Skill and competence in biblical counseling, like in any other discipline, rest on a firm grasp of the basic elements of discipleship. Formal biblical counseling involves utilizing six key elements: Data gathering, building a relationship (involvement), determining ministry needs, ministering the Word, communicating hope, and implementing homework. In this series of articles, we will go “back to basics” to review these fundamental core skills needed in counseling. In this article, we will look at the skill of gathering data.
Don’t Put Your Foot in Your Mouth
Proverbs 18:13 warns all would-be counselors, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” This verse teaches that it is both foolish and shameful to give advice or counsel until we have really understood the situation rightly. We have all likely experienced the awkwardness of responding to someone prematurely, only to discover that we were making assumptions or not listening well.
In the Old Testament, a woman named Hannah went to the temple to pray that God might give her a son. In the process, the priest Eli observed her lips moving but did not hear her voice (she was praying silently to the Lord). Without asking any questions, he foolishly rebuked her: “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you” (1 Samuel 1:14). Hannah responded, “No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD” (v. 15). Talk about awkward and embarrassing. Eli assumes she is drunk and rebukes her when in fact she is distressed and in need of care and encouragement.
We need to be careful to listen well and gather all the relevant information before we engage in counseling someone. If we do not thoroughly gather data, we risk not just momentary embarrassment, but potentially hurting other people by leading them astray with bad counsel or rebuking them when what is needed is comfort.
Riding the Brake in Counseling
If we are going to adequately gather data in counseling, we must develop self-control in several areas. First, we must develop the self-control of “riding the brake” in counseling. This means that we must resist the urge to make pre-mature conclusions and give early advice. I find that beginning counselors are often so eager to give biblical answers to counselees that they do not practice the discipline of first gaining a complete picture of the situation. Though it may seem like this practice slows counseling down significantly, it is in fact a key part of effective counseling ministry.
Second, we must develop the self-control to structure counseling in a way that gives ample time for data gathering. For example, wise counselors typically dedicate most of the time in the first session to data gathering. It may also be helpful to make the first session longer than normal so that a thorough understanding of the situation may be acquired.
Third, we must demonstrate self-control to not rely on our intuition or experience in place of thorough data gathering. In a new counseling case, it may be tempting to believe that “we’ve heard a case like this before” or to have a “sense” of what is going on. But, experience and counseling “hunches” ought to never replace the careful, wise practice of collecting information and getting to know this unique situation.
Strategies for Data Gathering
Biblical counselors use a multi-leveled approach to gathering information for counseling ministry. Here are five strategies to effectively gather data in counseling.
First, use a counseling intake form. Many biblical counselors use a Personal Data Inventory (PDI) or similar tool. Intake paperwork, when filled out by the counselee before the first session, gives the counselor a huge advantage in that it reveals basic information about the counselee and his situation. This saves time in counseling and allows the counselor to prepare intelligibly for the session.
Second, learn to ask questions. Much of data gathering amounts to learning the skill of asking the right questions. Biblical counselors pivot between extensive questions (questions designed to get basic information about many areas of the counselee’s life, such as family, finances, health, spiritual condition, emotions, etc.) and intensive questions (questions designed to get more in-depth information about certain areas of interest). Further, wise counselors know how to ask heart-revealing questions: “A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, but a man of understanding draws it out” (Proverbs 20:5). A heart-revealing question is a question designed to draw out a person’s motives, beliefs, thoughts, and desires. Since behavior flows from the heart (Proverbs 4:23), counselors must gain heart-level information if they are to truly help people.
Third, craft homework assignments to gather needed data. Homework in counseling consists of assignments to be completed between counseling sessions which facilitate sanctification and reinforce what is learned in counseling. Homework can also be a useful tool for gathering information. For example, a person experiencing anxiety may be asked to journal incidents of anxiety throughout the week, answering basic questions such as: What provoked the anxiety? What were you thinking? What were you fearing? How did you handle it? In a particularly complicated case, we might ask the counselee in a homework assignment to write out a basic timeline of events or the person’s “life story.” Written assignments like these provide crucial information and it does not require the counselor to acquire the information in the session itself, saving valuable time.
Fourth, observe halo data. So-called “halo” data is non-verbal information that is observed in counseling. Examples of halo data include a person’s countenance, posture, mood, appearance, tone of voice, facial expressions, sighs, or tears. In short, we need to be looking for non-verbal information, especially as it verifies or contrasts with verbal information. In the biblical example cited earlier involving Hannah and Eli, Eli observed halo data but wrongly made a premature conclusion without verifying what he observed. Halo data is not conclusive, but it should be used to ask clarifying questions and to address any incongruity between a person’s words and any contrasting non-verbal information.
Fifth, use other sources. The Proverbs counsel, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). Information that comes only from one person is not as reliable as information that is verified by others. When appropriate and with the counselee’s consent, talk with family members, pastors, and close friends about your counselee’s situation. We are often blind to our most obvious weaknesses that are readily apparent to others (Matthew 7:3-5). Gaining multiple sources of information usually leads to counseling clarity.
Three Easy Ways to Improve Your Data Gathering
How can you improve your data gathering skills? Here are three easy ways:
- Observe a seasoned counselor. This could be done by observing an ACBC certified counselor in your church or area, a pastor skilled in counseling, or a video recording of a counseling session performed by a seasoned counselor. Watch. Learn. Take notes. Try it yourself.
- Read David Powlison’s article, “X Ray Questions: Drawing out the Whys and Wherefores of Human Behavior,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 18/1 (Fall 1999): 2-8. This material is also available in his book, Seeing with New Eyes (P&R, 2003).
- Practice asking questions and listening well to get to know people. You can do this with people at your church, in your neighborhood, or in your family. If you have trouble knowing what to ask, it may help to think about different areas of a person’s life: family, health, work/school, hobbies/interests, and faith/church. Like any other skill, we only get better at asking questions by doing it.