The defining moment for most products that have reached an iconic status is the generic application of the product’s name, such as the use of “Kleenex” to indicate any brand of tissue. Similarly, the practice of consulting has reached a comparable level of renown and one is able to find it in almost every aspect of our present society. Today, in any given business or academic arena, one can locate listings for financial consulting, international consulting, executive sales and marketing consulting, and even nutritional consulting. Historically, the term consulting existed more frequently as a verb and predates society’s current trend toward life coaches who “consult” on issues such as career, relationships, and communication styles. This article on consultation emanates from a psychological frame of reference that addresses different forms of consultation and the competent and ethical practice of consulting.
The act or art of consulting is typically tied to solution seeking. It can be thought of as a set of helping behaviors in which one party is seeking input, advice, or feedback from another related to a problem, question, or dilemma. Several authors within the field of counseling psychology, such as Sandra Shullman and John M. Whiteley, have traced the origins of consulting to the early guidance days of Frank Parsons during which counselors and psychologists worked diligently in business settings and industrial organizations to solve vocational problems for groups, as well as individuals.
Perhaps most notable in the early life of psychological (mental health) consultation is the seminal work of Gerald Caplan with his prevention-based book titled The Theory and Practice of Mental Health Consultation. This work presented prevention- and developmental-based intervention options for mental health professionals that would take place outside of the therapy room. By doing so, it created the opportunity to apply psychological principles through assistance or advice in outreach types of activities. An outline of Caplan’s four types of consultation would typically include client-centered case consultation, consultee-centered consultation, program-centered consultation, and administrative consultation. Since Caplan’s work, consultation has been broadened to include school counseling and education, advocacy, group, and process consultation. Work in these arenas may be theoretically based on behavior-oriented, (industrial) organizational, or social justice-based solutions. Their underpinnings, though, can be connected to the early works of Caplan.
Types of Consultation
One common form of consultation is the informal or formal exchange of information that occurs in the professional lives of counselors as they move toward refining their own clinical techniques; establishing expertise in a particular faction of study; or improving upon a design, method, or approach. In the field of counseling, practitioners are taught to seek consultation when faced with complicated issues that are not always well defined in textbooks or evidenced-based research. A common situation that requires consultation is the realization of a potential ethical dilemma involving clients, colleagues, or students. Thus, consultating with another professional allows for the translation of what may appear abstract or unknown into observations or behaviors that others have studied and/or experienced, and for which solutions have been developed.
In more formal settings, such as businesses, consultation often occurs in the context of a contractual relationship between the consultant, who holds some expertise in a specified area, and the consultee, who has identified a need or potential need but does not have the knowledge or skills required to address the issue. The consultant is held in the role of “expert” and proceeds to clarify the consultee’s goals or referral questions and then sets out to analyze the situation through the study of a group, system, or process. This can incorporate direct assessment of a person or groups as well as indirect observation and data collection from others. Subsequently, the consultant interprets and outlines the results for the consultee in an effort to assist in potential problem solving or identification of structural issues, concerns, or conflicts. In most instances the consultant is collaborating with the consultee to arrive at the point of problem resolution. This mode of consultation is the essence of the scientist-practitioner model of counseling psychology. The science is manifest in the methods of investigation and research of the issues at hand, while the practice is applied through the skills of the counseling psychologist as he or she intervenes and facilitates the process.
Stages of Consulting
The literature has demonstrated that, similar to the therapy process, the consultation experience includes different stages or phases that originate with a well-grounded working relationship. The importance of a working relationship in counseling may seem self-evident, but it is equally important in the consultation process. If rapport is not present, productivity is limited. As with therapy, the phases of assessment, conceptualization, and solution development are often taking place as the consultant continues to build the consultation relationship. Once a working relationship has been established, clearly defining the problem, concern, or issue at hand becomes paramount to the success of the consultation process. Whether the identified need is an organizational issue of reduced productivity or a work group’s difficulty in successful management of differing opinions, the participants must have a common definition of the concern as they begin their process.
Once such groundwork is clarified and understood by the engaged parties, the goal setting and problem solving may begin. It is important to remember that parallel to therapy, this understanding should be reviewed often as the consultation proceeds. Clarifying the consultation process, in addition to evaluating ongoing progress or assessing outcomes, is crucial to the successful maintenance and completion of the consulting relationship. The positive termination of a consulting relationship is dependent on a cooperative understanding of the tasks at hand and the skillful facilitation of an accountable, working relationship.
Perhaps one way to ensure competent consulting in today’s mental health professions is to better quantify and define the basics of competency-based training, course work, and field experiences. As noted, there has been a proliferation of consulting “professionals” in today’s job arenas. One can easily locate a number of corporate- or business-related consulting career titles available in any given phone directory or Better Business Bureau listing. Additionally, there are now persons from fields outside of psychology who promote themselves as consultants in a multitude of areas, such as retirement, spirituality, personal fitness training, athletic activities, and fashion.
The need for increased professional clarification in psychology-based consultation has been recognized through the timely efforts of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) educational workgroups. The workgroups propose and outline benchmarks in an attempt to delineate boundaries of practice, developmental progress, educational requirements, internship, and practice and supervision needs. Such efforts point to a desire for more quality control in the area of consultation and a more systematic approach to the training of psychologists in the area of consultation. Likewise, Stewart E. Cooper, and numerous authors from industrial/organizational, school psychology, military, and counseling psychology backgrounds, organized a special issue of the Consulting Psychology Journal of Practice and Research in 2002. This collection offered a summary of training needs and proposed working definitions of consultation as well as competency standards. These authors also called for increased research and ethics to be applied to consulting. If indeed the area of consultation is unique from the process of therapy, then it stands to reason there should be a set of skills, related literature, research, and standards that can be employed to measure a trainee’s ability development. Continued APA workgroup involvement throughout each of psychology’s areas will address the uniqueness of consulting and guidelines to ensure quality delivery of services.
- Archer, J., & Cooper, S. (1998). Counseling and mental health services on campus: A handbook of contemporary practices and challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Caplan, G. (1970). The theory and practice of mental health consultation. New York: Basic Books.
- Lowman, R. L., Alderfer, C., Atella, M., Garman, A., Hellkamp, D., Kilburg, R., et al. (2002). Principles for education and training at the doctoral and postdoctoral level in consulting psychology/organizational. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 54, 213-222.
- Shullman, S. L. (2002). Reflections of a consulting counseling psychologist: Implications of the principles for education and training at the doctoral and predoctoral level in consulting psychology for the practice of counseling psychology. Consulting Psychologist Journal: Practice and Research, 54, 242-251.
- Whiteley, J. M. (1984). Counseling psychology: A historical perspective. The Counseling Psychologist, 12, 3-109.