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Don't be Nice—Be Helpful!
The task of the counsellor is daring to be vulnerable enough to encourage a client to move beyond discouragement.

Understanding the dynamics of encouragement is vital for those of us wanting to help people facing difficulties. A large part of the counselling process is encouraging those who have become discouraged in dealing with problems. As a matter of fact, people don't usually come to a therapist because they have a problem, but because they become disheartened in dealing with it. And apart from our professional activities, we want to offer effective support to our friends and family.

True Encouragement

So if encouragement is so important, what is it? A smile and a polite comment such as "you can make it" is not encouragement. Such statements burden others and engender a feeling "that you just don't understand how difficult it is for me."

Webster defines "courage," the key to the concept, as: "the attitude or response of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it"; (Webster's New World Dictionary; College Edition).

Encouragement, therefore, is putting courage or heart and spirit into someone. And this help must come with love.

Successful counsellors genuinely desire to help others and to be involved in their struggles. But some of us find this risky, so we shy away taking refuge in the safety of courtesy and non-involvement. What we fear, of course, is getting hurt in the process of developing intimacy, and perhaps not being accepted and liked by the other person.

Much discouragement, our clients' and our own, is due to wrong beliefs about ourselves, others and life in general.

In addition to loving others, we need to convey that we understand their fear and appreciate their dilemma. Unless our clients or friends know we are speaking "heart to heart," they will tend to disregard "helpful" comments. Drawing on our own experience of discouragement and frailty will enable us to identify with another's despair and then speak the needed "right" word.

Basis of Discouragement, Goal of Encouragement

Understanding why problems arise and establishing sound goal for our counselling is another key to instilling courage in others. Here again we can empathize because of our own experience. Much discouragement, our clients' and our own, is due to wrong beliefs about ourselves, others and life in general. The first error is to not accept life as it really is, and the second is to net see all the possible alternatives when that reality is faced.

Many of us plan on the basis of wishful thinking rather than reality. But if we want health and growth we must give up comforting illusions and move into the often threatening realm of reality. Here our clients or friends need help to take the journey. As the Toronto psychiatrist James Wilkes says: "The movement forward through illusion into reality cannot be accomplished without one of God's special gifts—the gift of courage."

As an encourager, we can assist people to learn how to deal realistically with inner and outer worlds and courageously face problems. External problems include holding down difficult jobs, meeting tight budgets, dealing with health problems and, more than anything, just getting along with the people around us.

Internal issues encompass dealing with such common "problem" feelings as fear, guilt, anger and inadequacy. Of these, fear is probably the worst to face; it causes us to lose heart and the temptation to quit is strong.


Avoidance of responsibility, lack of confidence, excessive need for attention and control, and an avoidance of any competition are signs of discouragement. There is also a strong need for perfection (i.e. "Unless I am faultless I am worthless"). And at the heart of the whole process is blame; we find it easier to fault someone else than accept our responsibility.

The Process

Understanding the process of discouragement and the goals of encouragement, identification with the person in need and a loving attitude will enable us to take risks in helping others claim the courage to face life.

On our part the process may entail listening, saying the appropriate word, sharing a book or article, opening up on occasion ourselves and sometimes challenging the other person. It means understanding the person and situation as fully as possible and holding judgment in abeyance. Finding language or illustrations that are meaningful to the person in need is another challenge.

Encouragement is therefore not an easy "technique" to use. It can be costly, scary and humbling, but also very rewarding. It is costly because it takes effort, scary because we may be rejected, and humbling because it involves acknowledging our own weaknesses. But the reward is great when we feel we have truly helped someone.

Used with permission, Institute of Family Living, 120 Eglington Ave. East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 1E2,




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