Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Talking about Counseling: A Plea to Return to Humanistic Language

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Talking about Counseling: A Plea to Return to Humanistic Language

Article excerpt

Multiple linguistic systems have emerged to describe the counseling process. In contemporary mental health culture, humanistic lexicons have generally been displaced by technical, experience-removed descriptors. The author argues that humanistic language should be adopted by counselors because it has far greater utility than technical linguistic systems for describing counseling processes.


Two people meet to talk on a regular basis with the understanding that the troubles of one of the participants might be alleviated by their ongoing conversations. This simple, one-sentence description of the counseling scenario arguably applies to every individual counseling session that has taken place over the past century. Remarkably, though, simple descriptions are hard to find in the literature of the helping professions. With the exception of the language of humanism, the counseling profession has historically been dominated by complex, technical descriptors. Libidinal cathexis, developmental arrest, cognitive processes, neuropathways, stimulus-response contingencies, countertransference, systematic desensitization, and trichotillomania are just a small sampling of the highly technical and extraordinarily counterintuitive language that has been used regularly to describe the counseling scenario and its participants.

The dominance of technical language has arguably suppressed ways of talking about counseling processes that are relational, intuitive, and obvious. Indeed, upon hearing the usual language of the helping professions, an outside listener might assume that this language was intended to describe sophisticated medical interventions or the repair of complex mechanical devices. This listener would probably never guess that these descriptors were intended to describe two people engaged in conversation.

Of course, whether certain uses of language are considered technical or not varies according to historical periods, cultural differences, and individual judgment. A term may be regarded as technical at one point in history, subsequently become widely adopted, and then evolve into a common way of speaking. For instance, A. Freud (1966) used the technical term "defense" (p. 30) to describe a psychological mechanism that protects the psyche from anxiety. This word later became popularly adopted, and it is now common usage to say that someone is being defensive. When I refer to technical or commonsensical language, then, I do not mean that certain words are locked into these categories. However, to provide a foundation for the thesis of this article, it is necessary for me to refer to gross historical trends about language usage rather than to focus on the minute usage patterns of particular words or phrases.

With the previously mentioned caveat in mind, humanistic language is arguably a standout exception to the technocratic descriptors that have historically dominated the helping professions. Humanists use common, intuitive language (e.g., empathy, counseling relationship, positive regard) to describe counseling processes. An outside listener would probably have no trouble guessing that the language of humanism is intended to describe human interaction.

The purpose of this article is to address some interesting questions that are suggested by the history of language in the helping professions: Why has the language of humanism fallen out of favor in contemporary mental health culture? Is the humanistic language system worth saving? Have technical ways of describing counseling processes become dominant because they are superior? What criteria should be used to determine whether one language system is superior to another? To address these questions, I discuss the history of language in counseling and philosophical assumptions about language.


The linguistic history of the helping professions involves the initial introduction of highly technical lexicons in the early 20th century, a brief, midcentury interruption of this technical trend by relational, humanistic language, and the resumption of technical ways of describing the helping encounter, which have persisted to contemporary times. …

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