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HELPING RELATIONSHIPS: STAGES

The helping relationship is a constant throughout the counseling or psychotherapeutic process. The definitive characteristics we have already presented indicate that the relationship must be present from the initial meeting between the client and the counselor or therapist and continue through closure. Viewing the helping relationship as a constant throughout the helping process leads to visualizing this process from a developmental perspective. This development can best be viewed in terms of a narrow path whose limits are established by the client's fear, anxiety, and resistance. Such client reactions should not be seen as a lack of commitment to change; rather, they need to be understood in terms of the unknown nature of this developing alliance and the fact that this may be the first time the client has experienced this type of interaction. These reactions are often shared by the counselor or therapist, based on his or her level of experience. The path broadens through the development of trust, safety, and understanding as this relationship develops. The once-narrow path becomes a boulevard along which two persons move courageously toward their final destination – change. The movement along this broadening path is described by various authors in terms of stages or phases. Osipow, Walsh, and Tosi (1980), in discussing the stages of the helping relationship, stated:

Persons who experience the process of personal counseling seem to progress through several stages. First, there is an increased awareness of self and others. Second, there is an expanded exploration of self and environment (positive and negative behavioral tendencies). Third, there is increased commitment to self-enhancing behavior and its implementation. Fourth, there is an internalization of new and more productive thoughts and actions. Fifth, there is a stabilization of new behavior, (p. 73)

Brammer (1985) divided this developmental process into two phases, each with four distinctive stages. The first phase, building relationships, includes preparing the client and opening the relationship, clarifying the problem or concern of the client, structuring the process, and building a relationship. The second phase, facilitating positive action, involves exploration, consolidation, planning, and termination.

Purkey and Schmidt (1987) developed three stages in building the helping relationship, each containing four steps. The first stage, preparation, includes having the desire for a relationship, expecting good things, preparing the setting, and reading the situation. The second stage, initiating responding, includes choosing caringly, acting appropriately, honoring the client, and ensuring reception. The third and final stage is follow-up and includes interpreting responses, negotiating positions, evaluating the process, and developing trust.

Egan (2002) stated that the helping relationship minimally can be broken down into three phases: relationship building, challenging the client to find ways to change, and facilitating positive client action. The goal in the first phase is to build a foundation of mutual trust and client understanding. In the second phase, the counselor challenges the client to "try on" new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. In the third phase, the counselor aids the client in facilitating actions that lead toward change and growth in the client's life outside the counseling relationship.

Authors such as Corey and Corey (2011), Gladding (2009b), Hackney and Cormier (1996), and Halverson and Miars (2005) have provided other models of the developmental nature of the stages of the helping relationship. Although the terms used to describe these stages may differ, there seems to be a consistency across these models: The reader moves from initiation of the relationship through a clinically based working stage to a termination stage. The following developmental stages show our conceptualization of this relationship-building process and are based on the consistency found in our research and our clinical experience.

Stage 1: Relationship development. This stage includes the initial meeting of client and counselor or therapist, rapport building, information gathering, goal determination, and informing the client about the conditions under which counseling will take place (e.g., confidentiality, taping, counselor/therapist/client roles).

Stage 2: Extended exploration. This stage builds on the foundation established in the first stage. Through selected techniques, theoretical approaches, and strategies, the counselor or therapist explores in depth the emotional and cognitive dynamics of the person of the client, problem parameters, previously tried solutions, decisionmaking capabilities, and a reevaluation of the goals determined in Stage 1.

Stage 3: Problem resolution. This stage, which depends on information gained during the previous two stages, is characterized by increased activity for all parties involved. The counselor's or therapist's activities include facilitating, demonstrating, instructing, and providing a safe environment for the development of change. The client's activities focus on reevaluation, emotional and cognitive dynamics, trying out new behaviors (both inside and outside of the sessions, and discarding those that do not meet goals.

Stage 4: Termination and follow-up. This stage is the closing stage of the helping relationship and is cooperatively determined by all persons involved. Methods and procedures for follow-up are determined prior to the last meeting.

It is important to keep in mind that people do not automatically move through these identified stages in a lockstep manner. The relationship may end at any one of these stages based on decisions made by the client, the counselor or therapist, or both. Nor is it possible to identify the amount of time that should be devoted to any particular stage. With certain clients, much more time will need to be devoted to specific stages. D. Brown and Srebalus (1988), in addressing the tentative nature of these relationship stages, have the following caution for their readers:

Before we describe a common sequence of events in counseling, it is important to note that many clients, for one reason or another, will not complete all the stages of counseling. The process will be abandoned prematurely, not because something went wrong, but because of factors external to the counselor-client relationship. For example, the school year may end for a student client, or a client or counselor may move away to accept a new job. When counseling is in process and must abruptly end, the participants will feel the incompleteness and loss. (p. 69)

Viewing the helping relationship as an ongoing process that is composed of developmental stages provides counselors and therapists with a structural framework within which they can function effectively. Inside this framework fit the core conditions and strategies that serve the goals of movement through the relationship process and enhancement and encouragement of client change. We discuss these core conditions and strategies in the following two sections.

 
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