Thick and Thin Counselling

By March 29, 2019 September 9th, 2020 No Comments

Retirement has given me time to reflect on things I could have done better while still working. Having more time to read, think and listen than when nearly every day was busy has enabled me to digest a few ideas I wish I had considered more deeply before.

Primary language, trade language

First, I always thought I was poor at languages. At school I had to learn French, German, Latin and Greek to complement my existing English. I never got to fluency with any of them and they have largely withered away through disuse. And the New Testament Greek I know is no help in visiting modern Greece where the letters all look different!

So I bow in respect when I visit Europe and Asia and mingle with those who seem at home with three, four or even more languages. Now living in multi-lingual Australia, I realise how valuable it would be to have several fluent languages available. Counselling with an interpreter is a problem for all concerned.

Counselling in our native language with someone who shares this allows for a level of communication and understanding that does not occur as we turn to second or third languages. Most countries today have a native tongue or primary language, together with a trade language for more general communication.

Although the trade language is helpful for everyday contact broadly (and some form of English serves this purpose throughout much of the world), it is not the ideal language for deeper communication of emotions and personally significant events. We process information differently according to the language in which we are conversing.

Reading a book that develops this theme, I came across this paragraph:

“….it was most interesting that simply by changing languages, individuals could access the dimensions of Asian identity outlined above. Michael Ross and his associates asked bilingual Chinese-born individuals living in Canada to describe themselves, using the prompt ‘I am…’ but with one unique condition. They were asked to give their responses in either Chinese or English.

The results indicated that those writing in Chinese had self-descriptions that had more collective statements of identity, more positive feelings about their Chinese heritage, and lower self-esteem scores than those who were Chinese-born but wrote in English….East-Asian and Western identities may be stored in separate knowledge structures in bi-cultural individuals, with each structure activated by its associated language.”

Recognising that counselling will be more meaningful if the client and I both speak the same language, I then asked myself what language do I speak? A dialect of English not always well understood in Scotland or in the USA! But beyond that, I realise I have become a polyglot without trying.

As a student I learned the language of science, or at least one dialect of this called psychologese. This was quite different from my earlier language in a Christian home, variously described as the language of faith or the language of Zion. It is easy to internalise Christian language and fail to realise how foreign this can be for others.

Then I had to absorb “psychoanalese” to be able to talk Freudian talk with my mentors, and then working in a psychiatric hospital, I learned to talk “psychiatrese” – a pidgin language of psychology, medicine and neurology. More recently I have added the language of counselling, to use terms like positive regard, re-framing, resilience and scaffolding – to draw from a few of the dialects.

All of these help me become a professional able to communicate with other professionals. But… my worry is, as I think back, what language have I used with clients? They talk to me in their native tongue while I respond too easily in one of the trade languages of psychology and counselling. If they don’t understand, I try to get them to learn my language so they will understand their issues better.

Or is it because I find it easier to talk “professional talk” than to join with them in the intimacy of our first language? Do we want to create distance with our educated phrases? Can we work with clients using every day language and thereby minimise our social distance? And can we use the language of Zion with those who share our Christian faith? I suspect that one hallmark of good Christian counselling is that we engage with clients using this shared language. This is not always possible in secular settings, but I hope it is normative for those in church-based settings.

Even in church-based counselling, we also need to be alert to the nuances of Christian language usage. As I move among churches I find the language is markedly different in the various traditions. Some prefer to label their experience as a “walk of faith” or “living christianly”, while others rejoice in being “born again”, and others “walk in the Spirit”. There are important meaning differences in these terms that will facilitate communication if they are the shared language of our client, but they may be a hindrance if used insensitively.

Thick and thin communication

Now concerning my second point, again influenced by Alvin Dueck’s book which devotes a chapter to the issue of thick and thin, when we speak in trade language terms, we relate to others thinly. There is a basis for understanding at a functional level, but we do not meet at a deeper level of personal understanding. When we engage with others speaking in a second language, the communication is diluted. When we speak in our professional language to someone who is unfamiliar with it, we are doing something similar.

Yet if you consider any professional training in counselling you have experienced, I think you will find that you need to learn the currently fashionable professional jargon and be ready to use it with clients. As I have listened as a supervisor to counsellors, I can tell whether they favour working with CBT, or narrative, or solution focussed, or psychodynamic models by their terminology speaking with clients.

So what is wrong with that you may ask?

Nothing is wrong, but it exemplifies thin counselling. Staying at a communication level that does not get to deeper issues, it is safe to all concerned. Missionaries in foreign countries know very well that they can talk in a trade language to get by without offence and without really becoming part of the culture, but if they really want to know the people meaningfully, they have to speak the local language with fluency.

I learned when teaching counselling in a secular setting that it was important to talk in generalisations about behaviour and feelings, and adopt the position that the counsellor’s stance is value free and non-judgmental. The approaches of counselling theories were thought to transcend all cultures and be equally suited anywhere. In attempting to minimise discourse dealing with such thick topics as spirituality or morality, it is convenient to construe all that happens in terms of diagnostic categories from the generalisation of the mental disorders.

Christian counsellors have an ongoing struggle when seeking to understand their clients, moving between the professional categories of anxiety, depression, etc, and the Christian explanations that carry moral implications, such that healing may involve addressing guilt, repentance, forgiveness, and the healing power of not just love abstractly but the personal experience of love in Christ.

Al Dueck comments, “Thinner models of therapy tend to be more cross-cultural and generic in their linguistic forms, while thicker modes of therapy are more tradition-sensitive, shaped by the language of a particular community and determined by their views of healing….In thin psychotherapy…the goal is objectivity and neutrality…The clinician assumes a universal standard of knowledge to which all rational persons in a therapeutic setting can agree”

The thin counsellor will use language that does not invoke moral assumptions, and when they are heard, the terminology can be reframed. The thin counsellor may speak of a client having an intimate relationship, or even an extra-marital affair, but I have not heard the word adultery in years.

Young people these days ‘live together’ rather than ‘living in sin’. Such language carries a moral evaluation that the Christian understands as part of the language of faith, but is a foreign language if we speak psychologese. The thin counsellor may advocate stress relief using a generalised term like meditation, where the thick counsellor might raise the possibilities of prayer.

An extended metaphor

Take from the following story what you will to explore the difference between thick and thin interventions.

I live in a five storey apartment block among nearly 20 apartments in all. They are secure behind electronic locks. Very recently we had a visit from the painters and then the carpet layers. As a result, all the common space on all five levels has smartly cream walls and dark brown carpeting. We collectively paid for this, but no-one asked the opinion of occupants. That would have led to too many options of colour and style. Better to keep it blandly unchallenging.

In this ‘thin’ space I meet my neighbours and say “How are you?”, exchange views on the day’s weather, and very little else. At that level I know my neighbours. In this common space we never hear crying or shouting, or celebrating or any interactions that would convey who we all are. We proceed in a civilised and well-mannered way.

As a counsellor, I am interested in the difference when I am invited through the door into another apartment. I am in a thick space. I discover the personal style of the occupants, what they value, who is there and even some sense of the kind of life they are living. I encounter the gods – of success or money or sport, or fashion, or maybe find a person who finds prayer even more important than worldly icons. I encounter hope and fear, success and distress, the joy of living or the fear of death.

As we share a drink or a meal and talk together, we get to know each other at a quite different level. We find shared language where we can be somewhat vulnerable together. And we discover that each home is unique.

The front door separates the superficial world of the corridor from the intensely personal experience of the home, in a manner not unlike that which happens when a client walks through the counsellor’s door. The challenge is then not so much “Can I find a Bible verse to fit the occasion?” as “Can I be Christ to this person whether they know Him or not?” Can my way of relating enhance the depth of encounter so that we can with authenticity, talk about what is most profoundly important at the time? Can the encounter reflect that love which brings healing to a point where we can discover more about the source of that love?

The thin encounter in the corridor is not to be disregarded. It can be the start of more, and even in its own right, it may be the only human contact some of my neighbours ever have as they struggle with lonely and disabled lives. But I wonder what it would be like to walk along to a neighbour’s door, and say “In the name of Jesus…behold I stand at the door and knock. If you will open the door I’d love to come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

That would be relating to my neighbour through thick and thin, and quite a revelation!

One more thickness

Some years ago I was teaching in Hong Kong when a group of three Chinese Christian students decided they needed to learn how to counsel those in Hong Kong holding other religious beliefs. So they undertook a project visiting temples and related counselling services to educate themselves. That led me to do something similar to confront the reality that counselling takes many forms other than the Western model, and it is valuable to be sensitive to these differences .

I left Hong Kong to fly to Nashville for the American Association of Christian Counsellors Conference and while there, visited the book displays. Browsing the publishers’ catalogues, I came across a title that intrigued me and so I spoke to the publisher’s representative. I said, “Do you have a copy of Gary Miller’s Incorporating Spirituality in Counselling and Psychotherapy ?” The rep looked a little shocked at my request and said, “I didn’t think there would be any call for that title at this conference, but I do have one copy under the table.” Apparently she thought Christians do not read about spirituality more broadly. She dug down out of sight and brought out the offending book. I bought it there and then.

It not only provides extensive insights in the integration of spiritual themes in counselling, but also devotes two chapters to summarising the beliefs of all the main religious groups worldwide, one devoted to monotheistic beliefs and the other to Eastern religions. I now have a better understanding of where my clients are coming from and can engage more meaningfully with them as I understand their assumptions about God and life. This means I do not have to talk thinly with them but can engage more thickly into a meaningful encounter where we can understand one another. I believe this is invaluable in a culture like Australia, but perhaps even more so in Malaysia.


  1. Court, J.H., Lee, A., Leung, D. & Lo, J., (2004), Yin and Yang in Counsellor Training in Hong Kong: Experience informs theory and practice. Paper to Society of Counselling and Psychotherapy Educators Conference, Sydney, April 2004.
  2. Dueck, Alvin & Reimer, Kevin, (2009), A Peaceable Psychology: Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI.
  3. Miller, G., (2003), Incorporating spirituality in counselling and psychotherapy. John Wiley and Sons: Hoboken, NJ.
  4. Ross, Michael, Xun, Elaine & Wilson, Anne, (2002), Language and the bicultural self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, pp. 127-128, 1040-50.

Dr John Court, PhD, lives in Adelaide, South Australia. He is a Council Member of NACC Malaysia. He was Professor of Counselling and Psychology, developing Christian counselling at Tabor College Adelaide, and before that, was Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary.For a number of years, he taught counselling students in Singapore and Hong Kong. He is now retired.

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