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Promoting Tolerance for Ambiguity in Counselor Training Programs


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 listening 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 circumDana Heller Levitt, Department of Counseling and Higher Education, Ohio University; Jodi D. Jacques, Department of Counseling and Cuidance, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dana Heller Levitt, Ohio University, S72 McCracken Hall, Athens, OH 45701 (e-mail:



2000. Budner (1962) defined ambiguity tolerance as the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable. identity. 12). Chasnoff (1976) stated that "an ambiguous situation is one that cannot be adequately structured or categorized by an individual" (p. they lose the ability to attend to. and help their clients. be authentically present. The purpose of this article is to conceptualize the struggles experienced at the outset of the counselor preparation process through the framework of ambiguity. try and try again (harder). Mendoza. 1965). 47). Winbom & Martinson. and effectiveness (Granello. They face further frustrations of not hearing clients.2002). Anxiety and frustration may indeed be expected when they are faced with increasingly ambiguous concepts of counseling. EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT • Spring 2005 • Volume 44 47 . a necessary component of one's covinselor development. 1974. They know that they need to be genuine and empathic: How can people work harder to be themselves? When they attempt to do so." The conundrum grows as students discover that by trying harder to use and master skills. The influence of ambiguity on students' struggles is presented. Authors have examined successful professionals within the counselor-client Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSEUNG. They may have adopted and embraced the adage "if at first you don't succeed. p. Tucker & Snyder. it is likely that students are at the end of their ropes in trying to swing across the precarious swamp of skill mastery. Part and parcel of the struggle for counselors-in-training is the inherent ambiguity that exists in learning and mastering counseling skills and the counseling process itself. AMBIGUITY AND AMBIGUITY TOLERANCE There is scant literature in the counseling field exploring ambiguity and ambiguity tolerance. losing opportunities to develop relationships with them. Earlier learning experiences have demonstrated that trying harder generally works. The inherent challenges faced by counseling students along with a working definition of ambiguity tolerance are offered. The conceptualization of ambiguity tolerance is an even more difficult task. 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. They are less able to make this process work in covinseling. 1961. 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. The majority of studies have focused on ambiguity tolerance as a variable related to effective counseling behavior (Brams. and essentially finding the counseling process more difficult than they had ever imagined. 1969.stances" (Kottler & Brown. 1996. There is an absence of perceived truth by students at the early stages of development as counselors. Conceptualizing students' struggles through the framework of ambiguity may help counselor educators facilitate success among emerging counselors in their journey toward becoming skilled counselors. Ambiguity tolerance is likewise congruent with human development as a whole. many students revert to tried-and-true learning techniques.

EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT • Spring 2005 • Volume 44 . Budner's (1962) positive endorsement of ambiguity may invite counselor education programs to present more opportunities for students to wrestle with ambiguity with the goal of increasing effectiveness with counseling concepts. the directive to "respond empathically" offers little concrete instruction to the beginning counselor. For example. The ambiguous concepts within counsel- 48 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSEUNG. MacDonald's (1970) definition can be adapted to examine ambiguity tolerance and help students begin to not view ambiguity as something negative but shift to embracing the role it plays in the process. THE CONVERGENCE OF ART AND SCIENCE Research on the cognitive development of counselor education graduate students demonstrates that most students enter the training process at a knowledge level in which they are seeking information in the form of facts and truths (Granello. a heightened sense of frustration occurs. The precise role of ambiguity in the counselor preparation process has yet to be explored. Many neophyte counseling students tend to focus on a core set of counseling skills and rely on mastery of these skills. learning that there are multiple paths to effective and therapeutic interventions. The transitional period in which Granello (2002) found students in her study is characterized by a belief that these truths exist. then as a counselor she or he has a greater potential of thriving in the profession. 2000). 1984). Yet students are instead at a point where they are seeking hard-and-fast answers. Some of these skills are inherently ambiguous. Counselor educators attempt to convince students that the trial-and-error method of learning will help them to master basic concepts of counseling (Corey. It may be surmised that this period might be fraught with frustration and anxiety when trying to determine how to "be" in counseling without a model on which to base decisions. most students were in a transitional period of multiplistic thinking. the individual having moved beyond the belief of right and wrong toward an understanding that all knowledge seems to be valid. Multiplistic thinking is marked by a period of uncertainty. These studies provide a historical perspective of examining ambiguity in the counseling profession but lack a contemporary focus on educating future counselors. Another option may be to expose students to diverse examples of skill demonstration through videotaped presentation or role plays by instructors and practicing counselors. When clients do not respond as the clients in prior learning did. If a beginning counselor is more comfortable with unpredictability in life. just that experts (professors) have not yet discovered them and will not for some time.relationship context. Most students do not consciously seek out or desire to place themselves in situations that confront their tolerance of ambiguous concepts. For example. 2004. students may be given multiple opportunities to practice counseling skills in introductory courses. Hill. Granello (2002) applied Perry's (1970) model of cognitive development to graduate students in counselor education and found that at the beginning of their programs.

The bigger question we propose is the role of ambiguity in fostering counselor identity development and enhancing counseling effectiveness.g." which in turn influences their abilities to be effective counselors. Assisting students with finding a balance between relying on their own intuitions and incorporating the mastery of microskills necessary to be a competent counselor is a daunting task.. Students who enter graduate school have likely demonstrated academic success in their undergraduate careers and are accustomed to earning good grades. There is an element of perfectionism that Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING. p. Levitt. 1984). They may have relied on academically oriented models of learning and mastery of concepts in their roles as students. 1992. genuineness. Counselor educators likewise attempt to convince students that listening and being patient with the process will allow mastery to happen (Levitt. are perhaps best learned in a trial-and-error process that could indeed provide a more empowering experience for students altogether (Hill. 2002) is just one factor to consider. 1998. regression to earlier levels of cognitive development (Granello. are the most important instruments that they have to work with as counselors (Corey. EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT • Spring 2005 • Volume 44 49 .g. They should continually be reminded that counseling entails an "integration of the professional self and the personal self" (Skovholt & Ronnestad. The challenge of becoming a counselor is further increased by anxiety about evaluation. Counseling has been defined as a combination of art and science (Hill. themselves. empathy. Self-efficacy tends to decrease as students are first faced with "doing counseling. 1982. Students develop their own unique conceptualization of how counseling works and their role in the process. Larson & Daniels. genuineness. Graduate students in counseling are academically gifted on entering the program and may be seeking more concrete and book-based guidance. Students must recognize that they. 2004). 2001) that self-efficacy is a critical piece in counselors' skill acquisition and when students are searching for concrete answers and methods. and unconditional positive regard. This is a challenging and perhaps seemingly unfair concept at this developmental stage. active listening)? Faced with the frustration of not easily finding answers. 507). Increasing self-efficacy and trust in the counseling process are essential elements. AMBIGUITY RELATED TO COUNSELOR DEVELOPMENT The question of what will help students learn to be effective counselors and understand counseling skills is certainly not new. It is therefore challenging and uncomfortable for them to rely on themselves as the primary tool for learning and development in their professional programs. such as empathy. 2001). How is ambiguity tolerance fostered among counselors-in-training to help them better grasp their roles and functions in a profession that is filled with ambiguous concepts (e. These skills are perceived as ambiguous because they are abstract and have multiple interpretations. 1992). It has been established elsewhere (e.

may play a part in self-efficacy and skill acquisition. or questions of students' abilities may in fact be symptomatic of ambiguity. Semistructured experiences can be provided to help them wrestle with their understanding of counseling concepts (Nelson & Neufeldt. counselors-in-training do not hear what their clients are telling them. it is probable that anxiety about evaluation may contribute to decreases in self-efficacy." or who seek concrete guidance on the ambiguous concepts of counseling. Ambiguity is itself not a new concept in counselor education. Such practice may likewise provoke frustration among students who may not readily grasp counseling. What has traditionally been labeled resistance. in their quest for understanding and doing counseling right. The reality exists that students. IMPLIGATIONSFORCOUNSELOR EDUCATION Counselor educators may thus help students to embrace the ambiguity inherent in the counseling process. Because learning counseling is inherently complex and students are likely to make at least a few mistakes along the way. To honor ambiguity and ambiguity tolerance stresses that counselor educators must take the time to recognize students' developmental needs alongside the introduction of ambiguous concepts of counseling. HONORING AMBIGUITY Honoring the role of ambiguity may be a helpful way of making meaning of the struggles and frustrations many counseling students experience in their training. student counselors may lose trust in the counseling process itself because they do not see immediate results or improvement in either their skills or their clients' presenting issues. EDUCATION AND DEVEUDPMENT • Spring 2005 • Volume 44 . Reflective thinking can be a way to help students link theory with their actual counseling practice. Perhaps counselor educators may assume responsibility for recognizing that ambiguity does exist as a legitimate part of students' learning processes. 1998). and the cycle of self-efficacy continues to spiral downward. The encouragement of reflective thinking is also related to counselor development and skill mastery. In the absence of listening. may never truly grasp 50 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSEUNG. A study of practitioners found that perfectionism was correlated with lower confidence in the ability to master complex tasks that elicit mistakes (Wittenberg & Norcross. Opportunities to intervene and demonstrate skill acquisition may thus be lost. Students may tend to focus more on their own discomfort than on listening to their clients. Students are often encouraged to grapple with the unknown. 2001). need for remediation. Students operating from a reflective standpoint are able to draw reasonable conclusions and know the criteria on which decisions are based (Griffith & Frieden. 2000). The inherent ambiguity of the learning process and counseling concepts frustrates or challenges some students to the point of wanting to give up counseling altogether. Furthermore. who worry about "doing counseling right.

Are there elements that counselor educators may infuse to help students trust the counseling process? Specific styles of supervision and classroom teaching need to be explored to determine what helps students leam.all the concepts and details involved. The realization that there is not one model to leam a specific counseling skill enhances students' awareness and appreciation for new and ambiguous situations. and trust that they have the skills and qualities necessary to be counselors. based on different models of counseling. present. As students are exposed to multiple models for each of the counseling skills and grapple with these. Recommendations for Counselor Educators The concepts of ambiguity and ambiguity tolerance may provoke more questions than provide answers for counselor educators. It has been established (Granello. 2002) that counseling students are likely to be at Perry's (1970) transitional level of thinking. Bad news. We propose that teaching methods and activities should reflect this developmental level and be designed to help students Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSEUNG. while realizing that the remaining models still have merit. Counselor educators may help students to reframe their understanding of core skills by addressing their purpose. appreciate. perhaps even come to terms with your own past. Students may then determine for themselves how empathy and genuineness may have different presentations. 26) How we help students to work with that awe and wonderment is the next question. how and why people change. and future. It may be helpful to expose students to multiple models of each of the core counseling skills so that students can see the many different forms that the models can take. (p. innovative. they process a wide range of approaches. Students should be encouraged to grapple with the various models and pay attention to which models fit them. there are practices that counselor educators may use to encourage ambiguity tolerance among students. This is a frightening concept for some students. counselor educators may combine traditional approaches to counselor education with new. you will (hopefully) always remain in a state of awe and wonderment. Kottler (1993) stated this position well: You hoped that with experience you would—someday—understand how counseling really works. but counselor educators may promote their students' ascendance to the status already attained by leaders in the field who have learned to embrace ambiguity. Perhaps this is a necessary step to maintain our own sense of awe and wonderment. Address developmental level in teaching methods. By conceptualizing students' struggles with ambiguity in the early stages of counseling. Wrestle with ambiguity. Even in light of this curiosity. EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT • Spring 2005 • Volume 44 51 . and applicable practices that take into account the common concem and challenges among so many emerging counselors. Budner (1962) proposed that ambiguity tolerance includes the tendency for individuals to view ambiguous situations as desirable. No matter how long you work in this field.

this has often meant the abandonment of traditional summative evaluation of skills and more reliance on a formative evaluation that takes into account students' experimentation with different manifestatioris of skills. we propose that laboratory experiences with peers be used prior to work with clients (i. For example. EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT • Spring 2005 • Volume 44 . We caution that such small-group supervision requires that students are properly trained to provide feedback to their peers in a constructive and meaningful manner. It also provides an opportunity for students to realize that their peers are often experiencing similar frustrations and concerns. for example. and then use a reflective examination in light of established theories of coimseling. First. For us. Third. One method of preparing students to think relativistically may be to teach skills and concepts before theory. CONCLUSION Ambiguity and ambiguity tolerance in counselor development are familiar concepts with a new name. counselor educators may themselves more readily embrace the trial-and-error approach to skill acquisition. see how they feel for themselves. completing reflective writing assignments and small-group processing activities related to the development of counseling skills may help students to embrace the ambiguity inherent in the counselor development process. Reflective learning and semistructured experiences. Group supervision may be an outgrowth of the reflective writing and group processing experiences.. counselor educators may rely on practice versus exposure to models of expert counseling. practicum) to facilitate the trial-and-error method. We offer four additional practices that may specifically address students' tolerance of ambiguity. that reflecting feeling is less about being correct than it is about identifying and communicating the client's emotions. Increase Ambiguity Tolerance We propose that counselor educators can use the previously mentioned practices to increase ambiguity tolerance among counseling students. In this way. Counselor educators often see students enter counselor preparation programs with a mix of anticipation and apprehen- 52 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING. Finally. Students may thus learn. Many students want to see how counseling is performed by a model. Reflective learning expe- riences may also help students to explore their understanding of skills and concepts to create a more solid understanding of what seems vague and out of one's grasp. we recommend group supervision as a mearis for students to share their personal experiences with regard to skill development and counseling encounters.move to Perry's next level of relativistic thinking. this practice provides students with multiple opportunities in a safe area to determine what works best for them as they prepare themselves to be coimselors. students have an opportunity to try various skills. Additionally. which can limit their use of their own capabilities and development of a personal style. Second.e.

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