By: Dennis Gruening
September 24th, 2021
In this third blog about important issues counselors should regularly consider, we are going to discuss interpretation.
People use idioms in their everyday speech all the time. The more people love language, the more they will be aware of their own usage of those idioms. These neat little phrases often help us to communicate a lot of information without saying a lot of words – things get compressed. That is an extremely helpful feature of language. Nowadays, there is what I would call an even bigger contraction of speech into even smaller phrases; you know them as #hashtags.
In either case, what happens is that people are trying to communicate - quickly and concisely. The problem is that this doesn’t always work. Especially with hashtags, people often need a bit more context or they can be totally left in the dark.
Since moving to Germany, my mind has been thinking a lot about two very close cousins: translation and interpretation. I’m mulling over the proper translation of words and concepts for counseling so I can lead them to God’s life-transforming Word. I want to be careful about the proper interpretation of things.
Since moving to Germany, my mind has been thinking a lot about two very close cousins: translation and interpretation.
How do I say in German what I want to say (and have become so accustomed to) in English? How do I translate a diagram or even a short article so I can better care for the hurting around me? These are important things I am working through, but they have application for you and your counseling ministry also.
INTERPRETATION IN COUNSELING
When we teach about counseling in a training context, communication flows mostly in one direction. The teacher communicates concepts and ideas and principles, and the student is trying to soak it in. When doing counseling, however, there is a constant back and forth between counselee and counselor. That is why interpretation is a critical concept. Not every counselee understands immediately what I am saying, and not every time a counselee speaks do I understand immediately what they are saying. We have to interpret carefully what is being said. Not everything can simply be taken at face-value.
You’ve seen this before, I’m sure. “Let’s eat Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma!” If we are not careful about our interpretation, we are in danger of becoming cannibals! Joking aside, this is a tangible example of why punctuation matters in writing. It also matters when you think about how a person would say this. What is the inflection of their voice? What do they emphasize? Why are they doing that?
Not every counselee understands immediately what I am saying, and not every time a counselee speaks do I understand immediately what they are saying.
Moreover, in counseling we must interpret the context properly because one person’s account of a situation will inevitably be partial in scope. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Without heeding this advice, we have disaster in counseling. We must learn to translate a person’s words into a context that is broader than just that person’s perception. Our interpretation is going to be crucial.
CONTEXTS FOR INTERPRETATION
As we continue looking at the idea of careful interpretation of what is happening in the counseling room, I propose we look at three counseling contexts in which interpretation must be done carefully.
Scripture exhorts us to be “quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Further, Proverbs 18:13 reminds us, “If anyone gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Those are “standard” counseling verses.
Let us then begin thinking about the counseling context. We will start with us as counselors. When we sit with people to care for them, what do we know about them? Most of us use PDIs (Personal Data Inventory) to get preliminary information from the counselees about the problems they face. That’s the first place where we must listen carefully and interpret objectively what the counselee is trying to communicate. We must not superimpose our experience or personal thoughts about a person – that would lead to wrong interpretation!
I’m sure every counselor has made that type of mistake as they read the paperwork and formed a picture about the person with whom they will be sitting. Yet, when sitting face to face with the person, the picture changed, and we began to realize that our interpretation was not correct. I know I have made this mistake. It is crucial, therefore, that we listen long, intently, and constantly ask more questions; lest we miss some important information.
We must not superimpose our experience or personal thoughts about a person – that would lead to wrong interpretation!
We must be careful that we do not treat Jim like Bob like Dan like Frank – each person is different, so we cannot interpret one person’s situation in light of another person’s – at least not in a simplistic 1-to-1 transfer. There will be overlap, I’m sure, but our interpretation of a person’s situation should be made first and primarily in light of their story, not someone else’s.
It is pretty clear then, that the counselor must take heed in their interpretation of things. But what about the counselee?
I frequently will exhort my counselees, particularly in sessions with couples, that they must listen to the person next to them as they tell their story. Couples often assume they know each other so well – but they don’t. Time and again I have seen husbands and wives misinterpreting their long-time mate.
Fifteen, twenty, even thirty years of marriage has not automatically born the fruit of deep knowledge and understanding – because selfishness expressed in the manifold-cloaks of sin shrouded each spouse’s ability to rightly interpret the situation.
Couples often assume they know each other so well – but they don’t.
What can we do then? We can help counselees understand that for as much as we seek to be careful to interpret properly what is happening, they need to do the same. Whether it is in relation to their own story which they retell, or their spouse’s story as it is being told, or the counselor’s encouragements and exhortations, lest we are misunderstood.
There are three things I often say related to the counselee’s part in listening.
First, listen attentively and actively with a desire to have grace and compassion toward the speaker.
Second, listen - even when it is hard. Sometimes people repeat what we perceive to be wrong, in whole or in part. Keep listening. Let God use the counseling process to rightly divide the truth. You keep listening, even when you would rather close your ears.
Third, listen long. Especially in intensive counseling retreats, as we do them here at Twelve Stones, it’s easy to stop listening after hours of conversation – but we must prayerfully lean in and continue to be open to what is being said.
Only when we listen with an ear to understand, care and strengthen a hurting soul, will we be able to properly interpret what is being said.
After having soaked up the information in our data gathering, it becomes our turn to speak. People come to us because they want us to help. But what if the information was wrongly interpreted? What if the people we wanted to help are being pushed in a direction that is contrary to what they need most? Was our interpretation correct? It goes without saying, that prayer ought to be our starting point in the process of speaking – we want to be “prophets” in the sense of speaking God’s truth to those who need it. However, we must not suppose that we should only speak by our experience without being led by God! God help us!
On the other hand, what if the situation is different. We have done our job well in listening and have prayed to be able to speak the truth in love. Yet, while speaking we find that the person receiving our words is not being moved by them? What if something is wrong in our communication? What are we doing with our interpretation of what we thought needed to be said? And further, what are we calling our counselees to do with the information they heard? Are we checking in with them, asking them to reflect back what it is we said and how it should be understood? If we are not doing that in counseling, but we are only “teaching at” the counselee, hoping that their response in the moment and in the following days will bear out that they interpreted our words properly, I do not think we are doing our job.
If the person we are sitting with is not responding to what we are saying, or if we don’t seem to get what they are saying, we need to check our interpretation of the current situation.
In both listening and speaking, we must be aware that our assumptions need to be checked. If the person we are sitting with is not responding to what we are saying, or if we don’t seem to get what they are saying, we need to check our interpretation of the current situation.
It should be clear then that both our listening and speaking and that of the counselee(s) requires careful interpretation. Interpretation in counseling is not confined to listening or speaking, however, we must think about two more categories.
This next context is about the response to the previous two contexts. In other words, it is about what is being done with the information gathered earlier. In short, what is our interpretation about the best action steps the counselee(s) should take based on their situation and Scriptural principles?
Essentially, we are then talking about the put-offs and put-ons of counseling. We want to make sure that our counselees are not just doing something, so they feel like they are working on something. We want them to work on things applicable to their situation and do things that God says will bear fruit in their lives. We cannot, however, properly lead them to those exercises, if we do not carefully interpret everything that has happened in the counseling process up to that point.
We want to make sure that our counselees are not just doing something, so they feel like they are working on something. We want them to work on things applicable to their situation and do things that God says will bear fruit in their lives.
How traumatic would it be to counsel an abuse victim to make amends with their abuser, especially if the counselee thinks it’s a bad idea? (Note: I’m not seeking here to address the totality of such cases and the individual responses; I am, and we should be aware that there are great dangers to these complex cases. I guess, in just using the example I’m proving the point of how crucial proper interpretation really is.) What happens if we ask a counselee to tell a person who sinned against them that they are forgiven, when they have yet to ask to be forgiven? What happens when we ask a couple to have date-nights by themselves, when all they ever do is fight with each other? You see, being willing to forgive and working on having date nights are not wrong areas to call a counselee to action. However, if I misinterpret the current context of that situation, it leads to more problems, not less.
Now, on to another category. Here again, it’s a complex issue, and I just want to raise our awareness to these issues. This context is critical for every case, for every soul, we ever care for in counseling. However, if we forget to be careful about this context, our interpretation of the who’s and what’s will be problematic rather than helpful.
What then are we talking about? We are talking about the involvement of other people in the counseling process. Who are we inviting in based on our interpretation of what is best for the counselee(s)? Further, what specifically is our interpretation of (a) what or how much we should share with people, (b) who we should share it with, and (c) when we should share it.
Imagine a pastor is your counselee. The situation is difficult and complex and is related to the leadership structure, and function of that structure, in that pastor’s church. Let’s say the elders believe this pastor needs care because he’s lost his capacity to care well for the sheep. The pastor comes to you for care and in preparation for the case you ask if it is okay to talk to the elders as a way for you to gather more information. Fast forward, you have sat with the pastor, heard his story, and saw his confusion, fatigue, and angst. You have begun to encourage and walk with the pastor and have a plan for him to continue to get better. Then comes the phone call from one of the elders, asking you to share how you have counseled the pastor. What or how much are you going to share with him? Why or why not? What is your interpretation of the situation? What does the tone of voice communicate about the urgency the elder has? Should you share things with him at all? Why or why not? Is the timing right? How are you interpreting that? What are the clues you should follow?
Again, I realize that there is a lot of complexity in this example and talking about HIPPA laws, privacy, confidentiality, etc. all has its place in healthy assessment of how we function as counselors – though that is not the scope of this post. I do use this rather complicated example, however, because as biblical counselors, we are called to care in a different way than secular counselors. We must not forget the community of faith in which a person lives. We must not pit the church member (including a person in leadership) against the church and vice versa. Careful interpretation, in unison with careful counseling practices of confidentiality, is what we are going for.
LET US ASK FOR WISDOM
In 2 Chronicles 1, Solomon asks God for wisdom and knowledge to govern, “for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great.” Being a leader of a nation in your early twenties is tough. Being called to exercise judgment for the people in court matters, as was common in that time, would be harder still. How could a person do this without the wisdom from God?
Counseling is no different. None of us has the wisdom and knowledge to counsel any and all cases and perfectly judge all the complexities in those cases. We must ask God for wisdom. If we want to rightly divide the truth or discern what is going on, we must be careful about our interpretation.
Here are three questions meant to prick the conscience and touch the heart – how will you answer them personally so as to carefully assess and, if need be, adjust your counseling ministry?
In the data gathering process of your cases, how hard do you labor in prayer over your right interpretation of the situation laid before you? More specifically, do you pray and consider the way you did when you first started counseling? Why or why not?
How open are you to the Spirit’s leading or redirecting once you think you have rightly interpreted the situation at hand?
As you evaluate the way you interpret things in your counseling ministry, what would you tell yourself about what needs to be adjusted in terms of your interpretation of situations, words, gestures, actions and attitudes that you encounter in the counseling room?