Do you have a minute?" Charles asked.
It was Friday afternoon, and I had just dropped by his house to borrow a tool to repair my window. Something was bothering Charles, so we went inside. He dropped into his reclining chair, but he did not recline—he slumped forward "Well, I have cancer," he said quickly, almost defiantly. "I can't believe it I never had any idea! I didn't feel anything—pain, I mean. But, well, this morning the doctor told me that I have cancer. I feel so helpless."
Charles paused, his head in his hands. What could I say? What could I do? I felt as if my mind had been injected with novocaine.
"Oh, Charles," I finally said. "That's a real blow, isn't it? Kinda like being kicked in the stomach."
"Oh, it is.... It really is," he moaned.
"It really makes you think about all those things that you've taken for granted all these years."
"It sure does... especially about Margret." He looked down. "What's going to happen to her? Oh, Lord, I just don't know what to do."
"You don't know what to do about Margret?" I asked.
"Yeah, we always said that we wanted to die together. In an accident or a plane crash or something. Now I know that I only have a little while to live. What's that going to do to her? It's too much to bear."
"You're really concerned," I said "You really don't know how Margret will react. It sounds like you haven't told her yet"
"I couldn't I know that's wrong, but I had to think about it before I could speak to her. She's at the store now. I just don't know how to break it to her. I even lied to her when I got home from the doctor's this morning. I told her everything was fine. What can I do?"
After our prayers and an hour of talk, I went home exhausted and uneasy. Later, as I thought about that afternoon, I wondered why I, a trained counselor, should feel so uncomfortable when talking with Charles in this crisis. I had talked to so many people in my office—but that was different. Or was it?
I decided there were some important differences between formal counseling by a professional and informal counseling between friends. But I saw how my training in counseling had helped me comfort Charles, even though I felt uncomfortable myself. I thought about how difficult it is for people who have no training to know what to do when they are asked for help. I knew some excellent natural helpers. How did they feel? I wondered if sometimes they felt almost abandoned. If so, what could I do to help them become better helpers?
Friends at church told me that they had often been asked for advice, help or informal counseling by their friends. They also said how uncomfortable they felt in many situations. At their suggestion, I taught an adult Sunday-school course en-titled "Lay Counseling: What to Do When Someone Has a Problem." The course was well attended and considered helpful. I incorporated participants' comments into a workshop format; these workshops, in turn, showed me that a practical book about counseling might be useful—a book that would aid Christians in helping people whom the Lord brings their way.
Many psychologists agree that more trained nonprofessional counselors are needed. As early as 1968 Robert Carkhuff, after summarizing much research about peer helpers, concluded that people helped by peer counselors do "as well as or better than" people helped by professional counselors. In a variety of groups, trained nonprofessional counselors were very effective. Since Carkhuff's review, other researchers have also found that properly trained nonprofessional counselors can help people who have psychological problems.
Recently several Christian psychologists have written books that teach Christians how to help other people within the church. For example, Gary Collins in How to Be a People Helper says that the purpose of counseling is to help people become disciples of Christ. The major part of the book gives excellent general guidelines for crisis, suicide and telephone counseling, but lacks concrete advice on how to help a friend. In 1977 Lawrence Crabb wrote Effective Biblical Counseling, an excellent book aimed at professional Christian counselors and pastors who counsel often. In one chapter Crabb applies his model of counseling to nonprofessionals, identifying three levels of counseling within the church. All Christians could listen to and encourage others. A few, such as elders or others specifically gifted for counseling, could be trained to use biblical approaches to solving problems. A select few, highly trained and gifted, could employ Crabb's full method Paul Welter's book, How to Help a Friend, contains a three-step method for helping friends: determine the severity of the problem, the way people use what they have learned and the way people learn. While Welter's approach is simple and practical, it tackles only a few of the problems that people typically encounter.
Two questions arise. Why are trained nonprofessionals often as effective as professionals, and what is unique about this book?
Professional and peer counseling are valuable at different times for different people. Professional counselors, as a group, are well trained and have experience helping people with a variety of personal problems. Their focus is primarily on the person as a client. The counselor has implicit permission to actively question the client and to ask the client to change his or her behavior. This can have good results. The client expects to reveal emotional secrets to the counselor, friends, however, do not always expect to reveal secrets to other friends. In addition, secrets may be shared with a professional without fear of hurting the friendship. The client believes the counselor will act professionally and, most importantly, will safeguard personal information. The client usually believes that the counselor can help. With peer counselors, a friend does not always believe he or she will receive help. Appointments will usually be scheduled once each week with a professional, yet friends do not generally meet together regularly. The counseling relationship, although often fostering strong attachment, will probably involve little personal contact other than appointments. On the negative side, professional counseling is often expensive (although sometimes community agencies use flexible fee scales so that most people can afford psychological help).
Friend-to-friend counseling is free, has no stigma attached to it and can be much less formal man professional counseling. Because most people have limited (or no) formal psychological training and limited counseling experience, the strength of lay counseling usually depends on the relationship between helper and friend. Personal (rather than professional) relationships can result in deep sharing but the focus is not always on the help seeker. When one friend is dealing with personal problems, the focus of the relationship is temporarily on that person, but in time a balance returns. The peer counselor has permission to ask about emotionally charged, personal details of a friend's life only to the (approximate) extent that he or she is willing to share important personal details with that friend. The depth of relationship between friends can be a great advantage.
Another advantage of friendship relationships over professional relationships is that a friend knows more about the help seeker's life and behavior than a professional counselor. The professional sees the client in only one situation, a formal interview, and knows only what the client talks about. Peer counselors, however, see their friends in many situations. They may know about the person's family, other friends, church, spiritual life, work, lifestyle and typical ways of handling problems. Thus, a friend is able to evaluate how much a problem is interfering with a person's life, how the problem is affecting the person's behavior, how well the person is coping with the problem and, perhaps, how clearly the person is seeing the problem.
In addition, the lay counselor is more like the help seeker than is the professional counselor. Friends are often of similar social class, education and background. Their language is similar, uncluttered by counseling jargon. They may have common interests and activities, which provide numerous sharing opportunities and room for give-and-take. Sometimes the friend is more available than the professional. Because rapport is already established, a friend is not concerned about starting a new relationship but can immediately begin to work with the friend on the specific problem.
It is little wonder that training nonprofessionals to use basic helping skills and providing them with a plan or model for helping people can often make them effective counselors. Many people need such help before deciding whether to approach a professional. In fact, the people who seek professional counseling are usually those who have not been sufficiently helped by their friends, families, pastor or church. These people are few, for most of the effective counseling is done by nonprofessionals. Many with emotional problems never need to see a professional because they are helped by friends.
This book is practical. In it I describe a simple yet effective, five-step model for helping people solve problems. Then I cover the stalls needed for each step of the model. Scattered throughout the book are examples of counseling dialogs, though I have changed names and details to protect the identity of friends and clients upon whose experience these dialogs are based. You will learn and see applied, step by step, a method of helping people, supplemented by exercises to improve your helping skills.
To find out what you have learned from reading this book, you need to compare what you know now with what you will know when you have finished the book. The best way to do that is to do some task now and later. Ideally, you could videotape a counseling session with a friend, then later compare your performance with the tape. For most people, however, that is not possible; consequently, at the beginning of my workshops on counseling I have each participant complete a case study on a fictitious person named Jim. I have included a description of Jim below. You should read about Jim and try to answer, in writing, the questions at the end of the description. Keep a copy of your answers. At the end of the book I have included another case study that you can use to measure your progress.
When I come to such exercises in books, I usually skip right over them without a backward glance. In this case, though, I encourage you to take the time to answer the questions about Jim. Workshop participants tell me that this is an invaluable, instructive exercise.
Jim, a twenty-six-year-old at your church, talked with you last week for about twenty-five minutes. Jim is discouraged. He is the only Christian in his office. All of his so-called friends give him a hard time about being a "Jesus freak." They say he is stupid to fall for that religious stuff. He has been under considerable pressure from his girlfriend, who is not a Christian, to stop attending church. He confesses that some sins that bothered him before he became a Christian have reappeared. These include anger, bitterness, bad language and gossip. He also mentions a "sexual sin" but seems too embarrassed to talk about it Jim complains of often being nervous and scared. He also has a poor appetite and wakes up early, unable to get back to sleep because his "mind is whirling." He feels low and discouraged. Last week, as he talked of being low, you saw tears in his eyes although he controlled himself with some effort He says that he is afraid that he is going to "lose it" if something does not change soon.
Write down how you might help Jim over the next few weeks. Include (a) anything else that you would like to know about Jim, especially what you would ask him the next time you talk, (b) what you think his biggest problem(s) is (are), (c) how you would like Jim to think about his problem(s), (d) what goals you might have for him, (e) what you would try to get him to do about his problem(s), (f) how you might accomplish this and (g) how you would know whether you were successful at helping him.
Now that you have completed your study of Jim, let me share some observations that I make in our workshops. When I ask people what they would like to ask Jim, typically, they want to know about Jim's childhood, his friends, his devotional life and other information about possible causes of his problems. In fact, one point of this exercise is to see that there are many different ways to think about what is causing Jim's problems and that most people know a lot about helping already. The goal of this book is not to teach you how to discover the "real" cause of someone's problem—I believe that many problems have more than one cause. My purpose is to give you an overall view of how people help others, regardless of the specific problems or causes.
Preoccupation with finding the "real" cause of emotional problems leads to the second point of this exercise. Most people are impatient when they begin to help someone else. Knowing only two paragraphs of information about Jim, people want immediately to test their theory about the cause of Jim's problems. When a professional counselor reads about Jim, a multitude of questions enters his or her mind. The questions do not revolve around the idea of cause; rather, they focus on the problem's severity and duration. For example, here are questions I might ask Jim at our next meeting:
Only when I have decided the severity of the problems would I begin to investigate the cause. Patience is vital to helping.
Next, the questions you ask Jim about the cause of his problems will have a lot to do with how he thinks about his problems. Many inexperienced helpers lack a systematic plan for counseling; consequently, their questions lack direction and might confuse their friend. I tell beginning graduate students in counseling that they must have a plan when they enter a counseling session. As they listen to a client they might discard the plan after the first few minutes, based on new information, but they should start with a general plan.
I hope that this exercise has been useful to you, and that reading this book will help you to help friends more efficiently and effectively. Of course, reading this book will not make you a professional counselor. That takes years of education and supervised counseling experience. However, if you conscientiously learn the model, practice the skills and work through the applications, you will become a better counselor than you are now. And you will feel more confident the next time a friend asks for help.