Article Published: 8/23/2023
Social justice is the concept that everyone deserves equitable economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Such topics generate varying beliefs, and in today’s world where public social media platforms continue to grow, individuals are sharing their personal values more than ever.
Mental health professionals must take particular care to avoid imposing their personal values on clients. Oftentimes, however, this proves challenging. With things like social media platforms, voting histories, or donation receipts all readily available online, a vast amount of knowledge about a counselor is now available at their client’s fingertips. How does this change a counseling session? A client may change what they talk about to either align with or challenge the counselor’s views. It can also affect the rapport that has been built within the relationship.
A general rule of thumb in counseling is that self-disclosure should be avoided unless therapeutically beneficial. If a client asks an unrelated personal question, supervisors would typically suggest that counselors politely decline to answer and refocus the conversation on the client’s needs. However, a counselor’s own emotional reactions can potentially be recognized through body language, or they may even inadvertently communicate their stance. The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests reframing these challenging conversations into questions. For example, “I’m wondering if you’re trying to determine if I can actually understand your struggles.” As a follow-up, reiterate their concern and remind them that regardless, you are devoted to helping them. The Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy suggests that a counselor ask their client why it is important for them to know such information, and then carefully analyze their response. Provided anger and resistance are not present, consider if transparency could help the client feel safer. If a counselor feels their client fears their judgment, reassure them that their views do not diminish your dedication to their welfare.
Devona M. Stalnaker-Shofner, EdD, NCC, LPC, an associate professor in the department of applied psychology at Antioch University New England, offers her insight. “Broaching behavior refers to a consistent and ongoing attitude of openness with a genuine commitment by a counselor to continually invite a client to explore issues of diversity, which can often highlight differences in values,” says Stalnaker-Shofner. “Though initially designed to facilitate discussions around race and culture, broaching can be adapted to teach counselors-in-training and supervisees how to open dialogue about challenging topics, such as value conflict.” How can supervisors help counselors prepare for these situations ahead of time? As stated in the Houston Chronicle, continual self-awareness is one of the best tools to avoid imposing values on clients. This involves taking an honest inventory of your beliefs and understanding your reactions to a client’s statements or actions. It can be difficult to avoid guiding clients in your direction while still maintaining a helpful perspective. Therefore, constantly being aware of your own values and biases in counseling can avoid unconsciously imposing them on clients.
“Supervisors can engage their supervisees in dialogues and explorative discussions around values and potential for and impact of differing values,” says Stalnaker-Shofner. “Essentially, value conflicts are inevitable. In prior years, counselors were taught to detach from their values, but years of multicultural research shows that this is not only impossible, but ingenuine. It is important to normalize that we have differences and to not shy away from them.”
Furthermore, social media has potential adverse outcomes. Professional social media accounts should be separate from personal accounts, and it is also prudent to keep personal accounts private, as values and beliefs shared online can make their way to clients and into individual counseling sessions. In addition, according to NBCC’s Code of Ethics, counselors “shall limit use of client information obtained through social media sources in accordance with established practice procedures provided to the client at the initiation of services and as adopted through the ongoing informed consent process.” The NBCC Foundation webinar “Insta-Counselors: Ethically Using Social Media as a Marketing, Research, and Advocacy Tool,” presented by Zori Paul, PhD, NCC, LPC, also provides a deeper look at the ethical considerations and use of social media by counselors.
When should a client be referred to another professional? Even though a counselor–client relationship can initially be challenged by differing beliefs, this does not mean it cannot progress and still be successful. Counseling experts recommend exhausting all other options before referring a client elsewhere. ACA states that a counselor should not refer or terminate a client based solely on their own values. Termination should only be considered when they feel the client is not benefiting from their direct counseling. However, if such ethical issues arise from the client because of their disagreement of beliefs (e.g., a client becomes disengaged in collaborating with the counselor, threatens their well-being in any way, or depletes a counselor’s energy toward their other clients), referral becomes more justified. In these cases, a counselor should assist the client in finding the appropriate counselor to avoid the possible feeling of abandonment.
“A change in the strength of the therapeutic alliance is called a rupture, and the process of fixing such alliance problems is called repair,” says Stalnaker-Shofner. “Repair can occur in a number of ways, including acknowledging the impact of the rupture on the client and on oneself, and creating space for learning from the rupture through open and authentic dialogue, which can subsequently facilitate growth.”
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