The Four Stages of Learning: Reflections of a Trainee Counsellor


Today was a real learning curve for me in terms of how personal experience with a problem expressed by a client can have so many implications in terms of the helping relationship.  I am usually good with expressing empathy and have even been told that it seems to come naturally to me.

However, in skills practice today my primary feedback from both peer and tutor was that I wasn’t fully engaged with the client’s emotions.  In particular, I wasn’t recognising his anger at the situation he was in.

On reflection, I do feel that I remained slightly disengaged in order to protect myself.  The scenario was very close to my current situation in that it involved the client dealing with a parent being in a care home.  My mother, who is only in her 50’s, is currently in a care home, which I have found very difficult.  The feelings of guilt and sadness are prominent, but I think I discovered in skills practice today that I also have some underlying anger, which was also expressed by the client.  In order to avoid experiencing this anger, an emotion that I am very uncomfortable with, I resisted going too deeply into the client’s emotions in case they opened up my own.

This wasn’t on a conscious level, but something I can recognise on reflection.  Until now, I hadn’t fully realised just how much personal experience can impact the helping relationship and in ways that seem out of your control.

In this case, my own personal experience prevented me getting into the ‘hole’ with the client, seeing things from their internal reference point, and truly offering the empathy that is a core component of the helping relationship.  I was unable to be fully congruent because of my subconscious attempt to protect myself.

I am disappointed with myself because it seems as though I have taken a step back in skills practice.  At the same time, I have found this extremely interesting and most certainly something I can learn and grow from.

If I relate this to the four stages of learning, this was an example of ‘unconscious incompetence,’ not knowing what I didn’t know.  I didn’t know that I had underlying feelings related to a particular situation that might surface during work with a client.

Now that I am aware of this, I have moved into ‘conscious incompetence,’ knowing what I don’t know.  I now know that empathy can be particularly challenging for me in situations where I feel I have to protect my own emotions.

With practice, I am hoping to move into ‘conscious competence,’ where I know how to handle such situations.  Ideally, I want to reach ‘unconscious competence,’ where I can naturally deal with these situations. On the other hand, I can see how that might not ever be possible.  I am sure that counsellors always find themselves in challenging situations that they learn and grow from.

Being a good counsellor is an on-going process that requires continually working through these four stages of learning in order to be personally and professionally proficient.



Categories: Counselling, Personal/Professional Development

Tags: , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Hi Nicola,
    This is a brave post, and your honesty is admirable. It must have been really difficult because of your personal situation. In all events, I believe we have to protect ourselves as a therapist/counsellor otherwise we would burn out and not be able to help anybody. In this case, if you were in a practice, and this client turned up, I would honestly pass this person on to a fellow practitioner who is blank to this scenario. You’re having to deal with your own trauma with your Mum, and you honestly wouldn’t be able to help a person in the same situation. You might even end up worse, and the client as well. At least you have identified an area where you are not comfortable, learning from this and above all protecting yourself is paramount.

  2. I really appreciate your response to this, Susan. You are so right about the need to protect ourselves. Counsellors tend to go into the profession because they are ‘rescuers,’ however, in order to be an effective counsellor you need to also be kind to yourself. This can be the greatest challenge in training!

  3. This is a great process, as you said being a good Counsellor is a process.

  4. what book is the ‘four stages of learning’ process explained? i would love to read more on it

  5. Hi Samia,

    It is a great theory. It actually comes from an oldish source:

    Title: Understanding How People Learn
    Author: David Reay
    Paperback: 96 pages
    Publisher: Kogan Page Ltd (June 30, 1994)

    For more recent information on it, a google search will bring up loads🙂

  6. aw thank you so much I weirdly could’nt find the diagram in any search I did, what you said about protecting yourself this is so similar to the client work I did recently, forms of avoidance can just creep up on you, I found supervision was helpful because I became more mindful, thank you for the book information

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