Beyond competence: A qualitative analysis of exemplary counseling
Lewis, Laura A.
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The development of professional competence has been deemed a critical component of graduate education in psychology and social work and is considered vital to the promotion of professional excellence (Council on Social Work Education, 2008; APA Commission on Education and Training Leading to Licensure in Psychology, 2001). As a result, training programs in psychology and social work generally have the acquisition and development of counseling skills and competencies as their primary focus. However, the extent to which competency-based models reflect the highest levels of counseling practice rather than acceptable minimums is questionable. The main purpose of the present study was to clarify the nature of advanced counseling practice, uncovering how counseling professionals beyond a minimum standard of competence approach problems of practice, and identifying qualities and abilities that discriminate exemplars from mid-level practitioners. The experiences of six advanced counseling practitioners and six mid-level practitioners were examined through the lens of the Good Work model. Additionally, the relevance of Schon’s theory of reflective practice and Kegan’s theory of constructive development were examined. A qualitative analysis was used to identify the qualities and abilities of six highly competent counseling practitioners, comparing and contrasting with the characteristics of six mid-level practitioners. The Good Work protocol developed by Gardner, et al. (2001) was employed to explore with professionals their beliefs and values, positive and negative pressures, formative influences, perspectives on work, community and family relationships, and ethical considerations. Participants are asked questions regarding the meaning of their work, responsibility, achievements, creativity, and challenges. Commonalities found between the qualities and abilities of mid-level and advanced practitioners were the use of a creative-interpretive approach to practice, the use of reflection after-the fact, and an ongoing, continual pursuit of learning. The qualities and abilities that distinguished advanced practitioners included the following: (1) balance between idealism and pragmatism; (2) personal competence in overcoming struggles; (3) adaptive problem solvers; (4) contemplation; and, (5) personal and professional integration. Results suggest that that approaches to training can go beyond skill development, to include an emphasis on affective and intuitive dimension of counseling practice. The significance of creativity and of reflection should also be addressed. Additionally, aspects of character should be considered in conjunction with behavioral competence.