Step 2: Collect Data
An important part of the first step of counseling involved providing crucial information to the counselee; this was biblically-based information that will help him or her regain perspective on the sovereignty of God. The second step involves getting crucial information from the counselee; information that will help the counselor gain an accurate understanding of the problems with which the counselee is dealing. Experts in the field of biblical counseling rightfully tell us that data gathering is vital to the counseling process (see Eyrich and Hines, 2007, p. 94; Adams, 1973, p. 257).
The Proverbs 18 Principles for Data Collecting
Two principles that counselors need to observe as they engage in this vital step of counseling are found in the eighteenth chapter of the book of Proverbs; thus, we call them the Proverbs 18 principles. The first is Proverbs 18:13, which says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (New American Standard Bible). This verse speaks to the necessity of the counselor gathering enough data to discern the counselee’s root problems. Jumping to quick conclusions and/or seeding within the mind of a counselee ideas associated with certain recognizable behaviors (cataloged in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders1) to get him or her to subscribe to the counselor’s preconceived notion of a particular mental disorder are common ways that this principle is violated in various models of counseling today.
In relation to the latter, the counselor already has within his or her mind a predetermined “answer,” based not on data collected but upon common behaviors associated with mental illnesses listed in the DSM-V; and he or she “baits” the counselee, seeking to get him or her to “subscribe” to the predetermined answer by identifying with the behaviors that the “experts” have attached to it. The prudent Christian counselor will avoid this and other techniques which serve as shortcuts or detractors from gathering accurate data from the counselee. He or she will also avoid any practices which violate Proverbs 18:17, the second primary principle underlying this step of counseling. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first one to plead his cause seems right until his neighbor comes and examines him” (New King James Version). This principle especially needs to be applied in cases involving marriage problems. It has been said that wise counselors listen with only one ear when a spouse complains about his or her marriage, for they know that every marriage has two spouses with two perspectives and two sets of facts. Every person has been given two ears to listen to both sides of every situation.
The application of this principle needs to be extended to congregations and Christian organizations, especially in cases where a counselor or a ruling body is placed in the position of trying to determine if a person is innocent or guilty of the accusation against him or her. The scenarios in which this principle is most often violated are those wherein the person “pleading his cause” is 1) a member of a well-established or influential family in the congregation or organization which is closely associated with the counselor or ruling body; 2) a family member, friend, or close acquaintance of the counselor or ruling body; or 3) one who is a fellow worker (i.e., a colleague) in the same vocational field (profession) as the counselor or the majority of the people who make up the ruling body. In these scenarios there is a great potential to show favoritism to the one “pleading his cause,” to the exclusion of gathering sufficient data from the other party or side(s) needed for a proper judgment. What must be remembered in these situations is that even the best Christian “pleading his cause” will sometimes fall prey to his or her sinful nature and use reason, emotion, and his or her professional relationships to press his or her claims, regardless of whether or not the facts and opinions he or she is setting forth are rooted in the truth. Getting the truth revealed about the problem, issue, or situation being examined must always be the goal. This is because “getting truth on the table” and appropriately dealing with the truth will always be the path which yields the highest measure of glory to God. It will also be the path which ultimately pays the richest spiritual dividends to all involved, regardless of the time invested and emotional turmoil experienced.
We understand, then, that collecting data is vital in granting to the counselor the necessary insights to understand the truth about the counselee’s problems. Since possessing an accurate understanding of his or her problems is, in part, dependent upon the counselee being truthful, the counselor needs to communicate the importance of receiving from him or her honest and accurate information. He or she might wish to say to the counselee in one of the opening sessions, “In order for me to help you, I need to receive a clear, accurate, and honest picture of what has been happening in your life. If I do not receive this, I will not be able to provide the counsel you need. Of greater concern, I might give you the wrong counsel which could be very damaging, either adding new problems or possibly making your current problems worse than they are now.”
The Primary Instruments for Collecting Data
The Personal Data Inventory
The Personal Data Inventory, abbreviated PDI, is the primary
instrument that most biblical counselors use to collect initial data from their counselees. There are many variations of this instrument. You may wish to do a word search on the Internet and look at some of the different PDIs used by biblical counselors. An excerpt from a portion of the PDI used at the Shepherd’s Way Central, which functions under the oversight of the Bethany United Reformed Church of Wyoming, Michigan, is featured below.
The most effective and efficient form of collecting data during the counseling session is the interview. Because interviewing is such an important part of the data collecting process in counseling, we are going to spend time looking at some of the basic elements of effective interviewing.
Effective interviewing involves active listening and effective note-taking. Remembering the acronym FEAR will assist you in remembering some of the key points that will help you listen actively to the counselee during the session. Let’s briefly consider each aspect of this acronym for effective listening.
Focus on the Counselee
The importance of the counselor possessing a humble attitude was emphasized earlier in our discussion on building relationships, and a reference was made to Philippians 2:5–7. Here we will focus on a couple of verses which immediately precede that passage as a means of underscoring the most important element in active listening—focusing on the counselee. In verses 3 and 4 of the second chapter of Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (New King James Version).
Submitting oneself to this exhortation is difficult enough in the common affairs we deal with in our everyday lives. If we are honest, most of us will have to admit that we far too often entertain thoughts of being better, wiser, or more spiritual than someone else. In the area of counseling, it can be even more difficult to obey Paul’s inspired words, given the counselor is often dealing with the sin and shortcomings of those he has been called to serve.
As you counsel, it is important that you recognize the potential war that will be waged by your sinful nature (the old man) as counselees begin to share with you their particular sins and shortcomings. The primary weapon the “old man” often employs in this battle is the battle axe of self-righteousness. This soul-injuring weapon will be thrust at your soul by deadly impulses, which will produce in your mind conceited thoughts like, “I can’t believe he could do something so foolish; I would never do something like that!” It is possible that some of you who are reading this work have already been damaged inwardly by this weapon without even recognizing it.
One of the ways that you can tell if you have incurred such inward damage is by honestly evaluating your thought and communication patterns. If you have become habituated in thought and communication patterns wherein you are regularly portraying yourself, your family, your church, your denomination, your Christian school, your business, etc., as being more important than others, or as being beyond the possibility of erring or falling prey to some type of sin, deception, or theological aberration, you have been damaged inwardly by this brutal weapon. The battle axe of self-righteousness, which is nothing less than pride, has not only damaged your relationship with God, but it has also likely damaged your relationship with other Christians; it has, minimally, prohibited you from forming and/or effectively maintaining relationships with other believers.
Two things must occur if you desire to be healed of the damage you have personally allowed the old man to inflict upon your soul and the souls of others. The first is heartfelt repentance. You have sinned against God by thinking of yourself more highly than you ought and must confess before the face of God that you have possessed a sinful opinion of your own spirituality, abilities, and importance. As you make confession, acknowledge that any spiritual insight, knowledge, growth, or maturity you possess has come to you by God’s providence working in association with the free gift of faith that was imparted to you at the time of your new birth. In short, admit that it is by grace alone through faith in Christ’s work alone (i.e., through his active and passive obedience) that you were adopted as a child of God and that you continue to grow in sanctification and the grace and knowledge of God. While you are alone with God, you might wish to preach the following simple, six-word/three-point sermon to yourself: Grace alone (sola gratia)! Faith alone (sola fide)! Christ alone (solus Christus)! In light of the truth of this simple sermon, repent of your sin of pride and remind yourself that if it were not for the grace of God working in your life, the same ignorance, sin, or shortcoming that you have encountered in the lives of other professing Christians in general, and your counselee’s life in particular, would be seen in your own life.
For some people, repentance may be necessary for the often well- disguised gloating you do in relation to your intellectual giftedness. If you have engaged in such unsanctified boasting.
Acknowledge that any intellectual, physical, or social abilities you possess have been given to you by God.
Remind yourself that every talent and ability you possess is a gift from your Creator to be used for the purpose of glorifying God! Neither the natural talents nor the spiritual gifts that you possess are to be used to deliver proud and arrogant remarks which belittle others while exalting yourself.
Fervently request that God will grant you the necessary lowliness of mind that is necessary to esteem others as better (or more important) than yourself (Phil. 2:3).
No counselor can really focus his or her full attention on the counselee in such a way as to hear and minister to the issues of his or her heart if “self” is in the way. Only the person who is truly committed to denying himself or herself, taking up his or her cross daily, and following the wonderful Counselor is fit to counsel or effectively minister the Word in any other capacity.
Another thing that often gets in the way of focusing on counselees, especially when one has had to deal with the problems of others for an extended period of time, is what might be called a low-grade cynicism. Instead of bearing with counselees in love as the Holy Spirit does His work of sanctification in their lives, one just wants to “fix the problems” and move on to the next case. As we deal with problems in the lives of God’s people, we must always remember that God has a purpose for each one which unfolds in their lives. Our job is to be used of the Lord to reflect his abiding love for them and faithfully bring his truth to bear in their lives in the midst of the problem(s) he has ordained for them.
Empathizing involves experiencing as one’s own the feelings of another. The objective being emphasized here is not so much directed toward the Emotional Domain as it is toward trying to understand what the counselee is going through (as if you were walking in his or her shoes). It is critically important that you convey the message, both verbally and through body language, that you are deeply concerned and most earnestly desire to come alongside the counselee as he or she tries to make sense of the trial. It is also important, at all times and in every situation, to convey with your attitude, actions, and words that God is in control and will work all things out in accordance with his will for his glory and his child’s good, regardless of how impossible things look and how overwhelmed anyone may be.
As you interact with the counselee empathetically, listen carefully to what he or she says and how he or she says it. Take note of any significant changes in the cadence, tone, or pitch of his or her voice as he or she speaks. Such changes can provide insight into the emotional level at which the counselee is experiencing the problem. Also take note of the nonverbal communication or body language of the counselee during the session.
Acknowledge what the counselee is communicating. Use nonverbal cues (e.g., head nods) and short verbal cues (e.g., “uh-huh”) to acknowledge that you understand what the counselee is saying. Utilizing cues not only acknowledges the counselor’s reception of information; it also encourages the counselee to continue expressing his or her thoughts. It is important to allow the counselee’s train of thought to run its course without interruption as much as possible after each question is asked. If the counselee begins to wander away from the question being asked by getting caught up in nonessential details, verbal directives need to be given to redirect the counselee so his or her thoughts will track in concert with the question asked. At times, restating the question is necessary in such a scenario. On the other hand, if the counselee begins to repeat himself or herself, the counselor should either ask more specific questions to obtain necessary details or move on to the next question.
Respond to the counselee with verbal and nonverbal expressions of concern, sadness, joy, etc., as he or she shares with you. Use your body position (e.g., leaning forward) to signal that you are paying attention and are interested in what he or she has to say.
Active listening is an important skill to be utilized in the interviewing process. It is also a skill which greatly enhances relationships among spouses in marriage and members in churches. May God be pleased to give us both the essential disposition of mind (humility) and the skills necessary to better listeners!
1. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a manual used by clinicians, health insurance companies, researchers, and others, which provides a common classification of mental disorders. It is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Most biblical counselors agree that the DSM can be useful for matters associated with describing various problems encountered in counseling. They will also warn of the dangers of using its often deadly prescriptions.
Dr. Jeff L. Doll is director at The Institute for Reformed Biblical Counseling, director at The Shepherd’s Way Biblical Counseling Center in Holland, MI, and pastor of biblical counseling at Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI.