Counseling Counselors

In a recent Twitter conversation started by #CCLKOW on the topic of Developing Competent Leaders Through Feedback and Performance Assessment the author Jonathan Silk leaves the following question for discussion:

How do you train counseling for both positive and negative performance?

One place to look for an answer to this question is the large body of research on this topic within the domain of social psychology. Albert Bandura, famous for his experiments on modeled aggression, developed Social Cognitive Theory based on a series of studies to understand how we adapt and learn within social settings. His tests involved an experimental group of children watching a video of an adult interacting with a Bobo doll in novel, aggressive ways while a control group watched a video of a benign interaction. Both groups of children were then observed interacting with the same Bobo dolls seen in the videos.  Bandura measured how much the children modeled this aggressive behavior by observing how both groups of children later interacted with dolls. His key discovery was that when children witnessed the novel aggressive behavior they then reenacted the same type of hostile acts – as well as new forms of aggression. The control group did not. These findings, and the many replications of his results by other researchers, have been key in movements to reduce children’s exposure to violence.

So what?

We do a lot of learning through observation. If we want to train these forms of counseling techniques – a good place to start is with having folks observe how others do it effectively.  How? Well, I would offer the following suggestions:

1) In order to develop subordinates or peers as effective counselors you must model this behavior first. If you do not feel comfortable providing these forms of counseling – you should set about better understanding the topic and then putting your lessons learned into practice.

2) Do not have a “say – do” gap in your organization. You can determine what a leader’s real priorities are within an organization by measuring where they spend their time, man-power, and money. If improving counseling matters to you – you must budget time, training hours, and if need be money to pay for counseling training for your team.

3) We offer a lot of feedback on other performance factors – but we should also offer some feedback on how well others provide feedback. This is what I refer to as counseling the counselor.

Now, if you want to develop this type of observable training internally you may want to consider these approaches:

1) Videotaped recordings of actors portraying effective counseling – with accompanying explanations of what is effective about their approach and what is not.

2) Role-played training scenarios in-front of an audience of students – followed by trainees then being asked to reenact what they learned with feedback from an observer.

3) Trainee observation of real counseling sessions – followed by a discussion with the lead counselor.

Providing means to observe effective counseling is the starting point. Ensuring that trainees understand what an effective counselor is trying to accomplish enriches the experience of observation for the trainee. First-hand observation of real counseling sessions followed by an opportunity to ask the instructor-counselor about the session may provide the greatest insight into why a counselor used a given technique for trainees.

These suggestions get at the “how” aspect of the question concerning performance counseling training. They do not answer the question of “what” effective positive and negative performance counseling should consist specifically.

If we want to understand what effective positive and negative counseling looks like let’s again turn back to social psychology. In a 2006 article that addresses the challenges of providing feedback to aspiring professional counselors in a psychologists-in-training task – in which the counselors themselves are learning how to provide feedback to clients – Melissa Tracey offers the following conclusions:

  1. “Experts encourage supervisors to be warm, empathic and helpful to trainees, so when trainees have a problem they’ll feel that they can ask for guidance… the best supervisors are often described by trainees as being knowledgeable, genuine, respectful and supportive.” I believe these descriptors work for military leaders aspiring to be effective counselors as well. If we want to develop others to be effective counselors – we have to model these positive character traits.
  2. It’s important to recognize that people develop their counseling skills gradually. Structured supervision in the initial stages of training effective counseling techniques may be high – but over time – as trainees gain confidence greater autonomy should be granted. Unfortunately, in the military, most of one’s experience from counseling comes from one’s own direct experiences being counseled. We provide feedback about a number of factors in job performance – but we rarely provide counseling about one’s ability to counsel!
  3. “Many supervisors report withholding feedback from trainees, such as negative reactions to trainees’ counseling and professional performance. In particular, supervisors report it is difficult to provide feedback when clinical issues are subjective, when they are uncomfortable with imposing their opinions on trainees and when the feedback concerns something outside the supervisory relationship.” I would contend that these factors are primary reasons why we in the military also struggle with candid feedback at times. I can recall a challenging conversation during a quarterly counseling session with my right-hand-man senior NCO. I noted that his demeanor toward his subordinate NCOs sometimes came across as patronizing. I told him that sometimes his tone sounded like he was talking to his 8 year old rather than grown adults. He had never been told this. To his credit, he reflected on my observation, and recognized the effect this was having on how other’s reacted to him. I shared my subjective opinion – and it was a criticism of my right-hand-man – but in the end I felt that sharing my personal observation with him would enable him to become a more effective leader.

In the end – I agree with Jonathan Silk’s argument that we struggle with providing effective counseling in the military. If this is a real problem in our ranks – then perhaps it’s time we opened our apertures to improve it – and applied some of the lessons learned taken from the breadth of research in social psychology on this topic. Maybe it’s time we counseled our counselors.

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.

Thanks to the folks at CCL KOW for thinking deeply on this topic.


  1. Tracey, Melissa, D. (2006). More effective supervision: Clinical supervision informed by research and theory can help trainees excel. American Psychological Association, March 2006, Vol 37, No. 3, page 48

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