028 – Online Counselling – Cognitive Dissonance Theory – Referring Clients

028 – Online Counselling – Cognitive Dissonance Theory – Referring Clients

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In episode 28 of the Counselling Tutor Podcast, Rory Lees-Oakes and Ken Kelly discuss online counselling. ‘Theory with Rory’ focuses on cognitive dissonance, and the presenters end by discussing onward referrals in counselling.

Online Counselling

This is a growth area in counselling, with continual technological developments. For example, some counsellors work by email, video or chatroom, or even have Second Life identities.

Online counselling is different from face-to-face work in various important ways, for example:

  • location of client – who may be outside the UK, where counselling is subject to different laws and ethical requirements
  • psychological contact – one of Carl Rogers’ necessary and sufficient conditions, which may be much harder to achieve online
  • disinhibition – that is, clients tending to be unusually open, revealing big things fast
  • technological issues – such as poor connections, making it difficult to check that your client is safe
  • security problems – for example, Skype is not a secure, private and confidential medium.

These issues make it vital to think carefully about and to train properly in online counselling before offering it.


Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Rory shares the story of Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. Born in 1919, Festinger studied social psychology under Kurt Lewin at the University of Iowa in the USA. Lewin believed that human behaviour is a product of the individual and their environment.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ describes when a person has conflicting beliefs or values. Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory suggests that this makes the person feel uncomfortable, and so leads them to adjust one of the beliefs or values, harmonising these in order to reduce the discomfort we feel.

In one of the most bizarre pieces of social research ever carried out, Festinger and two colleagues infiltrated a doomsday cult. They described their experiences in a book, When Prophecy Fails.

In Illinois, Dorothy Martin (given the alias in the book of Marian Keech, to protect her identity) claimed to receive messages from beings on a planet she called ‘Clarion’. A cult developed and – based on Martin’s messages – believed that the world would end on 21 December 1954, but that a spacecraft from Clarion would come at midnight on 20 December to rescue members. They gave up jobs, relationships and belongings to prepare for departure.

Assembling on the night of 20 December, the group awaited the spacecraft, but it never came. As the time ticked by, they found explanation after explanation for why this might be, all to avoid having to accept that they had been mistaken in their initial belief. Finally, Martin claimed to receive another message from Clarion, explaining that the cataclysm had been averted by the group spreading light in its faithful vigil.

So how does cognitive dissonance theory apply to counselling? One area that it relates to is clients in abusive relationships. Because people have often invested heavily in such relationships (for example, financially, or in terms of children), they may tend to remain in them and to find ways to justify to themselves that the abusive behaviour is somehow acceptable.

As therapists, we need to realise that abusive relationships are complex, and to understand the investments that clients may have made in those relationships and so that may blind them to the truth. Gentle challenge from the counsellor – through offering the core conditions – can allow clients to re-examine their reality to reinvest in a better life.


Referring Clients

As a counsellor, it is important to be open to the idea of making referrals when this is in the client’s best interests.

When student counsellors are on placement, the clients they see have usually been screened by a more senior therapist in the agency. However, it is still possible for more complex difficulties (e.g. psychosis) to become evident once counselling starts.

Ken and Rory discuss some key considerations in referring clients:

  • Think about how to ‘cradle’ the client, avoiding giving them the ‘jolt’ of sudden referral (which could make them feel rejected/abandoned, or feel branded as having serious problems that cannot be easily dealt with).
  • Ensure you know the ‘go-to’ person in your agency, so you can discuss the need for referral.
  • Take the issue to your supervisor too.
  • Plan ahead, build a ‘little black book’ of other counsellors and agencies, so you are aware of other help available to clients.
  • When explaining to the client that you need to refer them, relate the reason to you not them – i.e. ‘My skill set is not the right one to help you’ rather than ‘Your problems are too complex for me to deal with’.
  • Adapt the referral process in line with the length of time you have been seeing a client.

Rory sums up his recommended approach as follows: ‘We hope for the best and plan for the worst.’


Links and Resources

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter (originally published in 1956; reprinted in 2008 by Pinter & Martin Ltd)

Counselling Tutor Facebook group