Counsellors as Agents of Peace

How might counsellors be agents of peace? While one frequently cited journal article concentrates on structural issues such as furthering democracy or psychoeducation, I encourage counsellors to use their unique abilities to help clients make intrapsychic changes in working toward peace in the world.

September 21 was International Peace Day. This prompted me to look around a bit to see what is being written about the connection between therapy and peace. A paper that kept cropping up was “Building Cultures of Peace: An Urgent Task for counselling Professionals” (Journal of Counseling and Development 81(1):115-119, Winter 2003). It begins with a summary of five articles that were written following a symposium on peace and psychology. General topics discussed in that summary include systemic or structural violence resulting from problems such as inequalities, oppression, and environmental destruction; how psychology can help with furthering democracy; non-violence; and detaching notions of conflict from notions of violence.

The article mentioned in that paper that most intrigued me was Daniel Christie’s and Andrew Dawes’ research on tolerance and solidarity, two important ingredients to lasting peace. Among other things, Christie and Dawes posed two incisive questions:

What are the intrapsychic changes that occur when people become more tolerant and develop a wider sense of identity?

What are the optimal means of encouraging these changes?

From the paper:

Christie and Dawes argued that focusing on intrapsychic changes would undoubtedly enhance the ability to understand the process of increasing tolerance. This, in turn, would increase such peace-promoting behaviors as the prevention of violence, the management of protracted conflicts, and reconciliation in the aftermath of ethnopolitical violence. Overall, the authors noted that integrating psychological principles into the development of social policy increased a culture’s ability to develop peace and reduce intolerance while increasing solidarity.

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I found one thing puzzling: The section following the article summary, headed Implications For the Counseling Profession, did not discuss these intrapsychic changes at all. Rather, almost all suggestions to counsellors were of a systemic nature — e.g., counsellors should be educated about peace studies, should become more conversant in multicultural counselling, and should use psychoeducation to help shape non-violent behaviours. Without question, these are useful recommendations — but are they really specific to the counselling profession?

What counsellors do best is to listen to others’ personal thoughts, feelings and personal stories, to empathize, and to collaborate with clients in finding and implementing solutions to their personal challenges. No matter what the circumstances and no matter what the philosophical orientation of the counsellor, counselling always comes back to clients’ inner worlds. The work of counsellors is informed to a large degree (and sometimes exclusively) by the clients’ perception of reality, by their emotions, by their thoughts and memories.

The fact that this is so does not negate, by any means, that this inner world is influenced by outside forces, from peers to politicians, from mothers to media. Nor does it erase the fact that counselling clients can, want to, or maybe should even be encouraged to act on this outside world. The yardstick for counsellors, however, will always be this: how do clients’ actions jive with what’s inside?

It seems to me, therefore, that one of the principal goals of a peace-oriented counsellor would be to find ways to help clients build peace in a way that is congruent with their inner experience. Often that starts literally with making peace with themselves. Groups who have most consistently embodied and propagated peace, such as the Bahá’í, Mennonites, Quakers, and Jain are groups who work hard not only on cultures of peace but also on cultivating inner peace.

I believe that society’s and worldwide values of peace and non-violence cannot be realized and sustained for any length of time without a personal commitment to these values by a majority of the members of society. counsellors are in a unique position to help people develop and nurture these values, to help the world make these intrapsychic changes that Christie and Dawes speak of.

What do you think?

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