacles that impede or prevent their choosing or progressing satisfactorily toward a career goal. Common logic would suggest attention to either removing the obstacle or creating new possibilities as replacements for the blocked objectives before proceeding to choice activities.



Counseling change clients can be described as developmental, personal, or therapeutic. Similarly, acquiring new skills or information may be thought to be "learning activity," and developing new behaviors or attitudes may be called "therapy." Regardless of label, the goal is the same, as Stefflre (1972) has said: a free, informed, responsible person conscious of himself--his strengths and weaknesses, his sickness and health--and capable of viewing the world unblinking and unafraid; capable, too, of making decisions for himself in harmony with his unique nature and at least minimal societal requirements.

The counselor must help the client accept the necessity of dealing with those restricting conditions that limit the possibility of making and implementing effective career choices. Sometimes clients may view this proposal as unnecessary delay or a superfluous side trip. Such client resistance is often likely to occur when the client, having delayed contact with the counselor, is now faced with some imminent deadline such as declaring a major, choosing a program, or registering for next term. Obviously, the most persuasive rationale is the reality of the situation: that the perceived conditions are in fact limiting or restrictive to the point that client options are reduced or even foreclosed. Again, to help the client understand the reason for not immediately addressing the career choice problem, one can easily draw upon medical care analogies, where correction of one physical condition is often necessary before another problem can be treated. Further, discussion of a tentative time schedule may help the client to see that the career concern will be handled at an appropriate and not far distant time. It is important for the client to understand that what is being proposed is a logical and necessary sequencing of activities and not a "wait-and-switch" technique that allows the counselor to move in a direction differing from the client's original concern.

Agreement by the client that factors do exist impeding or limiting career choice or implementation provides the basis for proceeding with change counseling. Because the problem or problems are already evident, counselor and client can move expeditiously toward resolution. Often this will involve identifying the dimensions and severity of the problem, setting a reasonable goal, determining strategies, agreeing on intermediate objectives, planning steps required to reach the first objective, executing those steps, evaluating progress, revising steps for the first objective or planning those necessary to the second objective, and so forth until the difficulty is reduced to the agreed level.

Selecting counseling strategies appropriate for a change client depends on the counselor's skill, theoretical framework, and understanding of the client. These aspects of counseling have been thoroughly discussed in a number of references to which the counselor can turn, including Hackney and Cormier (1979), Hansen, Stevic, and Warner (1977), Shertzer and Stone (1980), and Stewart et al. (1978). These and other comparable references provide more detailed discussion of suitable counseling procedures than can properly be included here. Therefore, we will review only briefly various techniques that can be employed by the counselor to help change clients realize their goal.

Problems with sufficient severity to impede or interfere with effective choices are seldom simple. Often there may be a network of interrelated difficulties with varying levels of severity, so that treating a superficial action may only result in its being replaced by other unsatisfactory behavior. For example, helping a client to overcome eating binges may require looking for and dealing with factors that cause the client to participate in that type of behavior. The symptomatic behavior and the underlying attitude may require different treatment with different techniques or strategies.

The problems or obstacles that block or impede change clients arise from two basic sources. The first area is internal to the client and can be thought to consist of self-oriented factors. The second group of problems arises from the conditions or environment that surround the client and car be labeled as externally oriented factors. Client problems may also arise from an interaction between components of these two areas.

Obstacles or problems arising from within the client often reflect the need for information, behavioral change, attitudinal change, or skill acquisition. Problems often have roots in more than one of these areas. The counselor and client can determine whether multiple facets should be dealt with sequentially or concurrently.

Need for Information

Ignorance is the cause of many problems. Sometimes the client doesn't know, and sometimes the client doesn't know that he or she doesn't know. There is a difference between not knowing and not knowing where to find answers, and even, occasionally, not knowing how to use answers. The counselor may very well be involved in all three aspects: are there answers, where are they, and how can they be applied?

Lack of self-oriented information probably consists of inadequate self-understanding and is relative to standards that appear reasonable or typical for the client's peer group. Certainly, a ninth-grade student would usually be expected to possess less self-understanding than a thirty-year-old adult. The client may lack information about either physical or psychological characteristics, including what is typical, or even what the usual limits of normality encompass. For example, an individual whose visual or auditory acuity was marginally normal during the developmental years may be unaware of a gradual deterioration that some time later has produced a serious deficit. Another illustration might be the individual who doesn't know how to deal effectively in interpersonal relationships because circumstances prevented learning this at an appropriate developmental stage or because the role models at that time were inadequate or conflicting. Teachers may have tried to encourage one type of response while parental influence pushed in another direction. The personal advice and medical advice columns in many newspapers and popular magazines amply demonstrate the frequency with which teenagers and adults lack basic information about typical physical and psychological functioning of the human organism.

Techniques to Use Knowledge

Serious deficits of information may become apparent to the observant counselor almost at once. Others will appear as counseling proceeds. In cases where the counselor is convinced that lack of information is producing an impediment to choice, specific counselor effort may have to be aimed at evaluating this factor.

Once client and counselor perceive that lack of information is an obstacle that requires attention, several avenues for action are available. The simplest of these is to help the client gain access to the information through whatever medium is appropriate for the situation, including appropriate reading material ranging from pamphlets to books, audiovisual materials such as films, film strips, audio- and videotapes, referral to experts or significant others, and the use of simulation.

The scope and quality of knowledge in many areas--for example, personal hygiene, health, sex education, and personality characteristics-- can be ascertained by existing tests or questionnaires. Often the instrument may serve as the indicator of specific knowledge needed by the client as well as identifying related misconceptions and misinterpretations.

Some people, once exposed to new knowledge, easily incorporate the information into their frame of reference by relating it to other previously acquired concepts and modifying subsequent behavior. Others may hold the information, or parts of it, in an encapsulated form, unable to relate it to previous data or apply it to their own behavior. Thus, information that cannot be used is no more useful than no information at all. The counselor can help the client incorporate and accept the new information in several ways. One way is to apply frequently used facilitating techniques such as acceptance, clarification, reassurance, and encouragement in the usual counseling relationship.

Both Hackney and Cormier (1979) and Stewart et al. (1978) discuss the use of social modeling as an appropriate strategy for this situation. Hackney and Cormier describe live, symbolic, and covert modeling in which, respectively, the counselor may serve as the live model, films or tapes are used to provide symbolic models, or the client imagines a model applying the new information. Hansford (1966) and Krumboltz and Thoresen (1964) report research that supports the use of symbolic models for effective learning and applying new information.

Role play and simulation are additional techniques by which the client can learn to apply knowledge to behavior. Role play between client and counselor, or between client and other clients in a group setting, permits the individual to act out a situation where the use of that knowledge is required. Learning and using can be enhanced by repetition, reversing roles, varying the situation, or by role playing misuse or lack of information. Simulation, usually somewhat more formal and involved than role playing, permits the client to apply the knowledge in a structured but still artificial situation.

Both role playing and simulation have many advantages. They permit a client to imagine and act out immediately a situation he or she expects to meet sometime in the future. They both allow learning to be demonstrated, revised if needed, and tried again without risk. Learning can be applied in increments that match client needs, and the situations can be controlled to maximize the effectiveness of the learning.

Programmed learning activities can be used to assist clients to evaluate their knowledge as well as to acquire new knowledge and process it for late use. The materials may be as simple as very brief exercises requiring only a few minutes to complete or as complex as extensive workbooks requiring several sessions to finish. A wide array of high-quality self-instructional material focusing on various aspects of personal development is now available from several educational publishers and similar sources. Learning from self-instructional packets is usually more effective when the learner is highly motivated and able to accept responsibility. Unless the counselor is particularly knowledgeable in the subject, he or she may need to consult media specialists or subject matter experts to ascertain the source of relevant and usable materials. If the client is not referred to such a subject specialist who will supervise the learning experience, the counselor must schedule time with the client to discuss materials and concepts learned in order to ascertain that the learning has occurred and the client can apply the knowledge effectively.

Participation in an appropriate group may help a client to assess information and acquire and apply needed information. Such group involvement should have direct relevance to the client's needs. When the counselor works in educational or community settings, where the clientele often have many common characteristics, arranging a group with similar needs is a relatively easy task. The group experience may provide encouragement, reassurance, insight, and motivation for the client along with such side products as increased social skills, enhanced self-confidence, and independence.

Helping clients acquire and process information so that they can apply it appropriately to improve their lives emphasizes the teaching aspects of counseling. Like a highly skilled teacher, the counselor must clearly identify the client's needs and determine how the client can learn the needed information most effectively. The materials and techniques selected are chosen because they appear to facilitate best that effort.
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