Truth Talking: The Role of Honesty in Counselling

One of the most sobering aspects of being a counsellor is the knowledge that you can’t guarantee that what clients tell you is truthful.  Jeffrey Kottler, an American therapist, edited a book about this and to me, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. It might sound like a contradiction to say that I really do trust clients.  I do.  I could never be a counsellor if I had a fundamental distrust of people and their intentions. That’s code for time to take down the shingle. But if I think that everything clients tell me is 100% accurate, then give me a shake.  I’m being naive.

I’d like to be clear.  I believe that my experience with overt lying is minimal.  White lies are perhaps more common, withholding information, even more common still.  I don’t have the stats to back this up.  These are my hunches.

Client Information That May Be Withheld

Information can be withheld deliberately, or not.  When it comes to the not, it’s common to forget relevant details about one’s situation, to be overwhelmed with other issues competing for space in our minds, or to run out to time in a  session to include all necessary information.

And sometimes information is intentionally withheld. My experience has been that it’s usually information that clients feel that they will be judged for or which they feel will tarnish an image that is being projected to the counsellor.  Often the counsellor may even suspect that information is missing or slanted, or even have a hunch about what that information is.  If it is ever disclosed, the counsellor may respond with no surprise or judgement whatsoever.  What clients may not realize is that counsellors are exposed to a vast array of life experiences and if the counsellor has been doing this work for some time, she or he may say, “I’ve heard it all.  Very little surprises me anymore.”

Counsellors Are Not Immune

Are counsellors 100% honest?  It depends–and honesty, while part of ethics, is not the exact equivalent. Choosing a counsellor that follows a legislated, or at least voluntary, professional code of conduct is essential.

Counsellors may be guilty of withholding information, sometimes about their clinical impressions or suggestions for change.  If it’s judgement, withholding is actually appropriate!

Sometimes clients ask for a therapist’s opinion or advice and more than one therapist has fallen down into the hole of “telling it like it is,” only to find out that it was just a little too much truth. This may have been interpreted as hurtful, overwhelming, irrelevant or even inaccurate.

At times, counsellors hold back because they perceive, as mentioned above, that the client will take it personally or be hurt by it, despite constructive intentions.  Or, a view may be withheld if the counsellor reasons that it may alienate the client, particularly if she or he is familiar with a client’s views and sees them as inflexible.  Sometimes a challenge feels futile.

While some counsellors have an uncompromising, truth-telling therapeutic style, no matter what, others are more subtle in their feedback.  But even the so-called subtle ones may ‘lay it on the line’ with where they think the client is at.  In such cases, there is typically substantial rapport and trust in one anotherThe therapist trusts that the client understands that the feedback is only given for the client’s benefit and personal growth; the client realizes this too.  This is hard for the therapist to do, and perhaps even insulting to the client, if a therapist attempts this kind of feedback too early in the counselling relationship.  When a therapist does not know the client well, the feedback may even be inaccurate.

Risks and Benefits of Honesty to Client and Counsellor

Client Benefits

One of the biggest benefits in being honest about your situation is that the therapist, if you feel this person is trustworthy, can better help you.  If pieces of the puzzle are missing, the counsellor is limited in terms of their understanding of the issues at hand, or worse, may make suggestions that do not accurately reflect your situation.  The counsellor may also be confused, thinking that things don’t quite make sense and feel unable to make any recommendations at all.  Sometimes even the type, or method, of therapy that is provided may be completely unhelpful if it is based on an inaccurate picture of what you are actually struggling with.

Again, assuming that the counsellor you are working with is trustworthy and non-judgmental, telling all relevant aspects of your story can be an opportunity to free yourself from emotional pain.  When we hide aspects of ourselves that need help, we may inadvertently be sewing the seeds of shame, as shame flourishes in a climate of secrecy.

Client Risks

There is always the risk of being judged or misunderstood when we are honest about what is going on for us.  I would also say, however, that this is equally true when we are dishonest as well!  So obviously, it is important to choose a counsellor that you trust and who will treat your information respectfully.

Counsellor Benefits

One way of conceptualizing honesty from the counsellor’s perspective is to look at it on two levels:  First, it’s a matter of transparency.  How much can counsellors be themselves when counselling?  This is not the same as self-disclosure, which must always be examined with caution. To me, bringing my genuine self to the counselling room is as important as air and water!  If I can’t be me, I can’t practice. Simple.  And, I can’t think that an impersonal therapist would have broad appeal to clients.

Second, it is a gift when counsellors can voice their thoughts and impressions honestly with clients, providing there is sufficient rapport in the counselling relationship and, equally important, if counsellors are willing to be corrected or to open a discussion, if they have misunderstood the client.  Counsellors have opinions but in many cases it is wrong to insist on them!  If the trust is there, honesty can help open the door to the therapist trying different therapies or helping the counselling expand in directions that might not have been possible if the therapist had felt the need to operate in a more restrictive way.  When therapists are more open, there is more subject matter to be examined and explored.  The garden of therapy expands!

Counsellor Risks

As I’ve alluded to above, if the counsellor “gets it wrong” when an effort is made to be open, the counsellor risks alienating the client.  I’ve had many clients report that they never returned to a particular therapist because they were offended by a comment, were given advice they didn’t appreciate or find relevant, or felt misunderstood.  What may feel like honesty to a counsellor, could be interpreted as insensitivity, misunderstanding, or worse, emotional brutality.

And, sometimes when counsellors put themselves out there–in terms of bringing their genuine personality to their work–they are more likely to be criticized.  For some therapists, this is an energizing aspect of their practice, leading them to continue to develop professionally and personally.  Other therapists may feel unable to act naturally and normally.  In such cases, a referral to another counsellor is often indicated.

Honesty is something that needs to be negotiated by both counsellor and client and tends to evolve over time, working best when the therapeutic relationship is strong.  To me, another reason why rapport is so foundational in counselling.