Strength-Centered Counseling: Integrating Postmodern Approaches and Skills with Practice


Colin C. Ward & Teri Reuter

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Foundations of Strength-Centered Counseling

    Part II: Phases of Strength-Centered Counseling

    Part III: Resilience for the Strength-Centered Counselor

  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated those mentors, students, and colleagues who have nourished our growth both professionally and personally. The spirit of their influence laces every word of the book in their recognition of the value of hope, the importance of possibilities, and the nature of change from a perspective of strength.

    This book honors the effort of counselors who daily engage in the noble purpose of making a difference in the lives of others, and by doing so, make a difference in themselves.

    Colin Ward and Teri Reuter

    This book is dedicated to my wife, Laurie, whose loving support and encouragement has made this project possible, and to the memory of my mentor and friend, Reese House.


    For Guido, Nick, and George



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    List of Figures and Tables

    List of Figures
    List of Tables


    Strength-Centered Counseling: Integrating Postmodern Approaches and Skills With Practice began as a response to students asking Colin Ward for something more tangible to take with them after completing one of his seminars. He guided us through a process of changing our perspectives and invited us to question just about everything we had learned about being and becoming counselors. His seminars were transforming. He would often say, “You cannot not know something once you know it,” and although we were curious and ready for something new as we entered his classroom, few of us understood the transformative power of the “knowing” about strength-centered counseling. It shifted the perception we had of ourselves as well as our interactions. Although this book was intended as a guide for counselors in their professional work, I have come to believe it may be even more for counselors in their personal lives. It is both—and this is consistent with the postmodern principles on which strength-centered counseling is founded.

    Following my training with Colin and feeling compelled to process all of my other class information through a strength-centered perspective, I approached him about doing an independent study. From that meeting emerged an idea for a straightforward book designed for counselors wishing to synthesize the principles and skills of strength-centered counseling into their professional practices. From class and research notes, training presentations, and the various interview guides developed over the years, the book began. We incorporated the feedback and training experiences of counselors whose voices offer insight into the challenges and rewards of adopting this stance. Finally, I found that Colin's training materials and my own personal notes of the experience acted as a field guide in my development as a strength-centered counselor. They provided a reference point to remind me of “what I already knew” and to appreciate the value of working from an authentic life stance. It is my hope that this text does the same for you, reminding you of the transformative potential you can have with others, as well as with yourself.


    Strength-Centered Counseling: Integrating Postmodern Approaches and Skills With Practice is a succinct description of the theoretical foundations and development of strength-centered counseling along with a practical explanation of working through three phases of counseling with clients. The strength-centered counseling model unifies postmodern schools of thought in order to guide practicing mental health providers who wish to incorporate strength-centered techniques and interventions with their existing clients as well as to offer graduate students in counselor education programs a foundation in an effective broad-application model of counseling.

    We have divided Strength-Centered Counseling: Integrating Postmodern Approaches and Skills With Practice into three sections. Part I introduces the foundations of strength-centered counseling, distinguishing between modern and postmodern schools of thought and providing a synthesis of postmodern theories of therapeutic change under one overarching set of principles. Part II introduces and teaches the three phases of strength-centered counseling: Shared Understanding, Contracted Change, and Developed Lifestyle. In Part III, we address strength-centered counseling competence and offer a plan for developing and maintaining hope and wellness as a helping professional.

    Although traditional approaches continue to dominate the landscape, an appreciation of postmodern models and a focus on client strengths is gaining acceptance. We see this trend continuing, especially when supported by an increased availability of appropriate core textbooks and supplemental supporting materials. We intend for our treatment of the phases of strength-centered counseling to leave you with clear direction and examples for integrating strength-centered counseling with existing clients and/or for use in counselor education programs. Especially as strength-centered counseling is not limited to practice with a specific client population, its principles and techniques can be used with clients of any age and across many themes.


    We would like to thank Kevin Gray of Kevin Gray Photographics, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for allowing us to include his artwork.

    We gratefully acknowledge the following reviewers for their editorial insight: Joan Hartzke McIlroy, Lewis and Clark College; Jon Carlson, Govenors State University; Gonzalo Bacigalupe, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Elizabeth Vera, Loyola University Chicago; and Teresa McDowell, Lewis and Clark College. We would also like to thank the counselors whom we quote in the book for lending their voices to this project.

  • Appendix A: Counselor Interview & Reflection Guide: Shared Understanding: The Stance

    Shared UnderstandingProfessional Reflection Questions for the Counsel
    An Attitude of CuriosityWhat does the struggle imply about the values and hopes of the client?
    What client beliefs are being challenged or possibly compromised in the face of the struggle? What does it mean for the client to have this struggle?
    What are clients learning about themselves? How have they sustained themselves in facing the struggle?
    What personal strengths have they needed to tap into? (See Table 5.2, Strength Characteristics)
    What does the struggle imply about what they would prefer different in themselves or their lives? What strengths will likely need to be developed in order to see this occur, even just a little?
    A Stance of AcceptanceProfessional Reflection Questions for the Counselor
    Do the clients know that you know the essence of the experience reflected in the complaints, implied in the symptoms, and transparent in the expectations illustrated within their narrative?
    What are the emotions, values, and strengths implied in the struggle and the hopes transparent in the conflict?
    What does his or her struggle with others tell you about the client? Does he or she know that you know?
    Ambivalence AppreciationAmbivalence (Explanation Models) Questions for the Client
    “What is your theory about why change has been difficult for you?”
    “How have you tried to solve this and why have those efforts proved unsuccessful up until now?”
    “So, the problem is __, and what you want is __.”
    Ambivalence (Change Models) Questions for the Client
    “In what ways would it be good for you to (action)?”
    “If you did decide to change, how would you do it? What would be your reasons for doing something different?”
    “What are the good things about change and what are the not so good things?”

    Appendix B: Counselor Interview & Reflection Guide: Shared Understanding: The Stepsa

    Step 1: Problem PerceptionProblem Perception
    • “So, how were you hoping I could help you?”
    • “Can you think of a name to call this problem? What is it like (picture/metaphor)?”
    • “Are there other problems that this teams up with? In what ways does it do this?”
    Problem Impact
    • “What impact has the problem had you/others?”
    • “How has the problem robbed you of what you want?”
    • “How does the problem ‘get the best of you’? What has it promised you?”
    • “What do you think will happen if you do not make a change?”
    Problem Influence
    • “What does the problem whisper in your ear?”
    • “Would the problem want you in counseling? How did it try to keep you from coming?”
    • “How much of your life does it control? Is this your preferred way of being or would you prefer something else?”
    • “Who else might be an advocate for you in standing up to the influence of the problem?”
    Exploring Explanations
    • “What is your theory about why change has been difficult for you?”
    • “How have you tried to solve this, and why have those efforts proven unsuccessful until now?”
    • “So, the problem is __ and what you want is __.”
    Identifying Expectations
    • “When things are more on track, what will be different in you as well as in your life?”
    • “How will you know when counseling is no longer necessary?”
    Eliciting a Change Conversation
    • “In what ways would it be good for you to change or ‘do something different’?”
    • “If you did decide to change, how would you do it? What would be your reasons for doing something different?”
    • “What are the good things about change and what are the not so good things?”
    Step 2: Struggle PerceptionStrengths Within the Struggle
    • “With all that you are managing right now, it makes complete sense you are tired and depressed. Your fatigue is likely more about the load you are carrying than about you. In fact, I am a bit surprised that things haven't become worse. How have you managed to keep your head above water?”
    • “You found the energy and time to see me today. How have you managed to keep your sanity and hope in the midst of these problems?”
    • “Talk about those qualities you have learned about yourself that assist in sustaining yourself in the face of stress. What would others say about the qualities that you have that keep you going during these periods?”
    • “What advice do you give to yourself that helps you keep your head above water and reminds you to keep moving forward?”
    • “When was the last time you felt hopeful about your life and circumstances? What was going on in your life that made you feel hopeful?”
    Step 3: Strength PerceptionEliciting General Strengths
    • “What are the best things about you? What is your guess about how they were developed?”
    • “What special characteristics or talents distinguish you from others?”
    • “What do you wish others might discover about you?”
    • “When are your strengths most useful for you? When are they not? What is your theory about this?”
    Anchoring Strengths
    • “How might some of these attitudes, beliefs, and strengths be adapted and applied to your current difficulties?”
    • “What strengths do you believe you need to develop to better address the difficulties we have discussed?”
    • “How have you managed to keep things from getting worse?”
    Additional Strength Questions
    • “What do you do well?”
    • “What do other people look to you for?”
    • “What are your outstanding qualities?”
    • “How and with whom do you build alliances?”
    • “How have you been able to adapt to change?”
    • “Tell me what you do when you are at your best.”
    Step 4: Dichotomy PerceptionDichotomy of Strengths
    • Summary of strengths (see previous steps)
    • “Discuss how, despite your best intentions, these qualities/strengths get the best of you at times. How is this true in your current struggles? What other strengths might you wish to tap into instead during these times?”
    Step 5: Hope PerceptionGeneral Hope Sequence
    • “Tell me about a time you felt hopeful about your life and circumstances. What was going on in your life that made you feel hopeful?”
    • “At that time, what parts of yourself did you have faith in? How might this have contributed to feeling more hopeful?”
    • “When you felt more hopeful, how did you remind yourself to keep moving forward during difficult times?”
    Hope Chest
    • “Let's suppose you could create a hope chest that would permit all your problems to go away. You can make a request to take out of the hope chest three wishes. Although the three hopes will be granted, you must make changes to ensure their continuation.”
    • “What three hopes would you take out of your hope chest?”
    • “How would the granting of these hopes change your present situation?”
    • “What would you have to do to keep your hopes alive?
    • What strengths do you have as a person to sustain your three hopes?”
    Patterns of Resilience
    • “This has been very difficult for you. How have you managed to keep things from getting worse?”
    • “What is your guess about how you developed these?”
    • “What qualities do you possess that you seem to be able to tap into in times of adversity? What would others say are the qualities that you have that keep you going?”
    • “What aspects of your heritage sustain you in times of difficulty? Who in your life was your ‘cultural coach,’ and what does he or she whisper in your ear? How is this useful to you?”
    Note: a. When limited by time, a recommended abbreviated sequence is (a) Problem Impact, (b) Strengths Within the Struggle, (c) Dichotomy of Strengths, and (d) Patterns of Resilience.

    Appendix C: Counselor Interview & Reflection Guide: Contracted Change: A Preferred Life

    Solution EffortsExceptions
    • “When would you say the problem had less influence on you? How do you explain this?”
    • “What is different about you during those times when the problem doesn't occur or has less influence? What are you doing differently? What advice are you giving yourself? What is happening differently around you?”
    • “What do you do so that you don't have this problem then? Where did you get the idea to do it differently at those times? Whose idea was it to do it that way?”
    • “Do you think this (problem/struggle) should speak for you, or do you think it would be better for you to speak for yourself? How will others know that this decision is becoming clearer for you?”
    Unique Outcomes
    • “What do you do to keep the problem at bay when you need to? How were you able to weaken the influence of the problem?”
    • “When does the problem have less influence on you? What is your guess about why?”
    • “Has there ever been a time when the problem might have occurred but didn't? How were you able to do that then? What was different about you at that time?”
    • “Who is in your corner regarding your efforts to reduce the influence the problem has on you and those around you? What advice might they provide?”
    Miracle, Dream, and FutureThe Miracle
    • “Suppose that when you go to sleep tonight, a miracle occurs, and because you were sleeping, you didn't know it happened. The miracle solved the problem that brought you here. When you wake up in the morning, what clues will you see that lead you to discover that this miracle has taken place?”
    • “What else would be different?”
    • “What would you notice in the advice you give yourself?”
    • “Who would be the first to notice that something had changed?”
    The Dream
    • “Suppose that tonight while you are sleeping you have a dream. In this dream you discover the answers and resources you need to solve the problem that you are concerned about right now. When you wake up tomorrow, you may or may not remember your dream; however, you do notice that you are different. As you go about your day, how will you know that you discovered or developed skills and resources necessary to solve your problem?”
    • “What else would be different?”
    • “What will be the first small bit of evidence that you did this?”
    • “Who will be the first to notice and what will they see different in you?”
    The Road AheadThe Future
    • “Imagine yourself in the future when the problem is no longer a problem. Tell me where you are, what you are doing and saying, and what others around you are doing and saying.”
    • “What else would be different?”
    Video Talk
    • “If I were to watch you during the time when a miracle was occurring, what behaviors would I see you doing differently?”
    • “What advice would you be giving yourself (cognitions)?”
    • “What would we see you feeling (emotion)?”
    Building a ReadinessMind Mapping
    • “What is your theory about how you were able to do that as you think about the miracle/future? How do you account for these changes?”
    • “What advice will you be giving yourself when the changes you are talking about begin to occur, even just a bit?”
    • “How will you be able to stay on track in spite of all the distractions?”
    Intention of Change
    • “What will you notice in yourself and those around you as you get more comfortable with ‘idea’ of the changes we talked about today?”
    Strengths of Change
    • “What is there about you, what strong points that we have discussed or that you know about yourself, that could help you succeed in making this change? Who else knows this and could help in this change?”
    Hypothetical Change
    • “Suppose that you did succeed and are looking back at the change now. What most likely is it that worked? How did it happen?”
    • “What obstacles were you able to overcome and how?”
    • “Suppose that this one big obstacle weren't there. If that obstacle were removed, then how might you go about making the change?”
    • “Clearly you are feeling very discouraged about this. Use your imagination. If you were to try again, what might be the best way to try?”

    Appendix D: Counselor Interview & Reflection Guide: Contracted Change: Understanding Goals

    Scaling Action StepsScaling
    • “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning things are completely on track and 1 meaning not at all on track, where would you put yourself today?”
    • “Where would you like to be on the scale … what would you settle for? From where you are today, what would be a very first step toward what you would settle for? How would recognize that this was occurring for you?”
    • “When the number on the scale is improved by one point, what will be going in your life, even just a little bit, that is not going on now? What would be a small step indicating to you that you are moving in this direction?”
    • “Of the steps you mentioned, which do you have confidence that you can accomplish between now and the next time we meet? If not right now, which would you be willing to think more about and pay attention to between now and the next time we meet?”
    Follow-Up SessionsFollow-Up Through Scaling
    • “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning things are completely on track and 1 meaning not at all on track, where would you put yourself today since the last time we met?”
    • “What is your theory about this?”
    • “Of those differences that appeared helpful for you, what is your guess about how you were able to do this?”
    • “What have you learned about yourself that has contributed to these differences?”
    Follow-Up Through Change Awareness
    • “What occurred between the last time we met that you would wish to see continue? What do you believe might have been partly responsible for this?”
    • “What personal strengths were you aware of this past week? How do you see these making a difference? What did you need to overcome for this to occur, even just a little bit?”
    • “What is the next step for you?”
    • “Is there anything else you would wish to explore in counseling that might be helpful for you?”

    Appendix E: Counselor Interview & Reflection Guide: Developed Lifestyle: Understanding and Practicing Personal Wellness

    Appendix F: Strength Cards

    Please refer to the Web site, for guidance in using Strength Cards during sessions with clients and for instructions to reprint additional sets of Strength Cards.


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    About the Authors

    Colin Ward'sStrength-Centered Counseling reflects over two decades of clinical and academic experience. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional approaches to counseling for influencing enduring change with clients, Dr. Ward sought out additional training in postmodern approaches. He continued, in both school and private practice settings, discovering the phases of strength-centered counseling and then developing effective techniques and interventions for working with clients to engage hope, identify strengths, and develop resilient life patterns.

    Dr. Ward is currently a counselor educator and supervisor at Central Michigan University. He received his B.S. in Education and Special Education from the University of Northern Colorado in 1983, his M.S. in Counseling from Winona State University in 1988, and his Ph.D. in Counseling from Oregon State University in 1997. In addition to strength-centered counseling, his interests include wellness counseling, school counselor training, advocacy and professional leadership, counseling supervision, family therapy, and public policy for promoting the counseling profession and social mental health.

    Teri Reuter's wide range of professional and personal experiences have led her to believe in the transformational power of a strength-centered approach to counseling. Ms. Reuter has taught communication courses at the university level for over twenty years, and in that time, she and her family have lived in many different places in both the United States and Europe. Living in, working in, and adjusting to these varied cultures has helped her recognize the value of identifying one's own strengths and developing resiliency. In collaborating with Colin Ward, Ms. Reuter has refined her philosophies into practical guidelines to help her and other counselors work with clients in broadening their strengths and meet life challenges.

    In 1989, Ms. Reuter graduated from the University of Florida with a B.A. in Communication Studies, and in 1991 she earned an M.A. in Communication Processes and Disorders and a Graduate Certificate in Gerontology. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Oakland University in 2008. Currently, Teri Reuter is in private practice in Orlando, FL.

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