Thursday, October 21, 2010

Theories, Models or Approaches?

Entry for 21 October 2010:

I’m still at home, recovering from surgery, but sometimes I get questions out of the blue, little bits of grace like falling autumn leaves:

Dr. Elliott-

I first would like to apologize for the forward nature of this email as I am indeed a complete stranger to you. However, I have spent several days searching for an answer to my query and am at a loss as to who to turn to for assistance. I first emailed Dr. [Clara] Hill who promptly referred me to you (see her response below). Please know any information you can provide if your time allows will be warmly welcomed and greatly appreciated.

I am currently a graduate student at the University of __ in a counseling skills class where [Clara Hill’s] book Helping Skills: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action is being used as our text. I was recently in discussion with a peer about different models that explain the concept of helping skills. I think the term 'model' is what has me blocked. My first response was simple...person-centered or a humanistic approach (the basis for the exploration stage), a behavioral model, and of course a psychodynamic model all came to mind as models used in the helping process. I realize after further thought that these concepts are theories and may not be considered 'models' within the realm of helping skills. The scope is certainly much broader than that. My friend argued for a more complex idea that 'models' include approaches such as motivational interviewing, solution-focused brief therapy, and the like. To me, these are methods or techniques used in counseling. Would you consider these approaches to fall under the category of helping skills are they 'models'?

It is quite possible this makes no sense to an outside expert, so please let me know if further clarification is needed. I just wanted a little guidance on what the term 'model' in reference to helping skills might mean to you. Dr. Hill labeled her approach as an integrated three-stage model; are there other models such as this with different theoretical foundations authored by other practitioners/researchers in the field?

Again, I appreciate your valuable time in offering any insight to this query. Have a wonderful day in the meantime; it is an honor to communicate with you.



Graduate Candidate in MHR

Dear Carissa,

You are engaged in philosophy! The questions of what is a theory and what is a model and how they are and are not similar; these are philosophical questions. Philosophy can be very useful for clarifying what we are talking about, and reducing the probability that we are talking nonsense! Of course, an awful lot of what we do when we talk about counselling and psychotherapy is, from a philosophical point of view, nonsense, because we usually don't stop to clarify our concepts.

To properly answer your question, we would have to look at how people (philosophers, scientists) have defined the words "theory" and "model". I'll leave that for you to do a bit of investigating into; you'll soon find that there are lots of different definitions and views, but in general we're talking about systematic representations of reality. Beyond that, it quickly gets very complicated. This means that whenever you or someone else uses a word like "theory" or "model", you or they need to be clear about what they mean by the word. What kind of systematic representation of reality? For what purpose? How systematic? Descriptive or prescriptive? Big or little bits of reality? etc.

What I generally say to people when they ask me a question like this is, "Isn't it fun how many words there are in English that mean roughly the same thing? And isn't it interesting how when there are a bunch of words meaning roughly the same thing, people start inventing distinctions and attaching them to the different words?" But if you were Winnie the Pooh, you'd laugh and say "It's the same thing!"...

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.

I hope haven't been too irreverent in addressing your question. The fact is, models, theories and approaches to counselling are very interesting and exciting and fun. It sounds like you are enjoying yourself and I hope you go on doing so!


Robert Elliott

Footnote: I should also have added that underlying Carissa’s question is an ancient distinction that goes back to the Greeks: theoria vs. praxis: theory vs. practice; that is, how we represent the world vs. what we actually do. Theories, models and approaches are different ways of talking about representations; counselling skills (or help-intended speech acts) are what we actually do in practice.

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