Psychology and the Reflective Counsellor

With an entertaining and thought-provoking style, ‘Psychology and the Reflective Counsellor’ brings basic, straightforward knowledge from current psychology to counselling.

Rating: 4.5

Psychology and the Reflective Counsellor

By , 1998. ISBN 1854332619. BPS Blackwell. 196 pages.

Setting out to summarize key points from current psychological knowledge and to link the psychological ideas clearly to counselling practice, this book fills a gap which has not, to my knowledge, been well addressed previously. It is not so much a book about ‘counselling psychology’ as it is a book very definitely about psychology, and just as definitely for counsellors. It is a tightly organized whirlwind tour, without a great deal of time spent on any one area but a great many areas covered. Each main chapter begins with a counselling vignette illustrating the psychological ideas to be developed, and each chapter concludes with a short summary. Every main section finishes both with a bullet point summary and with a discussion called ‘How Can I Use This Information As a Counsellor?’.

Legg begins by staunchly promoting the relevance of psychology to counsellors in a way that is apt to rankle at least a few of his counselling colleagues. (Personally, I loved it.) I suspect that any reader who can get through the this first brief chapter without too much stress will be richly rewarded.

Why Should Counsellors Pay Attention to Psychology?

Legg positions his book well on the very first page:

Introductory texts on psychology for counsellors usually provide you with an outline of the main theories… You are encouraged to recognize the importance of ‘theory’ , to ground your practice in a particular model and to write case studies and process reports that demonstrate your skills in applying your chosen model. At the same time, you are told that it doesn’ t matter which model you adopt, that critical evaluation of models borders on a breach of professional etiquette, and that mature counsellors develop their own styles that focus far more on the relationship with the client than on the application of a particular model.

We are somehow given the impression that the rest of psychology, with its emphasis on psychological processes like memory or emotion, and its concern for empirical evaluation of ideas, is irrelevant to the practising counsellor. People coming into counselling without having studied psychology are, therefore, often unaware of what it has to offer. Some may even have been encouraged to dismiss it by applying epithets like ‘positivist’ to its research tradition, and to believe that sitting with clients for hours and hearing their stories gives an insight into human nature and human experience that is deeper and more real than that obtained by studying people within a scientific framework. (p. 1)

By the end of the first page, Legg has probably already split his readership into two groups. On the one hand will be the enthusiasts for psychology, cheering on the project — and I readily admit it is here that my own allegiances reside. On the other hand will be counselling ‘purists’ defending what has become a de facto split between counselling and mainstream psychology which has widened and deepened in the decades since Carl Rogers’s golden age of intense, empirically-driven cross-fertilization between counselling, psychology and psychiatry. But Legg presses the attack:

For some counsellors the choice between models is a once-in-a-lifetime decision as they will operate the same model irrespective of the client or problem. Other counsellors opt to switch between models according to the circumstances, thus becoming ‘eclectic’ or ‘integrative’. The difficulty is that you cannot use the concepts contained within a particular model to decide which model to use, any more than you could use the precepts of Buddhism to decide whether to be a Buddhist or a Catholic. To think about psychological theories and models and to choose between them, you need psychological knowledge that lies outside the particular models concerned. That knowledge is provided by mainstream psychology. (p. 6)

Shortly thereafter:

Many counsellors find themselves dissatisfied with individual models and seek to integrate elements of practice for different approaches. Their problem is that they do not have a framework for thinking about what they are doing, so most attempts at integration end up looking like the translation of the ideas of one model into the terms of another. Mainstream psychology offers a conceptual framework that is not couched in the terms of counselling theories. At its best it offers accounts of how people are likely to think, feel and act in particular situations that will allow us to anticipate the impact of different forms of counselling practice. (p. 7)

What Counsellors Can Learn From Psychology

After the salvos of the first chapter, the book settles into a less combative style which delivers exactly what was promised: summaries of key points of psychological knowledge which will be of use to counsellors. While less combative, however, the text is no less challenging and thought-provoking, often providing a psychological perspective on areas which are immediately recognizable as directly relevant to the counselling session but which nonetheless rarely feature in the same way in the mainstream counselling literature (or in counselling training, for that matter).

Social Context

For example, in chapter 2 on the social context of counselling, Legg discusses the role of language in regulating and maintaining relationships and in effecting power imbalances. The chapter’s opening case vignette, for instance, includes a counsellor steadfastly refusing to attend to a client’s plea for direct advice, thereby demonstrating the counsellor’s power over the client. Legg goes on to explore social roles and the ways in which counsellors, consciously or otherwise, teach their clients how to be clients and the role conflict which may occur when clients discover their views of the client role does not conform to that of the counsellor. My point is not that power imbalances and social roles do not feature at all in counselling discussions — obviously they do — but, rather, that Legg brings a distinctly psychological perspective to the topic which provides unique challenges to counselling thinking. What person-centred counsellor, for instance, would ever think of themselves as teaching anybody how to be a client? Yet Legg’s discussion indicates that they are very probably doing exactly that!

Later in the same chapter, Legg explores the distinction between the descriptive language used to discuss the physical world and the attributions we use in discussing mental life (whereby we attribute to someone a characteristic we cannot directly observe, such as states of mind or motivations). In particular, he describes the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to explain the actions of others in terms of abiding character traits, rather than short-term situational factors (p. 20), and the opposite self-serving bias, the tendency to attribute good outcomes to our abiding personal characteristics and bad outcomes to short-term situational factors. (He also observes the tendency of depression to reverse this self-serving bias and the fact that effective therapy may work to remedy this; it is a little disappointing that Legg refrains from making the obvious link to cognitive therapy.) Intriguingly, Legg suggests that we make attributions even about our own mental states and that this fact impedes our access to clients’ direct experience, a situation he indicates (pp. 25-26) should be encouraging to cognitive therapists but disappointing to those working in phenomenological traditions.

In his notes on the ways behaviour is guided by various heuristics, role schemata and scripts, Legg offers an excellent example where straightforward psychology may complement a given counselling model. He suggests that “if a client says that they have low self-esteem because they feel that they are sexually unattractive, it might be worth exploring their scripts for negotiating the escalation of social into sexual interactions” (p. 27). Rather than reflecting some deep problem of self-concept or a repressed childhood experience, such a client’s experience may have everything to do with the ways they interact with other people: they may simply be lacking such scripts or using scripts which other people do not understand.

Feelings: Emotions, Moods and Desires

One notable discussion from Legg’s chapter on feelings addresses the relationship between emotions and arousal of the autonomic nervous system. It turns out that significant evidence suggests people are not very good at identifying autonomic nervous arousal. Two points stand out in particular:

  1. People’s reports of bodily changes during emotions are much more dependent on their expectations of what should be happening in their bodies, rather than what is actually happening, and
  2. People can reason from what they feel in their bodies to what emotion they are experiencing, yet here again, their perceptions of what is actually happening in their bodies take a back seat to what they expect to be happening or what has been suggested to them is happening.

Both of these raise interesting questions about the practise of focusing used by many counsellors as well as the general issue of inadvertent counsellor suggestion. (Our “Web Resources in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Mental Health” contains links to sites on focusing, while “Counselling, Psychotherapy & Mental Health Bibliography” includes additional resources on focusing; the latter also includes material on false memories and suggestibility. See below for more on problems with memory.)

Legg goes on to discuss some of the ways in which feelings and thoughts modulate one another and, in light of these, the respective strengths and weaknesses of behavioural, psychodynamic and cognitive models of how individuals give meaning to situations — concluding that each offers particular insights but also fails in the face of certain counter-examples.

Thinking, Decision-Making, Deterministic and Probabilistic Laws

Legg’s chapter on thinking and deciding dwells for a considerable time on decision theory, which may lose the attention of less technically-inclined readers, but the discussion highlights key points nicely, particularly the strong bias in favour of deterministic but incorrect laws and against probabilistic laws. Legg notes the importance of this bias even in the counsellor’s individual practice, where the counsellor must acknowledge that probabilistic laws govern the efficacy of what they are doing. For instance,

This means that if you are reflecting on your own practice to work out what strategies are effective with clients, you are going to have to form probabilistic rules like ‘Leaving clients to cry when they are upset rather than interpreting their feelings enhances the quality of the therapeutic relationship in 70 percent of cases’ , rather than seeking rules that make the outcome 100 per cent predictable. Counsellors who do not recognize the significance of probabilistic rules may well have a completely false impression of what is happening in their practice. (p. 71)

It is a pity that Legg’s discussion of so many common cognitive errors, as well as decision-making phenomena such as discounting the future and the sunk-cost effect, does not make explicit connections with cognitive therapy.

Remembering and Reconstructing the Past

The chapter on memory provides a rich overview of the reconstructive nature of memory and the notion that we may be creating a past when we think we are remembering it. Legg distinguishes short-term and long-term memory and describes people’s tendency to distort or fill in details, often without realizing it, in order to form coherent stories with well-defined narrative structure. The upshot is that our memories are very bad, and Legg stresses that it is much more appropriate to speak of the act of remembering rather than talking about clients’ memories. (p. 91)

Indeed, our capacity for accurate recall is so bad that Legg urges us to wonder why clients have remembered any particular event, out of all the possible events they might have remembered; Legg suggests that “counsellors might benefit from standing the logic of the psychodynamic concept of repression on its head and move from wondering why things have been forgotten to wondering why things have been remembered”. (p. 93)

On the other hand, even though we are pretty bad at remembering things, we are pretty good at judging whether we have genuinely forgotten something or whether we are just temporarily unable to recall it. Legg suggests that if someone is

… struggling towards remembering something that they believe they know then it may help to provide them with cues and prompts, but if a client says that they cannot remember at all it would be highly incongruent to force matters.

If someone is in a tip-of-the-tongue state then cues and prompts may help them reconstruct the memory but if they are denying their ability to remember something, the same cues may help them construct a memory to fit in with the cues you are giving. (p. 108)

The same chapter describes the dependence on recall ability on both physical context and mood, observing that the neutral setting of the counselling environment in effect minimizes the transfer of memory from the real world to counselling: “The known effects of physical, pharmacological and emotional context on recall may be enough to explain the reticence of our clients without postulating additional factors like resistance and repression”. (p. 110) On the latter topic, Legg later cautions, “think about how you would distinguish recovery of memory, following release from repression, from the construction of new ideas about the past”. (p. 115)

The chapter concludes with a brief but sensitive account of both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, exploring the importance of technical knowledge about amnesia for working with those suffering from memory loss as well as the much larger number of people affected by memory loss in their families and loved ones.

Differences and Models of Personality

Chapter 6, on individual differences, is a mixed bag. Legg’s discussions of psychological testing within counselling, of the idiographic/nomothetic distinction, and issues of testing validity and reliability are perhaps farther from mainstream counselling practice than any other in the book.

On the other hand, Legg sets out the psychological territory in a way that should be helpful to counsellors, noting for instance that psychologists divide individual differences into those that relate to how people are disposed to act (personality and mood), those that relate to people’s values (attitudes), and those that relate to capacity (aptitude and intelligence). Many counsellors probably think mainly of personality and mood, yet much counselling relates to values and attitudes, as well as intelligence and aptitude.

Legg provides a good exploration of the problems inherent in common but circular notions of personality, as well as some of the ways personality may be thought of more usefully. He draws attention to the fact that we cannot help making use of models of personality, but we can try to make our own assumptions more explicit to ourselves, thereby separating personal prejudices and personal experience.

Theories of Development

The penultimate chapter, called ‘Growing’ , addresses developmental psychology and offers useful comments on ‘stage models’ like those of Piaget and Freud, plus useful cautions on simple ideas about genetic determinism. There follows a discussion of development of dispositions and abilities, and an exploration of identity, including an interesting account of children’s propensity to generate psychological descriptions of themselves by applying the descriptions used by others when talking about them. Legg describes how different kinds of attributions by adults impact on children and later comments on the interplay between psychological identity and social identity and the values which the social framework attaches to the labels we give ourselves. It seems like there is very much to be explored here, but we get just a tantalizingly brief treatment of the area.

One interesting little gem in this brief treatment focuses on identity and roles:

One of the ironies of Western society is that the emergence of psychological self-description coincides with being institutionalized into roles, such as school pupil or employee, that confer no psychological identity. In order to have a sense of self, the individual has to occupy the role in a way that is unique to themselves, which can be difficult in large institutions that expect considerable uniformity in the behaviour of their participants. We would, therefore expect adolescents to experience conflict between their desire for psychological uniqueness and the need to learn appropriate social roles. (p. 163)

Legg’s Conclusion

Legg’s upbeat final chapter suggests that counselling models, although ‘bizarre’ from the traditional academic perspective (p. 171), actually make sense as heuristics and as ways of simplifying complex interactions down into something which counsellors can manage. After commenting on the fact that counselling models typically ban social chit-chat, most arguing, and other ‘normal’ kinds of social interactions, Legg offers another example of a distinctly psychological perspective which engages with mainstream counselling thought from an unfamiliar angle: “Counselling gains its impact because counsellors consistently breach the rules of normal conversation that have helped maintain the problem with which they are working. It is remarkably difficult for most of us to act in this way without the structure of a model to guide us.” (p. 172)

Legg finishes with observations about how much we don’t know, as well as about how clearly the psychological research applies every bit as much to counsellors as to clients — including research on how very irrational people are and on the extent of their cognitive and emotional biases.


I confessed at the outset that I fall into the cheerleader camp, enthusiastically endorsing Legg’s attempt to bring the benefits of a knowledge of basic psychology to the field of counselling. As a result, I find it very hard not to like this book. My main disappointments centre on the depth of connections that are made (or, sometimes, are not made) between psychology and counselling, and on the very cursory nature of some of the discussions, which occasionally have an almost superficial feel. For my part, I would have preferred a book which was a little longer and which could thus have afforded to delve into a little more detail, but for what it is — a book which specifically sets out to be brief and only to summarize key points of psychology for counsellors — I cannot fault it.

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