Meaning-Centred Counselling Workshop

Paul T. P. Wong
Presented at
the International Conference on Searching for Meaning in the New Millennium
July 13, 2000, Richmond, B.C.

Introduction

This workshop will provide a brief guided tour of the terrain of Meaning-centred Counselling (MCC). For more information on MCC, please read Wong (1997, 1998, 1999).

When a client walks into your office, what do you see in your client? What would you focus on? If you are a cognitive therapist, you will focus on her irrational or dysfunctional thoughts, but she is much more than her thoughts. If you are a behavioural therapist, you will focus on her self-handicapping behaviours, but she is more than her behaviour. So, the situation is very similar to the story of several blind persons trying to describe an elephant according to the parts of elephant they happen to touch.

Figure 1 (see PDF file) shows a schematic representation of human dimensions. Which of these dimensions is more important? Please note that these dimensions are all integrated into a unified whole. Dr. Frankl considers human beings as "unity in complexity".

The noetic dimension, coined by Dr. Frankl, represents the seat of meaning and spirituality. I propose that area approximates the centre of the human spirit, much like the engine to an automobile. According to the noetic dimension, we are primarily spiritual beings.

Please also note the importance of culture, which shapes every aspect of the human condition.

Table 1: Future trends in counselling

  • From specific models to integrated models
  • From psychopathology to positive psychology
  • From positive psychology to positive revolution
  • From treatment to prevention
  • From an individual orientation to a cultural orientation
  • From person-centred counselling to meaning-centred counselling
  • From cognition to personal narratives

Please note that meaning-centred counselling is deeper and broader than person-centred counselling. Firstly, MCC is deeper, because it focuses on the noetic dimension, which defines the essence of humanity; MCC also focuses on the core values, the meaning and belief systems, which make each person unique.

Secondly, MCC is broader, because it regards individuals as the product of their culture, especially with respect to their meaning systems, values and worldviews. In other words, the person is always viewed in his or her cultural context.

Table 2: Need for an integrated meaning-centred counselling (MCC)

None of the existing schools of counselling adequately addresses the needs of the whole person Only a holistic approach recognizes that people are spiritual-psycho-social-biological beings An integrated meaning-centred model recognizes that people are meaning-seeking, meaning-making creatures living in a world of meanings

  • MCC restores the spirit and soul to the therapeutic process
  • MCC considers spiritual and existential issues as central to healing and well-being
  • MCC taps into the power of universal meta-stories
  • MCC emphasizes the transformative power of meaning, especially in re-authoring
  • MCC integrates the principles and practices of other schools of counselling with personal meaning as its central organizing construct.
  • MCC may be considered a spiritual-existential-cognitive-behavioural-narrative model of counselling

Recently, there is increasing realization of the inadequacy of cognitive-behavioural therapy, because it fails to address clients' spiritual, existential concerns as well as worldviews and values. Therefore, some psychologists have promoted spiritual-cognitive-behavioural therapy. MCC represents a similar attempt to make spirituality an integral part of psychotherapy.

Traditionally, existential therapy tends to focus on anxieties and sufferings and the difficult if not impossibility of discovering ultimate meaning. However, thorough choice, commitment, and the courage to be authentic, individuals may experience meanings in life. In contrast, MCC offers a much more positive orientation towards the human condition. In fact, MCC may be regarded as a prototype of positive psychotherapy.

Table 3: The positive therapy of MCC

  • Every problem has a solution Every dark cloud has a silver lining
  • Every dead-end is a starting point
  • Every crisis is an opportunity
  • Every transition is a transformation
  • Every empty cup is time for a refill
  • Every person has the potential for positive change
  • Every weakness can become a strength
  • Every defeat is a stepping stone towards victory
  • Every pain is stimulus for growth
  • Every loss is an opening for grace
  • Every tragedy is a heroic journey

Are there hopeless cases? The therapist's own optimism can be contagious and therapeutic. One of the defining characteristics of MCC it that it is very optimistic about the human potential for transformation, not only because of the defying human spirit, but also because of the unlimited spiritual resources and God's grace.

Table 4: Positive themes of MCC

Meaning as the primary human need,
Purpose as the primary reason for striving,
Values as something worth living by and worth dying for
Resilience in coping with stress and loss
Potential for transformation
Optimism about self, situations, and the future
Efficacy in getting things done and achieving life goals
Religion or spirituality as a coping resource
Faith as a tool to reach out to the unseen and transcendental
Self-transcendence as a way of getting connected with a larger purpose
Relationship as a way of building and belonging to a community
Memory as a source of wisdom
Imagination as a means of opening up new vistas
Creativity as a means of developing new patterns of living
Courage in living an authentic life
Responsibility in decision-making
Growth throughout the lifespan
Freedom from self-made prisons
Liberation from external constraints
Peace that passes understanding
Joy in fulfilling one's calling
Forgiveness in healing and restoration
Faith that can move mountains

There are always windows of opportunities for therapy and positive change. We need to explore overlooked areas of strength our clients. We need to empower them to explore and recognize the opportunities that lie outside their doorstep. We also need to encourage them to transcend obstacles so that they can fulfil their dreams.

The meaning of meaning

What do we mean by meaning? There are different types and different levels of meanings.

Table 5: Types of personal meaning

Personal meaning (cognitive meaning and existential meaning)
Personally construed and culturally based meaning about situations, self and human existence.
Our language and symbolic systems are mediated and shaped by culture.

(1) Cognitive meaning (provisional and situational meaning)

  • Understanding the specific meanings of events and activities of the moment
  • Understanding the associative meanings acquired through classical and operant conditioning
  • Developing a sense of coherence of events

(2) Existential meaning (future meaning to fulfill and ultimate concerns)

  • Understanding the meaning of human existence and one's place in the universe
  • Understanding one's meaning and purpose of life
  • Believing in the existence of ultimate meaning

MCC employs a two-pronged approach -- helping clients to achieve a better understanding of their cognitive and existential meanings. Firstly, clients are encouraged to confront distorted negative meanings and develop a more realistic yet rewarding understanding of life situations. Secondly, they are encouraged to identify their misguided goals and discover the "true" meaning and purpose of their lives.

Tables 6: Levels of meaning

  1. Explicit linguistic meanings
  2. Explicit contextual meanings
  3. Implicit cultural meanings
  4. Implicit emotional meanings
  5. Implicit relational meanings
  6. Intended unspoken meanings (hidden agenda)
  7. Unintended unspoken meanings (unconscious motives)

Misunderstanding occurs when people are communicating at different levels of meaning. Can you think of examples of miscommunication at levels 5 to 7? MCC therapists are trained to explore, together with their clients, meanings at all 7 levels, so that the clients can develop a deeper understanding of self, life situation, as well as the counselling session.

Table 7: Levels of Active Listening

  1. Listening with one's ears -- words and language
  2. Listening with one's eyes -- body language
  3. Listening with one's cultural knowledge -- implicit cultural meanings
  4. Listening with one's head -- understanding the intended spoken message
  5. Listening with one's heart -- emotions, relations and intentions (empathy)
  6. Listening with one's soul -- existential and symbolic meanings
  7. Listening to the spirit -- spiritual guidance and wisdom

Typically, counselling skills training addresses the first five levels of meanings. MCC training also includes levels 6 and 7. Listening with the 6th sense means listening to the silent cries of the soul, which the client may not even be aware of. Such "soul care" is possible, because of our potential to develop spiritual/existential sensitivities towards others on the basis of our common humanity, our shared universal existential anxieties, and the possibilities of spiritual illumination.

Table 8: Levels of therapeutic relationship

Relationship is an important key to effective psychotherapy. From the perspective of MCC, this relationship is complex and operates at several levels.

Relationship is an important key to effective psychotherapy. From the perspective of MCC, this relationship is complex and operates at several levels.

  • At the social level, it is the meeting of two strangers.
  • At the existential level, it is the encounter between two human beings.
  • At the professional level, it is a relationship of unequal power between therapist and client.
  • At the symbolic level, it is the working together of two travelers in climbing a mountain.

The symbol of mountain climbing suggests that therapy is a difficult task, and progress is made one handgrip at a time and one food-hold at a time. There is a tremendous need for interdependence: the therapist needs the expertise of client's personal knowledge, while the client needs the therapist's professional knowledge.

The art and science of questions

MCC therapists are very skilful in using questions to explore positive meanings in the client's present, past and future. Tables 9 to 11 include some suggested helpful questions. Each therapist has to develop his or her questions related to meaning and purpose.

Table 9: Helpful questions about the present

  • What are your main concerns?
  • What issue(s) do you want to talk about today?
  • What do you really want in life?
  • What is missing in your life?
  • Is there any void in your life at the present?
  • If God were to grant you one wish, what would that be?
  • Do you have something or someone worth living for?
  • What's keeping you going, even though life has been very difficult for you?
  • Is there anything or anyone that makes you feel that life is worth living?
  • Suppose you have to run for your life and you can take only one thing with you, what would that be?
  • How do you view the situation, if you can imagine yourself as an outside observer?
  • What options or choices do you have? What kind of freedom do you have? What options does a rat have when it is in front of a baited trap?
  • You have only three choices: Stay miserable, make things worse, or make some positive changes. What would be your choice?
  • What is preventing you from getting out of this terrible situation?
  • Which is worse -- fear of failure or fear of trying?
  • How do you know it won't work, if you haven't tried?
  • What might be the reasons why you find yourself in this difficult situation?
  • Could you have avoided it?
  • Suppose you had done that, what would be the outcome?
  • What three words best describe you?
  • What three words you would like to describe yourself?
  • What is really troubling you?
  • How central is this problem to your well-being and your future?

Table 10: Helpful questions about the past

  • What has been the main source of problem and disappointment in your life?
  • What has been the main source of satisfaction and encouragement in your life?
  • What were some of your childhood dreams?
  • What has held you back from fulfilling your dreams?
  • What has been your more enduring interest?
  • What were the best moments in your life?
  • What were the worst moments in your life?
  • Did anything good come from those bad moments?
  • Have you ever experienced those magic moments of being in the presence of the sacred? (If yes, how did that happen?)
  • What have been the turning points in your life?
  • What have been the peaks and valleys in your life?
  • What are the recurrent themes in your life story?
  • What have you done that makes you feel proud of yourself?
  • What have you done for others that makes you feel good about yourself?
  • What were the most vulnerable times in your past?
  • What are some of your regrets?
  • What have you done about those regrets?
  • What lessons have you learned from past mistakes?
  • Have you discovered you own Achilles' heel?

Table 11: Helpful questions about the future

  • What would you like to hear people say about you at your funeral?
  • What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
  • What are your favourite stories, which seem to speak to your life condition?
  • How would you want to re-write your life story?
  • How do you want to see yourself five or ten years down the road?
  • What will happen to you if you continue on the same path?
  • What changes do you want to make so that tomorrow will be different?
  • Have you ever daydreamed about the future?
  • Is there anyone whose life inspires you to strive for a better future?
  • What do you think might be your calling, your purpose for being alive?
  • If money were not an issue, what do you want to do with your life?
  • If you were to have only one year to live, how would your spend your remaining days?
  • If you had a choice, what kind of person do you want to become?
  • What can you do to become that kind of person?
  • What do you think is your special mission in life?
  • What do you want to accomplish in order to fulfil your calling?
  • What do you have to do in order to feel that you have not lived in vain?
  • What are you fears about death and dying? Are you concerned about not being able to complete your mission in life?

Meaning-based interventions

Table 12: Helpful interventions

  • Encouraging and validating
  • Socratic questioning
  • Self-disclosure and confession
  • Clarifying levels of construed meaning
  • Clarifying values and beliefs
  • Clarifying boundaries and constraints
  • Exploring new options and possibilities
  • Exploring solutions
  • Exploring new territories of life
  • Examining one's moral compass
  • Assessing sources of personal meaning (Personal Meaning Profile)
  • Exploring different pathways to meaning
  • Confronting and challenging
  • Contextualizing the problem
  • Perspective taking
  • Role-play
  • Attributional probing
  • Assessing client's stress appraisal (Stress Appraisal Measure)
  • Life review and reminiscence
  • Story telling and interpretation
  • Re-authoring
  • Cultural mapping
  • Magical questions and magical thinking
  • Fast-forwarding and imagination
  • Pursuing meaningful personal projects
  • Teaching effective coping (Coping Schemas)
  • Using drawings and charts
  • Re-enactment and psychodrama
  • Using symbols and metaphors
  • Making use of stories and myths

 

MCC systematically integrates the underlying principles and intervention techniques of major schools of psychotherapy. MCC is theoretically integrated, but technically eclectic. It willing to employ any technique that is helpful to the client facing a particular problem, but does not lose focus of the central role of meaning. Personal meaning remains a unifying principle throughout the course of the therapy. MCC also represents a unique approach to narrative therapy, because it employs both personal narratives and meta-stories to facilitate the client's quest for meaning. MCC goes beyond therapy - it is a form of "soul care", because it cares about the spiritual issues of being alive.

Table 13: Meaning-centred narrative therapy

  • Using meaning and purpose as organizing principles of life stories
  • Recovering and reconstruing meanings through life review
  • Gaining new self-understanding through re-telling one's life story
  • Deriving deeper meaning from universal stories of redemption, etc.
  • Connecting with the flow of humanity through symbols, myths and stories
  • Tapping into the vast resources of human history, literature and religion
  • Discovering new meanings and new passions through re-storying
  • Transforming a victim's journal into a hero's journey
  • Developing an integrated self through re-authoring

Concluding considerations

We have come to the conclusion of this brief tour.

Now when your clients walk in, what do you see in them?

  • Do you see them as a buddle of contradictions and paradoxes?
  • They seem to be forever striving, but are never satisfied.
  • They are forever seeking, but not knowing what they are looking for.
  • They may have everything, but feel that they have nothing.
  • They are desperate for happiness and love, but terribly sad and lonely.
  • They are full of promises, yet full of broken dreams.
  • They aspire to be a hero, but see themselves as a victim.
  • They want to move forward, but remain trapped in a prison of their own making.

Do you know how to relate to them? Do you know how to facilitate their quest for meaning and significance?

Has this tour affected your relationship with your client? More importantly, has it affected how your see yourself and how you view life in general?

References

Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP). In P. T. P. Wong & P. Fry (Eds.) The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Academic values and achievement motivation. In P. T. P. Wong & P. Fry (Eds.) The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 261-292). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Spirituality, meaning, and successful aging. In P. T. P. Wong & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications. (pp. 359-394). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Meaning-centered counselling. In P. T. P. Wong & P. Fry (Eds.) The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 395-435). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.


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