Why Counselors Must Think Critically

The ability of counselors to think critically has often been over-looked, but this critical topic now appears to be garnering some attention. As I mentioned in my last post, there is a difference between your personal opinion and reasoned thought, or critical thinking. In this post, I will outline the importance of critical thinking skills.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal* is an alarm bell for all future (and many present) counselors. According to the article, “many students cannot recognize reasoning when they encounter it. They have little grasp of the difference between merely ‘saying something’ and constructing an explanation or forming an argument.” In a nutshell, many students today are not learning how to think clearly. And counseling students are no exception. Although the creative and emotional components of the professional therapy field are often emphasized, clear critical thinking skills often are not. Yet, they are essential to the education of a counselor.

This, of course, can spell disaster for clients in several ways. One, without clear critical thinking skills counselors will be unable to properly conceptualize clients’ issues. Two, counselors will be unable to discern between over 400 counseling theories as to which are effective and appropriate for which type of clients and issues. Lastly, people who come to counselors are expecting to receive clear and unemotional guidance. Therefore, if counselors do not possess the skills for clear and unemotional thinking, then how can such counselors help their clients effectively?

Critical thinking skills require not only a knowledge of logic, including how to avoid logical fallacies that lead to unsupported conclusions (which will be covered in the next post), they also require certain character traits, such as discipline, that are necessary to implement the skills. For example, a relationship counselor who cannot control — or even understand — her compulsion to direct clients towards a solution, will likely not be able to provide proper counseling. As we all know, it’s far more beneficial to guide a client towards a solution by employing the client’s own thoughts and resources, than it is to simply tell a client what to do. This takes both critical thought and discipline.

According to the Wall Street Journal article, many professors often present all types of information as equally valid, and do not teach students how to distinguish between creative ideas and empirically supported counseling interventions. Ideally, professors should ensure that students are provided with the general knowledge required for scientific thinking, as well as how specific scientific principles should be applied to counseling. And, yes, I am talking about those principles derived from the “hard” sciences: e.g., chemists, engineers, physicists and such. As it stands currently the onus is on the student to develop these skills on their own. Otherwise they can end up with a degree and a license but not be able to implement their newly-learned skills properly.

Therefore, counselors must understand scientific thinking. Such skills, applied diligently throughout a career, will allow the counselor to obtain valuable science-based ongoing education from journals and seminars, and to avoid the various feel-good but scientifically unsound fallacies that unfortunately seep into the popular culture and then make their way into the psychotherapy arena. Counselors with honed critical thinking skills will be the ones that become known for providing their clients with the best empirically-based interventions, rather than pop culture smoke and mirrors.

Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,

Barbara LoFrisco

* Jacobs, J. (2013, September 17). As education declines, so does civic culture: graduates show little ability to reason, write clearly, and critique other points of view. The Wall Street Journal, p. A15.