Working alliance practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Career Counselling Theory & Practice (later called "Career Counselling & Coaching") in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2008). Despite lack of evidence, relevance of working alliance for career counselling is worth considering. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Critically discuss the usefulness of the notion of the 'working alliance' in career counselling."
Despite lack of evidence,
relevance of the working alliance
for career counselling is worth considering
After defining the working alliance, we will discuss its usefulness in the context of five key issues: implications for use with one of the career counselling approaches, counsellor and client implications, counselling process implications, difficulties during the counselling process, and the need for further research and evidence.
We will use Bordin’s (1979) characterization of the working alliance as having three features: 1) agreement on goals, 2) agreement on tasks assigned to both parties, 3) the development of deep bonds of trust and attachment.
Implications for a career counselling approach. The working alliance is rooted in the Freudian (1923) concept of transference, in which the therapist becomes a blank slate for accepting the client’s problems. Bordin used the basis of this idea and also built on the work of others (e.g. Clarkson, 1990, 1995) including Carl Rogers (1942, 1957), though he didn’t acknowledge Rogers’ necessary and sufficient conditions directly, those conditions being acceptance, genuineness and empathy (McLeod, 2003). He incorporated them but also went further in ways that suggest that a person-centered or client-centered approach is not the most ideal one to complement the working alliance. For example, the collaborative nature of the working alliance is not consistent with the idea of client as expert. In addition, the working alliance requires the counsellor to assess client adjustment, which from a developmental perspective, casts the counsellor in the role of expert.
Counselor and client implications. The counsellor enacts the initiating role by inviting the client to participate in the working alliance. S/he must also convey empathy, assess client-readiness, be able to administer tests and interpret their results, help safeguard the counselling relationship for the client and monitor the progress of counselling.
The client needs to present with readiness, which can be described as 1) being sufficiently motivated to want to resolve a particular career issue, 2) being capable of participating in the working alliance, and 3) being at the appropriate developmental phase to do so.
The career couselling process. The working alliance is usually not explicit and operates in the background unless a difficulty, such as a rupture, brings it to the foreground. Relevant for sequence of sessions, the working alliance should be in place before the work of tasks and goal agreement commences. Saltzman and colleagues (1990) write that the working alliance needs to develop by the third session or it may not be established at all
Difficulties during the counselling process. For career counselling, specifically, the working alliance presents the issue of vocational overshadowing (Spengler, 1995), which reduces career counselling in the eyes of the counsellor to something less interesting, prestigious or profitable than therapeutic counselling. Or, as Meara and Patton (1994) describe it, career counselling is not seen as “true” counselling, so the counsellor may not use his or her affective skills to the client’s greatest advantage.
Clients bring their own problems as well. One of those problems can be client-resistance, which is anything the client does to interfere with the counselling relationship. Client resistance can be rooted in fear of the counselor, fear of the counseling process or fear of discovering something about oneself (Meara & Patton, 1994).
McLeod (2003) writes that problems with the counselling process are just part of the terrain, and rupture of the working alliance represents one of those potential problems. Safran (1990, 1993, 1994), in particular, has addressed rupture in the working alliance. He writes that repair of ruptures is the counsellor’s responsibility, and he offers a six-stage repair process that begins with acknowledgement and culminates with the client and counsellor developing new ways of relating to one another. Agnew (1994) offers a three-stage model for repairing working alliance ruptures. Both McLeod (2003) and Safran write that meta-communication skills on the part of the counsellor are essential to repairing ruptures. Meta-communications skills on the part of the counsellor require weaving "talking about talking" and "communicating about communicating" into the conversation..
The need for research and evidence. Relevant research about the working alliance pertains to counselling more so than career counselling in spite of Meara and Patton’s (1994) call for further research almost 15 years ago. We should also acknowledge that clients have difficulty describing the constructs of the counselling relationship with language that researchers can operationalize and that there are low levels of agreement between clients, counsellors and observers regarding what is being measured (McLeod, 2003). However, instruments do exist for measuring the role of the working alliance for career counselling practice. The most widely used is Horvath and Greenberg’s (1986, 1994) instrument. A cursory search of the psychology-based databases available through the Athens library revealed recent articles about the working alliance in the therapeutic relationship but nothing pertaining to career counselling or occupational guidance, specifically.
We have defined the working alliance and examined its usefulness in the context of five key issues: use with person-centered career counselling, implications for client and counsellor, implications for the process of career counselling, problems during the career counselling process and the need for research and evidence.
We conclude by stating that it’s unfortunate that Meara and Patton’s (1994) call has mostly gone unanswered – for two reasons that center on important differences between career counselling and therapeutic counselling.
First, vocational overshadowing, as previously mentioned, is a concern to the extent that it reasonably describes the reaction of therapeutic counsellors to client-expressed career concerns. The important question here is that if vocational overshadowing is contaminating the counseling process, would the client not detect the lack of congruence and feel that his or her career concerns are not being taken seriously? If so, this would seem to undermine the collaborative basis that is fundamental to the working alliance.
The second reason concerns shared processes between vocational and therapeutic counselling. Citing the work of others, Blustein and Spengler (1995) have noted that the provision of information that is so fundamental to career counselling may be the only major aspect of difference between the two counselling domains. Here, the issues concern manner of delivery (feedback) and how client involvement in the process might help retain the collaborative balance (Hanson et al., 1997) that is key to the working alliance. We hope that future research can one day address both questions because relevant findings may be fruitful for learning more about the role of the working alliance for career counselling theory and practice.
Exam performance: This essay was not used under exam conditions, so how it would have been marked is unknown. However, some observations can be made, and they may be of value to the new student. Since this was an early attempt for one of the first exams sat by this writer, it's not as polished as later efforts. For example: