Preparing for Difficult Counselees

Counselors are human. This means that they are image-bearing embodied souls who continually worship before the face of a Holy God. In addition, as humans, counselors struggle with sin just like those they counsel. One prominent area of counselor sin stems from the counter-transference issues that occur when counselors must work, on a long-term basis, with individuals whom they do not particularly like. I am not talking about the type of client whom we should refer. I am referring to the person who causes the counselor’s energy level to plummet when he or she sees the counselee on the day’s upcoming schedule.

How can counselors process these negative feelings in a way that glorifies God and puts the best interest of the client first? German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer brings insight into this common dilemma. Bonhoeffer suggests that the power to overcome these negative feelings flows from examining the difficult client through the eyes of intercessory prayer.  In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer makes the following observation:

I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner…Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the fellowship must enter every day (p. 86).

How can counselors purify themselves by bathing in this intercessory prayer?

1. Be intentional – Pray through your appointment schedule at the beginning of each day.

I know, I know, our days are busy. However, as ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), God commands that we enter a dark battle with the light of the gospel. As such, it is not hyperbole to suggest that there are eschatological implications to our work. That said, it doesn’t seem to be asking too much to spend a little time prayerfully preparing to enter that fray.

2. Be humble – Strive to see the individuals on your schedule as Jesus sees them.

Success with this step depends on how consistently you approach your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. What do I mean by that? The key here is to cultivate a lifestyle of humility (Phil 2). Considering the interest of others, as well as their struggles as more important than yours, will develop a humility that will help you see these people through Jesus’ eyes more clearly.

3. Be grateful – Thank God for the gift of the difficult counselees on your schedule.  

Let’s face it, difficult people have a way of introducing us to ourselves. If we did not have to interact with them, we would be much less circumspect of our own sinful tendencies and blind spots (Heb 3:12-13). This means that we must see our counselees as gifts of God for our sanctification. As we come to see our difficult counselees as people to be loved instead of problems to be managed, we will paradoxically experience the grace and mercy needed to help them in their time of need.

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What strategies have helped you when working with difficult counselees?