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It should not be a surprise that a counselee would withhold information from their counselor. Of course, it leaves the counselor at a significant disadvantage for helping the person when the counselee does not disclose all of the facts about themselves. Though there is a burden for honesty on the counselee’s shoulders, there is an equal, albeit different, burden on the counselor: are they able to steward the counselee’s truth? Can they lead them to self-disclosure?
The significant issue with professional counseling is that it’s an artificial context for temporary relationships. Think about what that means. It’s asking a stranger to be self-revealing with another stranger. Though some counselees may withhold the truth because they are devious and do not want the truth to come out, other counselees do want to tell the truth. Their problem is that they are afraid to do so.
Withholding truth is not always about deception and diversions. Sometimes it’s about trust, hope, and faith in their counselor. “I want to trust my counselor with the truth, but I’m not sure it is wise to be so revealing at this juncture.” Let me give you two illustrations to clarify the point.
A teenager comes to you seeking your help. You’re an adult, and he is not. He has surmised that you’ve talked with his parents. He’s more than likely correct in his assumption. The conflict in his mind is that he genuinely wants your help, but he does not know if he can trust you with all that he wants to say. Here are a few of his conflicting questions.
These questions are valid, and every counselor should be aware of them. Asking a person to level with you is easy to expect but hard to deliver. The counselee is giving you something personal, which makes them vulnerable to you. You must steward their vulnerabilities, which means you cannot fall into the ditches of cowardice—fear of speaking the truth, or foolishness—saying too much, too soon, which shuts them down.
One of the most challenging counseling situations is when you’re meeting with a spouse of a broken marriage. The courage and compassion it takes for the teenager goes to another level with this counseling opportunity. The counselor is walking on a tightrope. You believe what the person is telling you, but you know there is another side to the story (Proverbs 18:13). As you navigate the tight rope, you want to release the counselee from any tentativeness or inhibition that would keep them from speaking openly from their perspective.
The wise disciple-maker would not communicate his disbelief in the person while simultaneously letting the person know that he must learn the whole matter. Within these two biblical aims, he will craft what he needs to say that ensures belief and trust while leaving the door open for more data gathering. Not every counselor can operate at this level of competency.
The weight is on the counselor to communicate compassion, courage, and competence at the same time. If he does this well, it will likely release the tentative soul from withholding all the facts about their problem. Counselors need to lead counselees to this type of transparency, and the counselee needs to know that they are safe, not judged.
A counselee wants a counselor who will hear, understand, and counsel wisely. Carelessness and inconsiderateness will shut down the vulnerable counselee quickly. The counselor knows that he must lead them slowly. Part of his strategy is to incrementally draw them out, which is dependent on the trust that grows between them.
Parenting is an excellent analogy for this issue. You don’t say all that you know to a child, but you wait, watch, build trust, assess the kid’s competence, and speak according to the child’s ability to receive what you have to say. Patience is one of the most valuable traits of a competent counselor. You must wait while weighing the appropriateness of what you need to convey, with the hope of them opening up to you.
Part of the problem with speaking or not speaking is that counseling is an artificial context for accomplishing intense relational goals. There is a difference between doing discipleship in a family, friendship, or church setting versus the somewhat sterile counseling office. For example, in a local church, you have the time and context to build relationally with a person where you can develop and secure their trust over months and even years. The counselor does not have this luxury of time or context.
There is rarely a preexisting trust built into the relationship unless the counselor and counselee know each other. Initially, the counselor’s reputation is all the counselee has to determine how far they should go with truth-telling. This reality is part of why my counseling sessions were two hours—when I did counseling.
I knew that I was working from a disadvantage because I didn’t know the person, and they didn’t know me. Creating time to build a relational bridge to carry the appropriate truth over to them is an essential element when strangers meet. The irony here is that you are withholding the truth, too. They are tentative because they don’t know you, and you’re tentative because you don’t know them.
Even Jesus felt the tension about speaking or withholding. He knew that His friends were not where they needed to be to process everything He knew. Jesus chose the incremental path to lead them. He was a master at stewarding His friends while being cautious about what He said to them and when He said it (John 16:12).
He was not a liar. He was wise. He wanted to make sure that those within His care were capable enough to handle the more profound things of the Lord. This kind of wisdom boils down to the motive of your heart. If you choose to withhold the truth from others, you must ask yourself the “why question.”
Is your heart’s desire to be honest and transparent, but you know you have to be wise in building the necessary trust that they need to open up to you? If you desire to help the person, but you know that slowing down and building relationally is the wiser move, I suggest that you refrain from saying too much too soon.
The folks who come to you want your help. Perhaps they have not seen a working model of relationship building in discipleship contexts. They only know hurt from those who have counseled them in the past. It’s not unusual to experience hurt or harshness from a caregiver. Maybe you’re one of those folks on the painful end of a counseling season.
If you are a disciple-maker, your three relational goals are to show compassion, competence, and courage as you listen to them. They need to know that you’re for them; you want to know their story, perspective, and experience. I’m not suggesting that you believe everything they tell you. Listening with competence requires a kind of courage that does not convey judgment or naiveté.
Jesus could listen to a person without falling into the trap of gullibility. Still, nobody within His sphere would say they felt a lack of care from Him. Biblical soul care lives somewhere between entering into their suffering and not compromising your ability to see clearly into the issues. The only way for you to pull this off is for God to be the controlling emphasis in your life.
If the Lord is the primary person that stabilizes you, there won’t be a controlling tug into a counselee’s drama, which is compassion run amuck, or a desire to be unkind with them, which happens when courage morphs into harshness. Too many counselors entangle themselves in what’s happening on the horizontal plane.
They do this because their relationship with God is not as controlling as the person in front of them, e.g., fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). To be free from the pull of a person’s narrative means the Lord has to have more power over you than the individual you’re helping. There are three types of counselors who fall into this snare—the empathetic trap.
Hurt Counselors – If you have not worked through the major disappointments in your life, you may map those experiences over the person you’re counseling. I see this regularly with those who care for abuse victims. The counselor was a victim of something, and the baggage of their past triggers them when they are caring for those in similar situations. They have yet to learn how to separate their history from the person in front of them. Rather than using what happened to them redemptively, it clouds their judgment. Their inferior stability in God propels them into the vortex of another’s pain.
Angry Counselors – A caregiver can be angry for many reasons. Perhaps it’s from their horrible past. Maybe they are just angry people. Either way, they are not under God’s management, choosing to keep submitting to the power of their anger, regardless of the cause (James 4:1-3). These counselors typically err by being impatient toward the counselee.
Novice Counselors – It could be that the counselor does not have the experience or skillset to counsel at this level. Their inexperience makes them naive and ineffective. Perhaps they are not skilled to counsel formally. Maybe they do not have the gift mix for this type of work. Every Christian with a burden to counsel is not good at it. The novice counselor will not have God’s clarity or wisdom on the situation, which will lead them to hurt their counselees.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).