ERIC Identifier: ED378461
Publication Date: 1994-04-00
Author: Schmidt, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Counselor Intentionality and Effective Helping. ERIC Digest.
The counseling profession has historically searched for characteristics,
traits, behaviors, and other variables that contribute to successful helping
relationships. One characteristic that emerges in contemporary literature and
research relates to the notion that successful counselors select their helping
behaviors and choose specific strategies with a clear purpose and direction.
This characteristic is referred to as counselor's level and degree of
intentionality (Ivey, 1994; Purkey & Schmidt, 1987; Schmidt, 1984). Research
indicates that effective counselors tend to exhibit positive perceptions of self
and others, are personally motivated and fully functioning, accurately assess
the world around them, and are capable of using this assessment to facilitate
beneficial helping relationships (Schmidt, 1984).
Rollo May (1969) presented the concept of
intentionality as a client characteristic that is essential for successful
therapy, and in doing so described intentionality as a person's inner "structure
which gives meaning to experience" (1969, p. 223). In addition, May noted that
intentionality embraces the qualities of being "purposeful," "stretching
toward," and "caring for" that encompass truly helping relationships. As such,
intentionality becomes synonymous with the ability to link one's inner thoughts
with one's intentions and behaviors. Using this definition, we conclude that, in
practice, successful counselors have the ability to connect their diagnostic
views with specific strategies and behaviors to assist particular clients.
Successful counselors are able to form their behaviors and select helping
strategies based on their understanding of client's experiences. Naturally, this
understanding is highly influenced by the counselor's perceptions of the
client's world. It is the combined inner perceptions as well as conscious
intentions of the counselor that produce successful relationships.
Bugental (1980) illustrated intentionality as a preconscious process leading
to interaction. As persons move from intentionality, through wishing and
wanting, to actualization and interaction, they achieve a sense of worth and
"the power of being, reaching forward into becoming" (Bugental, 1980, p. 56). In
applying this notion to the counseling process, we hypothesize that everything a
counselor says or does is influenced by his or her own level of intentionality.
Ivey (1994) describes counselor intentionality as a process of "acting with a
sense of capability and deciding from a range of alternative actions. The
intentional individual [counselor] has more than one action, thought, or
behavior to choose from in responding to changing life situations" (1994, p.
11). In this definition, Ivey combines the goals of counseling with an
understanding of the processes inherent in successful helping relationships. He
also describes intentionality as a quality that counselors have to varying
degrees; some are highly intentional and others lack intentionality.
Accordingly, a counselor who lacks intentionality "persists in using only one
skill, one definition of the problem, and one theory of interviewing, even when
the theory isn't working" (Ivey, 1994, p. 12). This notion of "lacking
intentionality" implies that counselors either have the ability to be
intentional or they do not. As such, Ivey places more importance on a
counselor's conscious awareness and ability to become intentional. By
comparison, May (1969) viewed one's inability to see other alternatives as being
trapped in an intentionality that makes it virtually impossible for the person
to see other options. Likewise, Bugental (1980) referred to "intentionality
blindness" as a "crippling of the life force" that keeps an individual from
realizing healthy interactions. The essential meaning of intentionality has
implications for the practice of counseling. Counselors who perceive their
clients' concerns accurately and choose a clear direction and purpose in their
helping relations based on these perceptions are more likely to be successful.
BIPOLARITY OF INTENTIONALITY
Professional counselors are in
a unique position to influence people when they are making important life
decisions. This is a powerful position to hold and one that brings with it
tremendous responsibility. A counselor's intentionality contributes to both the
degree and direction of these helping relationships.
Purkey and Schmidt (1987) posited that intentionality can be either a
constructive or destructive force in human relationships. Counselors who are
keenly aware of their own development, frailties, competencies, and limitations
are better prepared to direct their own intentionality in beneficial ways. They
behave in ways that are in the best interest of their clients. Regrettably, not
all people behave in this manner. Some people, including a few counselors, act
from a posture of malice and destruction. They prey upon the vulnerability of
others, seeking their own satisfaction, feeding their own psychopathology, with
no regard for the welfare of others. In this way, these people are intentionally
harmful to those who seek their help and assistance.
Counselors who violate confidentiality to satisfy their own feelings of
insecurity or who encourage sexual relationships with clients under the guise of
teaching them to cope with difficult situations are two examples of functioning
at most destructive levels of intentionality.
At the other end of the intentional spectrum, we find the optimum level of
professional functioning. Here counselors choose strategies, plan programs, and
establish relationships aimed at relieving pain, solving problems, enhancing
environments, and generally behave in beneficial ways. While the best of
counselors may strive to function always at the highest level of intentionality,
their humanness sometimes causes them to lose some direction and purpose in
their functioning. When this happens, even the most effective of counselors
operates at a level of uncertainty and unintentionality.
THE RISK OF UNINTENTIONALITY
All of us at some time or
other lose direction or a sense of purpose. When this happens, we function at a
level of unintentionality. Sometimes the outcome of this behavior is hurtful
feelings and harmful relationships due to our thoughtless and careless actions.
In counseling relationships, these negative outcomes are particularly sharp
because they destroy the trust so essential to professional helping.
Other times, people may function in unintentional ways, yet positive results
occur. Counselors often comment about their successes with particular clients,
but they are uncertain as to why these positive results happen. Good fortune
should not be discounted, even in professions such as counseling, but when we
rely solely on serendipitous counseling to produce consistently beneficial
results, we place our helping relationships in jeopardy.
RESEARCH OF COUNSELORS' INTENTIONS
examined the relationship between counselors' intentions and the helping process
(Elliot, 1979; Fuller & Hill, 1985; Kivlighan, 1990). Intentions are defined
as "the covert rationale behind the use of specific interventions" (Fuller & Hill, 1985, p. 330). Preliminary studies have concluded that some relationships
exist between counselors' intentions and helpful processes. In all instances,
researchers have noted methodological limitations, particularly in identifying
and rating counselors' intentions and controlling extraneous variables.
As noted in this digest, intentionality is an emerging concept in counseling
as it is in teaching and other helping professions. Further research is needed
to confirm the existence of this construct and identify the characteristics and
behaviors that distinguish levels of intentional functioning. As with other
psychological constructs, measurement is an immediate challenge. Valid
observational techniques, self assessment processes and other methods need to be
developed to determine if this construct has potential in helping counselors to
examine their level of professional functioning, the purpose and direction of
their helping behaviors, and the effects on their helping relationships.
Theorists who advocate the importance of
intentionality in the counseling process (Ivey, 1994, Purkey & Schmidt,
1987; Schmidt, 1984) have noted some specific behaviors and traits that
contribute to and enhance a counselor's intentional functioning. The first of
these includes the traditional "core conditions" of the helping relationship
espoused by Carl Rogers and many others. The root meaning of intentionality is
to tend to something, which parallels the concepts of caring and empathy, so
important to effective counseling. At the same time, intentionality, as noted
above, suggests a definite direction and purpose in a relationship. Professional
counselors, by definition, must maintain a positive, beneficial direction in
their relationships, and simultaneously understand why this direction is being
Another important aspect of counselor intentionality is the ability to seek
alternative solutions and choose from an array of strategies in helping people
make decisions and solve problems. In sum, the intentional counselor is one who
learns many helping strategies, continues to accumulate knowledge of human
development and related critical issues, and offers clients a relationship in
which all possibilities can be explored, examined, and evaluated.
Bugental, J. (1980). The far side of despair. "Journal of Humanistic Psychology," 20 (1), 49-68.
Elliott, R. (1979). How clients perceive helper behaviors. "Journal of
Counseling Psychology," 26, 285-294.
Fuller, F., & Hill, C. E. (1985). Counselor and helpee perceptions of
counselor intentions in relation to outcome in a single counseling session.
"Journal of Counseling Psychology," 32, 329-338.
Ivey, A. E. (1994). "Intentional interviewing in counseling," 3rd ed. Pacific
Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Kivlighan, D. M. (1990). Relation between counselors' use of intentions and
clients' perception of working alliance. "Journal of Counseling Psychology," 37,
May, R. (1969). "Love and will." New York: Norton.
Purkey, W. W., & Schmidt, J. J. (1987). "The inviting relationship: An
expanded perspective for professional counseling." Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Schmidt, J. J. (1984). Counselor intentionality: An emerging view of process
and performance. "Journal of Counseling Psychology," 31, 383-386.