Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Promoting Tolerance for Ambiguity in Counselor Training Programs

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Promoting Tolerance for Ambiguity in Counselor Training Programs

Article excerpt

Counselors-in-training are challenged with the ambiguity inherent in skill acquisition and development processes. This article explores the concept of ambiguity and ambiguity tolerance in counselors-in-training. A framework is provided for conceptualizing the inherent challenges of counselor training and how they may be addressed.


Every year, eager students enter counseling programs ready to begin their journey of becoming competent helping professionals. These students enter with varying ideas of counseling and the counseling process. The goal for counselor educators is not only to create effective counselors but also to promote the optimal counselor identity development of these counselors-in-training. Educating students about the art and science of counseling presents a large challenge to counselor educators, who "seem to be struggling to figure out how to approach a murky area that has lots of 'it depends' without destroying the clinical richness of what therapy is about" (Hill, 1992, p. 744). Counselor educators are faced with the challenge of teaching students basic elements of genuineness, empathy, and active 1Lstenhlg with their clients. Students may be seeking concrete answers and techniques for mastering these basic counseling skills, particularly in the early stages of their development. Humanistic approaches to counseling rely more heavily on these seemingly ambiguous concepts (Corey, 2004). Mastery of these concepts necessitates an increased tolerance of their nonspecific nature and presentation. Several models, texts, and validated strategies are at counselor educators' disposal, but they do not remove the challenge of teaching students how to be genuine and to hear empathically what a person is saying.

Ambiguity, or the state of being ambiguous, has been defined as being open to more than one interpretation or being uncertain (Pickett et al., 2000). Several introductory counseling textbooks have highlighted the role of ambiguity in the counseling profession (e.g., Corey, 2004; Kottler & Brown, 1996) and have introduced the notion of ambiguity tolerance: "To be a counselor requires you to function well with abstract ideas and ambiguous circumstances" (Kottler & Brown, 1996, p. 12). Ambiguity tolerance is likewise congruent with human development as a whole, a necessary component of one's counselor development, identity, and effectiveness (Granello, 2000, 2002).

The conceptualization of ambiguity tolerance is an even more difficult task. Budner (1962) defined ambiguity tolerance as the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable. Chasnoff (1976) stated that "an ambiguous situation is one that cannot be adequately structured or categorized by an individual" (p. 47). MacDonald (1970) expanded the definition of ambiguity tolerance to include the tendency of individuals not only to seek out ambiguity but also to appreciate ambiguity and excel in the performance of ambiguous tasks.

There is an absence of perceived truth by students at the early stages of development as counselors. Anxiety and frustration may indeed be expected when they are faced with increasingly ambiguous concepts of counseling. Faced with the challenges and frustrations of not quite mastering the most basic elements of counseling at the outset of their academic and professional journeys, many students revert to tried-and-true learning techniques. They may have adopted and embraced the adage "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again (harder)." The conundrum grows as students discover that by trying harder to use and master skills, they lose the ability to attend to, be authentically present, and help their clients. They face further frustrations of not hearing clients, losing opportunities to develop relationships with them, and essentially finding the counseling process more difficult than they had ever imagined. Earlier learning experiences have demonstrated that trying harder generally works. …

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