Saturday, 11 January 2014

Being a Guide on the Side

Thompson and Rudolph’s (1992, p. 19) definition of counselling encompasses four components. Firstly the client’s thoughts and feelings about where they are in their life currently; secondly, their thoughts and feelings about where they want to be; and, thirdly – if there is a gap between actual and want – the development of plans and actions. The fourth and last component is that reducing this gap must all be led by the client and supported by the career practitioner, which I like to think of as two roles: a seeker – client – and a guide on the side – practitioner (King, 1993, p. 30).

Thinking about our distinct roles as seeker and guide helps me to ensure that the power stays where it belongs: with my client. It also frees me to be creative, which is very liberating for both of us.

Alison King wrote an article called the Sage on the stage to guide on the side. In adult education circles this has become a catch phrase for teachers stepping back and allowing discovery, for allowing real, active learning. Alison defined active learning as “simply means getting involved with the information presented; really thinking about it (analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating) rather than just passively receiving it and memorizing it” (1993, p. 31). We have to dig in, and get our hands dirty. Someone can’t just tell us what to do and that’s it; we have to try it for ourselves with our own guide on the side.

Sound mentoring is crucial. As a professional career practitioner, it is a normal part of practice to have regular supervision; to have a safe pair of hands to hold up a steady and supportive mirror so we can adapt, change and grow.

However, once we are with a client, it can be difficult to stay in the 'guide' zone. While it does become easier with practice, I find reflection is a key tool to keeping my desires out of my client's mix. I keep a reflective log and record items to later review and discuss with my mentors. Reflection is a familiar and reassuring practice.

If done honestly, reflection is a wonderful tool for deconstructing situations, processes and participants, so that we can clearly consider what went well or what could be improved.

In reflecting on upon my performance in situations where things went less well than I would have expected, I find it useful to consider three practice components – attending, empathy and responding – and think through what went well, and what could have been improved in each. I seek structured feedback from clients, mentors and students, and compare the responses with previous years. This enables me to look for trends over time, particularly when I am developing new skills and tools.

Empathy, being able to put myself in my client’s shoes, is a key career practitioner skill. However, when I see unrepentant violence, harm, dishonestly, abuse of power and self-destructive behaviours from a client, my personal values could switch the focus from the client to myself. If a client is seeking growth, change and is seeking to build, I have no problem empathising; we all muck up in our lives, and everyone should have at least one more chance than society will allow. If they are fearful, ditto. But I could find it difficult to empathise with a client who is blind to – or worse, doesn't care about – harm of their own creating.

We humans are awesome readers of micro-expressions, so my aping empathy is not going to fool anyone. True empathy only comes from my inner, deep and true acceptance of each being as they really are.

But if I stay firm in my role of guide, I don't get attached to my client's values. This helps me to avoid unwarranted – and unhelpful – judgments that would otherwise limit my ability to assist my client. Being a guide means I am positive, optimistic, future-focused, supportive, and, while I have no personal investment in the outcome, I am there to assist the client to build capacity for the client.

I am aware of the risks taking the role of rescuer, where dependency may easily form. To help prevent this, I tend to use Covey’s simple models (1989) to guide the client to healthy interdependence. This is a state where, as we gain perspective and wisdom in life, we become “increasingly aware that all of nature is interdependent” (Covey, 1989, p. 49). Our greatest rewards and challenges as humans come from what we do, create and build together.

Daniel Goleman's 1998 construct of Emotional Intelligence (EI) also provides some a wonderful tools and insights into the brain where it intersects with modern neuroscience for understanding the role of a guide. I have recently participated in an online EI course, run by Dr Robert Boyatzis, and found his work on the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) very relevant to guiding clients (2013).

The PEA occurs when our Parasympathetic Nervous System is aroused, where we feel hopeful and positive. In this state, we are focused on our future, our dreams and possibilities. We are optimistic and excited about trying something new, and we have meaningful relationships. We secrete hormones that increase our blood flow, we feel warmer, our blood pressure and pulse drop and our breathing is slow, deep and relaxed. Our immune system is operating at full strength (Boyatzis, 2013).

When clients and ourselves as guides are using the PEA, we have positive, open body language, our mood is light, there is a positive energy level, we lean toward each other, we maintain eye contact, we smile and we are attentively engaged in conversation. We end a session and feel buzzy, warm and empowered.

When we arouse hope, compassion, mindfulness and playfulness in our clients, we invoke the PEA. The PEA helps us to begin and sustain desired change. Lasting change ONLY happens in PEA state, according to the findings of Dr Boyatzis and his team (2013).

On the other hand, the PEA's opposite is the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA). The NEA helps us to address threats, problems and extrinsic expectations imposed by others and the environment; it drives our fight or flight response. When our Sympathetic Nervous System is aroused, we are in an NEA state of negativity and fear, living in the past or the future, worried about problems or the expectations of others. We are pessimistic, only seeing weaknesses, plagued by ‘shoulds’ and have dissonant relationships. We secrete adrenaline, our pulse and blood pressure go up, we fill up with cortisol, and our immunity drops and cellular repair stops (Boyatzis, 2013; Foley & Boyatzis, 2012). Wow. All that biological response from negativity. Every time.

As we tend to remember negative experience for a much longer time than positive experiences, so we must focus on the positive in order to stay balanced. We need do get into PEA four times as often as NEA. The trouble is, in our modern lives, it is more often the other way around (Boyatzis, 2013). We really do get full of negativity, manifesting in stress-related ills; high blood pressure, tension-related injuries, heart disease and stroke.

'Should' is a word that must not occur in PEA conversations. As soon as we do this, we invoke the NEA, closing people down, limiting their thoughts, narrowing and pinching their body language, isolating their brain and creating a slough of despond. Even small amounts of 'should' can be the death knell to a session, and sometimes even to a client/practitioner relationship.

The neuroscience behind this is fascinating. Dr Boyatzis and his team have studied brain responses and chemical changes in the bodies of people in both the PEA and NEA states using MRI. It is clear that the PEA enables us to expand to take on new ideas; the NEA shuts us down so we can’t (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008; Foley & Boyatzis, 2012).

Try this simple experiment.
  1. Think about a time when a friend told you a positive story about something you did well in the past. Reflect on the story. While you are reflecting on it, how do you feel? Be conscious of your feelings, your posture, your movements and even your heart rate.
  2. Now think about a time when someone told you about things that you need to change about yourself to be better. Think about the situation and your reaction to it. Reflect on how that made you feel mentally and physically, and what response it provoked in you.
Consider your reaction to both stories from your past. Did you have a net positive gain from thinking about the two? Were the two neutral? Or did your second story feel so overwhelmingly negative that you couldn’t stay in the moment? If your reaction was like the one I had, you might have been surprised at the level of negativity this little experiment provoked. I have been reflecting on the incredible power of negativity since taking this course.

King (1993, p. 30) said that learning in the 21st century needed people not to dictate as if they are a “sage on the stage” with all the answers and have clients who are passive, but instead act “as a ‘guide on the side’, facilitating learning in less directive ways”, with active, engaged and positive seekers.

If I didn't seek continuous improvement via reflection, mentoring and professional development, to stay aware of who I am, what I project, and what is current with the values, insights and desires of our evolving society, I would not only lose my ability to see what the client truly seeks, I would lose my ability to guide in the PEA, without investment or judgement in my client’s desired outcomes.

Remember the impact of the NEA. No one can afford to be the sage on the stage, and tell people what they ‘should’ do: we now know that change isn’t going to happen that way. We will only spark resentment, negativity and cause physical damage.

Be a guide on the side.


  • Boyatzis, Richard E (2013). Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence. USA: Case Western [Course Materials]
  • Covey, Dr Stephen R. (1989). Maturity Continuum. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. Australia: The Business Library
  • Foley, Eric & Boyatzis, Richard E. (2012). Freedom Fighters: Coaching to the Positive in Extreme Negative Situations: Helping Defectors in Their New Home. Coaching at Work, May/June 2012, Volume 7, issue 3 (pp. 26-29)
  • Goleman, Daniel (1998). What Makes A Leader. USA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation Ltd (pp. 1-11) 
  • Goleman, Daniel & Boyatzis, Robert E. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review, September 2008, Volume 86, issue 9 (pp. 74-81).
  • King, A. (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching, 41(1). 30-35.
  • Thompson, Charles L & Rudolph, Linda B (1992). Counselling Children (3rd Edition). USA: Brooks/Cole Publishers 


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