By: Scott O'Malley
When I graduated college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Through a series of events and God’s providence, I was exposed to biblical counseling in my late twenties. Over the years I received counseling training and began to counsel occasionally for my church. By the time I was in my early thirties, I was a growing Christian, knew my Bible well, loved people, was eager to help, had attended many biblical counseling conferences, observed others counseling, and read many books. Yet I was completely ineffective in actually helping people change. You may be wondering, how is this possible? While there were numerous reasons I wasn’t helpful, the short answer is that I didn’t know how to get to the root of a person’s struggles and actually help them change at a heart level. “Appearing nearly 1000 times in the Bible, heart can have a broad range of meaning, but at its core are our motivations. Simply put, the heart’s root motivation is, I WANT” (Ed Welch, Motives pg. 6). In other words, I was ineffective because I did not yet understand how to identify the “I want” of a person’s life that got in the way of his or her love for Christ.
In this article I have three goals:
Persuade you of the importance of listening to a person’s life story.
Briefly describe the process of gathering a life story.
Introduce the idea of how to use a person’s life story to identify the predominant heart issue.
Before discussing its importance, let me explain what I am referring to by a life story. A life story is when a person shares the events, circumstances, and relationships throughout their life that has influenced them to be the person they are today. While people are usually very interested in talking about the current struggle, it is important to start the life story as far back as the person can remember, and even having some family history about their childhood before their earliest memories.
The Importance of a Life Story
Why is listening to a person’s life story so important? The primary reason is because a person’s upbringing has shaped them to be who they are today and they often do not realize the impact. While we never want to blame others for sin struggles, we do want to understand how a person’s upbringing molded them to be who they are today. To further answer the question of why a life story is so important, allow me to let some people who experienced counseling at Twelve Stones tell you themselves. The following are reactions to the question of what was most helpful about their time at TS:
“I was amazed at how, after 1 day [of listening to her life story], my counselor was able to know me better than I know myself.”
“The reflection on my life story and seeing/acknowledging blind spots.”
An advocate (a friend who sat through the counseling) said this: “Carl* (name changed to protect privacy) really opened up about his story. The counselor was able to get him to talk and in the process the root problem became apparent . . . During the counseling I was able to finally know what Carl was dealing with from his past.”
At TS, we provide three-day intensive counseling retreats where people receive 16 or 17 hours of counseling in those three days (www.twelvestones.org). During that time each counselee is given at least three hours to share his or her life story. We recognize that in a typical local church environment spending 16 hours over three days is not practical or sustainable. We understand that there is no need for everyone to follow our format, but we do encourage people involved in weekly counseling to at least extend the first session to two or three hours per person. When people have the opportunity to share their life story in one sitting, they feel heard, known, and understood. They are also able to see themselves more clearly. Finally, as counselors, we can begin addressing the root of the problem sooner, which will lead to change and provide hope much more quickly.
The Process of Gathering a Life Story
If you are convinced hearing a person’s life story is important, how do you go about gathering the story? At Twelve Stones, we like to “turn a person loose” and let them talk about whatever comes to mind with a little bit of guidance and some follow-up questions. The way I like to gather a life story is by asking the counselee to verbally walk me through their life, from the beginning to the present day. I’m looking for themes and patterns, especially examining these five areas:
View of God
View of self
Highlights (good memories and events)
Lowlights (painful, bad memories and events)
Similarly, in a resource I highly recommend for this conversation on identifying heart issues, Jeremy Pierre asks us to “consider how the heart responds cognitively, affectively, and volitionally to each of the four aspects of a person’s situation: God, self, others, and circumstances” (The Dynamic Heart pg. 181).
As people then begin to share their life story, I keep these five focal points visible on the whiteboard and I ask clarifying questions as needed. I want them to be free to talk because out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). I also want to understand their thoughts and feelings, and how that impacted their choices throughout their life. My goal during this time is to get behind their eyes and see life like they see life; then, and only then, am I ready to give wise counsel (Proverbs 18:13).
As the person shares, I type out any key statements that the person makes because I want to retell the person’s story back to them in a condensed format and in their own words. Quoting exact words when possible can be very powerful. At Twelve Stones we use a program called Nova Mind because it allows us to get a lot of information on a single page. However you gather your information, it is important to retell or reframe the person’s story in such a way that they understand themselves at a deeper level than before.
The Process of Identifying the Ruling Heart Issue
Once I have the person’s story typed out on a single page I will read it back to him or her. While I am reading it back I am seeking to accomplish two things: first, did I hear the person accurately? And second, what are the recurring themes and patterns in the story? Many people who need counseling are so overwhelmed with their life that they are not paying attention to their thoughts and feelings. They are just reacting to circumstances, and often very poorly. Asking a counselee to identify themes and patterns in their own story can be very eye-opening for them. Once they have identified a handful of themes I then open it up to the room so the person’s spouse and/or advocate(s) can then jump in and help. Proverbs 11:14 says in the abundance of counselors there is safety. Hebrews 3:12-13 teaches us that insight is the product of community. Therefore, I do not want to pretend I have all the wisdom and insight, I allow others in the room to help in this process; and all of it is bathed in prayer.
After getting everyone’s thoughts on the themes they observed, we typically come up with 12 – 20 different recurring themes in the person’s story. I then identify the “I wants” from the list of themes because I am trying to understand what is the most potent desire a person has that gets in the way of his/her love for Christ. Some of the more common “I wants” that end up on the list include: affirmation, love, meaning, belonging, success, respect, to be heard/have a voice, fun, and pleasure. At this point I am reviewing in my mind the person’s life-story, prayerfully considering which of these desires seems the weightiest. I am looking for a desire that consistently leads to sinful choices when he or she does not get that desire met or temporary joy when the desire is met. It is a process that takes practice and leaning on other people to help you, but with God’s help you can learn to do this too.
A really important part of this process is to make sure you are seeking to help the people you counsel to understand themselves. You want to draw out their desires so they see it rather than you just telling them “trust me; this is your heart issue.” Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” As a result, I do not move on until the counselee has agreed upon the ruling heart motive identified by the group.
One important clarification: by focusing on one ruling motive, I do not mean to imply that a person sins for only one specific reason. John Calvin rightly stated, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” While I completely agree with that statement, I find it helpful to address the biggest area of struggle and then allow the advocate in the normal flow of discipleship and friendship to gradually help the counselee address other lesser idols.
Next week, we will use a case study to practice discerning a heart issue in the life of a counselee and demonstrate how gathering a life story is significantly helpful in marriage counseling. I will seek to demonstrate what this process of drawing out the heart looks like and how it can radically transform your ability to help marriages that are in trouble.
Questions for Reflection
What are your thoughts about taking the time to hear a person’s life story in one sitting? How can this practice be beneficial in your counseling?
Consider the process you currently go through to gather information about a counselee. Are there any changes you intend to make as a result of reading this article?
Reflect on the statement: insight is the product of community. How well are you doing at leveraging the insight of others in your counseling? Consider how you can better incorporate advocates, co-counselors, or observers to strengthen your own counseling.
Scott O’Malley is the Executive Director of Twelve Stones Ministries and has worked there since 2007. He holds a Master’s Degree in Biblical Counseling from the Master’s University and is an ACBC Certified Counselor. He and his wife Tara have been married since 1992 and they have 8 children, one of whom is adopted. You can read more articles written by Scott at www.twelvestones.org/blog.