Advice or Therapy? Taking a Collaborative Approach with Your Therapist

sign that says possibilitiesPeople are always asking me for advice. I regularly receive requests over email, via my websites and even on Facebook asking me for advice or direction with particular problems or difficulties. Often these requests are for relationship advice, or advice about how to find confidence or how to develop certain ‘communication skills’. It is not unusual for someone to write tell me what to do!


I read all of these requests but have to admit it is rare that ‘answers’ instantly come to me. On the other hand, I am always struck by the curiosity and interest that arises in me and my respect for the person who is looking for a way forward.

Experts in Our Own Lives.

I guess the assumption is that as a therapist, I have knowledge and experience that qualifies me to tell people what to do. Those who contact me assume that my profession means that I will be a better judge of their circumstances than they are, or at least that I will have more insight or skill with the particular problems or situations that take shape in their explanations. But advice is something I am reluctant to give. While I’m not suggesting that having started out as a counsellor over 20 years ago counts for nothing, I would not say that my experience makes me an expert in anyone’s life but my own.

Many of my colleagues would agree with me. Much professional counselling and therapy has moved a long way from the 1950’s when psychodynamic psychology and psychotherapy located the source of problems within the individual seeking treatment and promoted the therapist as the authority, master or even ‘guru’ in matters involving human dilemmas. Fortunately, the therapist’s status as expert in the lives of others is now being questioned.

The Limitless Possibilities of the Therapy Space.

It is true that most therapists and counsellors are trained in particular theories and even encouraged to ‘diagnose’ problems and fit them to these theories. Therapists are considered qualified to know how to respond to ‘types’ of problems be they problems associated with Depression, Anxiety or ‘relationship issues’ etc. However, taking such an approach neglects one of the most exceptional aspects of therapy: therapy as a collaborative activity can create a space where extraordinary things happen.

When a collaborative approach is taken to therapy, multiple understandings can co-exist, new meanings and understandings can evolve and language and the exchange of ideas can open the way for limitless possibilities. Advice-giving, in contrast, is a fairly one-sided process. Therapy is not just listening and it is not advice-giving. At its most exciting and influential, it is a collaborative process which gives us the opportunity to demonstrate and experience the expertise we have in our own lives.

How Collaborative Therapy Evolves and Dissolves Problems.

Collaborative Therapy is about participating in conversations that open up possibilities and ideas. This happens through dialogue and exchange of descriptions we give to things. When we put language to our experiences and to our hopes and intentions, we start to construct meaning and understanding. When we do this in a therapeutic context, we can become collaborators with our therapists in the construction of new and preferred meanings and understandings.

We create our understandings of problems through the language we use. People often talk about therapy giving them a new perspective. As much as I would like to claim credit for handing out new perspectives, I don’t think this is how it works in the conversations I have with people. New perspectives evolve from the dialogue, the conversation in the therapy space, whether in online therapy, a conversation with a therapist in the same room or a group therapy situation. New perspectives help us take the next steps forward and foster hope.

In therapy, like in other conversations, there is usually not just one way of looking at things. Like anyone else, I might have an opinion about a given situation as it is described to me. But as a therapist I am concerned to open the way to new meanings and understandings and continue dialogue, not close down understandings or impose meaning. When problems are defined collaboratively in this way, it is not surprising that the definition of the problem can change over time. Likewise, the therapeutic effect of conversations often continues even outside of the therapy space. Problems gain new and preferred meanings and understandings through talking about them with therapists and others. Problems are not fixed or solved by the therapist, but evolved and dissolved in conversations.

I’m not against advice. I particularly remember the advice certain people have given me at different times in my life which I am grateful for and continue to hold close to me. Advice can be useful and lovely. But therapy and advice are not the same. Collaborative Therapy offers us the opportunity to contribute our own expertise to conversations, open up new meanings and possibilities and find our own ways forward when advice is not enough.

I am indebted to Harlene Anderson for many of the ideas in this article.

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