Beyond Microskills: Toward a Model of Counseling Competence


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Beyond Microskills:  Toward a Model of Counseling Competence

The Counseling Psychologist XX(X) 1­–40
© 2011 SAGE Publications Reprints and permission:
sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0011000010378440 http://tcp.sagepub.com

Charles R. Ridley1, Debra Mollen2, and Shannon M. Kelly3

Abstract
Heeding the call to the profession, the authors present both a definition and model of counseling competence. Undergirding the model are 15 foundational principles.The authors conceptualize counseling competence as more complex and nuanced than do traditional microskills models and include cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. The model consists of 4 ­superordinate competencies—determining therapeutic outcomes, facilitating therapeutic outcomes, evaluating therapeutic outcomes, and sustaining therapeutic outcomes—and 12 subordinate competencies: self-appraisal/ self-evaluating, structuring the therapy, building a therapeutic alliance, applying a conceptual map of therapeutic change, using therapeutic techniques, self-correcting, surmounting obstacles, leveraging opportunities, managing special situations, working with other systems of care, consulting other sources, and terminating therapy. Integral to the model is the integrated deep structure, which consists of 5 metacognitions: purposefulness, motivation, selection, sequencing, and timing.

1Texas A & M University, College Station, TX, USA 2Texas Woman’s University, Denton, TX, USA 3Indiana University, Bloomington, USA
Corresponding Author: Charles R. Ridley, Department of Educational Psychology, College of Education and Human Development, Texas A & M University, 4225 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-4225 Email: [email protected]

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Keywords counseling competence, cognitive complexity, counselor training

As the dominant model of entry-level training, the microskills approach focuses primarily on the development of observable skills. These discrete behaviors can be repeated and measured, which is the basis for the evaluation of counselor-trainee performance. At the time of its introduction, the approach was an advancement in training (Ivey, 1971; Truax & Carkhuff, 1967). However, other features not included in microskills training now are understood as integral to counseling competence (Byars-Winston & Fouad, 2006; Fauth, Gates, Vinca, Boles, & Hayes, 2007; Goodyear, 1997; Skovholt & Ronnestad, 2003). Furthermore, the effect of graduate training on therapists’ treatment competence (Bein et al., 2000; Binder, 2004; Fauth et al., 2007; Stein & Lambert, 1995) and clinical judgment (Spengler et al., 2009) has been seriously questioned.
Stein and Lambert (1995) pinpointed what they framed as “a substantial challenge” facing graduate training programs in psychology, psychiatry, and social work:
Programs have yet to systematically demonstrate (a) whether the skills they teach relate directly to year-by-year increases in the successful number or quality of therapy outcomes among the patients of trainees or (b) that specific didactic or practicum experiences affect dropout rates over time. (p. 193)
In light of the above problems, a call for reform in counselor training has gone forth (Ridley, Kelly, & Mollen, in press [this issue]). In this article, we heed the call by attempting to define counseling competence and proposing a model that elucidates our definition. The model moves beyond skills-based models by integrating cognition and affect, which are essential but often unaddressed elements of competence. As Vakoch and Strupp (2000) stated, the training of beginning psychotherapists actually can hinder their development of complex clinical judgment. At the same time, our model does not overlook microskills; instead, it infuses them within a more comprehensive, complex conceptualization of competence.
This article is organized into four major sections. First, we explain the role of cognitive complexity in counseling competence. Second, we situate our call for reform of counselor training within the context of the competence movement in professional psychology. Third, we make our modest proposal for defining counseling competence. Fourth, we present our model of counseling competence.

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Cognitive Complexity in Counseling Competence
Cognitive complexity is an important feature of counseling competence (Byars-Winston & Fouad, 2006; Fauth et al., 2007; Goodyear, 1997; Skovholt & Ronnestad, 2003). In this section, we provide research support for its role in expertise in general, counseling competence specifically, and apply it to counselor training.
Cognitive Complexity as Integral to Expertise in General
Cognitive complexity is critical to the development of expertise and therefore holds particular promise for improving counselor training. Experts across fields seem to respond similarly to unstructured problems and distinguish themselves from novices through the types of information they consider in problem solving and how they use them (O’Byrne, Clark, & Malakuti, 1997; O’Byrne & Goodyear, 1997). For example, experts in domains as varied as chess, football, music, and physics remember more and perform better than novices partly because they can “chunk” their specialized knowledge into meaningful patterns (Jennings, Hanson, Skovholt, & Grier, 2005). Although experts easily differentiate relevant and irrelevant information, novices often base their problem-solving approaches on concrete, immaterial details (Davidson & Sternberg, 1998; Jennings, Hanson, et al., 2005; O’Byrne & Goodyear, 1997). Before approaching a problem, experts usually spend considerable time planning and formulating a mental representation of the issue that accounts for its important abstract features, whereas novices spend less time planning and more time implementing solutions than do experts (Davidson & Sternberg, 1998; Dominowski, 1998; Jennings, Hanson, et al., 2005; Sitko, 1998). Experts also are distinguished from novices by the organization and structure of their knowledge, depth of their problem representations, quality of their mental models, efficiency of their problem-solving procedures, perception of patterns in their realm of expertise, automaticity and speed of their task performance, their superior memory for domain-specific information, and their ability to engage in metacognition about task performance (Goodyear, 1997; Jennings, Hanson, et al., 2005).
Metacognition, a central component of cognitive complexity, seems particularly important in promoting expertise. It refers to thinking about one’s thoughts, including what one knows (metacognitive knowledge), what one is doing (metacognitive skill), and one’s cognitive and affective state (metacognitive experience; Hacker, 1998). Regardless of the subject matter, these thoughts are deliberate, goal directed, and critical in nature (Davidson &

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Sternberg, 1998; Georghiades, 2004; Hacker, 1998). They involve reflections on the learning process, including important procedural points, connections, and mistakes, as well as self-appraisal and self-management. Self-appraisal refers to individuals’ reflections about their understanding during the learning process. Self-management refers to the mental processes people use to help them coordinate the components of problem solving (Georghiades, 2004; Hacker, 1998).
Metacognition is positively correlated with measures of effective learning (Romainville, 1994; Taraban, Rynearson, & Kerr, 2000) as well as with enhanced problem-solving abilities in the classroom (Davidson & Sternberg, 1998; Swanson, 1990). Berardi-Coletta, Buyer, Dominowski, and Rellinger (1995) demonstrated it also has been associated with success on puzzles and card problems. To explain the difference between the performance of the control group, which was asked “what” questions (e.g., What are the rules of the problem?), and the metacognitive group, which was asked “how” questions (e.g., How do you know this is a good move?), the authors stated:
Metacognitive participants switched from simple to more complex strategies, monitored themselves and the problem solution more often, and developed more sophisticated representations of the problem structure. . . . Metacognitive processing, therefore, seems to encourage a proactive, self-reliant discovery process that does not appear to be part of the average problem solver’s repertoire. . . . Based on the findings from these students, broad-based problem-solving skills such as “learning how to learn,” that is, becoming aware of what one is doing and why, need to be emphasized when problem-solving skills in any domain are being trained. . . . Problem solving in general has to be viewed in terms of processing skills, not the content of one’s knowledge base. (p. 219)

Cognitive Complexity as Specifically Integral to Counseling Competence
Metacognition and other aspects of cognitive complexity have garnered little attention from counseling psychologists. Nevertheless, the limited literature on the topic suggests their central role in promoting expertise. According to Sakai and Nasserbakht (1997), issues in applied psychology are verbally based and therefore less structured than problems in realms like chess and medicine. The authors concluded, “This leads to problems in appropriate diagnosis and classification; it also leads to the reasonable belief that more

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cognitively complex individuals would function better as professional psychologists” (p. 356).
Several studies have supported the notion that metacognition and other hallmarks of cognitive complexity are vital to the development of expertise in counseling. Unlike experts, novice counselors develop inadequate conceptual maps of client issues, leading them to quick problem formulation and advice giving (Skovholt & Ronnestad, 2003). Conversely, the ability to develop highquality clinical hypotheses, which requires attending to client messages, categorizing data, and accurately integrating information, is associated with high therapeutic performance ratings (Morran, 1986).
Continuous self-reflection and self-awareness also are critical to quality therapeutic relationships and professional development (Fauth & Williams, 2005; Jennings, Sovereign, Bottorff, Mussell, & Vye, 2005; Skovholt & Jennings, 2005; Skovholt & Ronnestad, 2003). Surveys and interviews with master therapists demonstrate the importance of these factors (Jennings, Sovereign, Bottorff, Mussell, & Vye, 2005; Sullivan, Skovholt, & Jennings, 2005), which involve counselors’ understanding their own emotional and physical needs, understanding unfinished business, knowing the boundaries of their competence, seeing themselves as change agents, grasping their power in therapeutic settings, and comprehending their own capacity for relationships. Although some studies suggest that experience can have some influence on counselors’ growth, they emphasize that experience alone is insufficient for developing expertise. As Skovholt and Jennings (2005) observed, “The experience has to be used to grow in an environment that encourages exploration. One ingredient for turning experience into expertise is self-reflection” (p. 15). A master therapist explained it this way:
I don’t think years of experience by itself does it because I might have the same year of experience 20 times, and so I need to put that together with good consultation and a good collegial system. So that you actually are learning from what you’re doing and [learning] more about how you’re impacting and affecting people. (Jennings, Sovereign, et al., 2005, p. 41)

Application of Cognitive Complexity to Counselor Training
Given the clear connection between cognitive complexity and the development of expertise, counseling psychology must seriously consider integrating cognitive components of therapy into its training programs. As Davidson

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and Sternberg (1998) noted, “Teaching metacognitive skills in conjunction with the domain-specific skills they are to control seems to be more effective than teaching each type of skill separately” (p. 63). The implication is that by solely emphasizing microskills, training programs are not realizing their full their potential.
Admittedly, incorporating metacognition into counselor training poses several challenges. As already noted, cognitive complexity has received little attention in the counseling literature, so modifying training programs initially will require drawing from studies in other fields and opening a relatively new line of research in counseling psychology (Kleiner, 2005). In addition, because metacognition is an internal process that can elude awareness, it poses methodological challenges in research (Georghiades, 2004; Hacker, 1998). Finally, adding a metacognitive component to counselor training would introduce another tax on courses that already are strapped for time (Sitko, 1998).
Fortunately, some counseling psychologists are beginning to incorporate cognitive considerations into their research and training. Several recent textbooks make an effort to address these concepts. Jennings, Hanson, et al. (2005) explained that the development of expertise entails novice counselors departing from rigid, context-free adherence to theories and skills and moving toward internalized, personal theories based on reflection and observed patterns. To this end, the authors proposed several topics to be covered in training programs, including how to set long-term goals and express personal feelings in session.
Other ideas for covering the cognitive components of therapy come from Byars-Winston and Fouad (2006), who noted the necessity of metacognition in multiculturally competent career counseling. They offered suggestions for incorporating it into their six-step culturally appropriate career counseling model. The authors listed questions related to one of these processes at each step of their model. When establishing a relationship with a client, for example, practitioners can develop a plan by asking themselves questions such as What are my strengths and areas of challenge? and What are any gaps in my knowledge about the client’s context? Counselors can self-monitor when identifying clients’ career issues through questions such as, What is the client’s cultural context? and What are my reactions to that? Finally, counselors can evaluate their plan once they intervene by asking themselves, How helpful are my interventions? and On what basis am I determining how helpful are my interventions?
Morran, Kurpius, Brack, and Brack (1995) also put forth concrete techniques for integrating cognitive complexity into training curricula. Noting that instruction in cognitive skills improves trainees’ ability to empathize,

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communicate, and problem solve, they proposed a four-phrase model for teaching three essential cognitive skills: (a) attending to and seeking information about oneself, the client, and the counseling relationship; (b) organizing and integrating this information into clinical hypotheses and conceptual models; and (c) planning, guiding, and evaluating therapeutic interventions. The authors stated that their model, which uses techniques such as thought-listing exercises, self-instruction, and hypothesis formulation, can supplement and coordinate with traditional behavioral skills training. Although they have employed it successfully with novice, intermediate, and advanced trainees, they added that empirical testing is needed to validate their approach.
Counselor training programs also can look to other fields for guidance in incorporating metacognition. Suggestions from educational psychology are particularly promising. Dominowski (1998) and Kuhn and Dean (2004) recommended that instructors ask probing questions to determine what students are thinking, including How do you know? and What makes you say that? Davidson and Sternberg (1998) mentioned pair problem solving, which involves students thinking aloud through problems while peers listen to and monitor the students’ encoding and thinking processes. These types of exercises and probing questions could serve as starting points for counselor training programs as they work to address areas beyond microskills.

The Competence Movement in Professional Psychology
Psychologists and other mental health professionals have a vested interest in professional competence (e.g., Fantuzzo, 1984; Fantuzzo, Sisemore, & Spradlin, 1983; Masterpasqua, 1989; McNamara, 1975; Peterson & Bry, 1980; Shaw & Dobson, 1988; Tyler & Weaver, 1981). During the 1990s, after modest attention in earlier years, the field moved to identify competency domains with the expectation that psychologists would demonstrate proficiency in these areas (Bent, 1992; Bent & Peterson, 1998; Bourg, Bent, McHolland, & Stricker, 1989; Committee on Accreditation, 1996; Stigall et al., 1990). Emanating from this work was a national survey that resulted in the identification of eight competency domains (Kaslow, 2004). Despite these important advancements, two prominent problems were noted: (a) the absence of a consensus framework interrelating the various competency domains and (b) difficulties in the development and assessment of competencies (Rodolfa at al., 2005; Sumerall, Lopez, & Oehlert, 2000).
Corresponding to the growth of general interest in competence was the specific call for multicultural counseling competencies (Arredondo et al.,

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1996; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992; Sue et al., 1982). The competencies were organized into three domains—awareness/attitudes, knowledge, and skills—and they were expanded on through successive documents. The tripartite model of multicultural competencies was an attempt to address the concerns of clients in an increasingly diverse society and redress the marginalization of minority clients in the mental health delivery system (Ridley, 2005).
During the past decade, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in attention given to the topic of professional competence in applied psychology. Accreditation requirements and the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct have catapulted competence into a central role in the national conversation on training, education, and practice (American Psychological Association [APA], 2002; Committee on Accreditation, 2002). For instance, the boundaries of competence and maintenance of competence are explicitly addressed in standards 2.01 and 2.03, respectively, of the APA Ethics Code (APA, 2002; Rubin et al., 2007). To address the many issues concerning competencies, a national conference—Competencies Conference, 2002: Future Directions in Education and Credentialing in Professional Psychology—was convened (Kaslow, Collins, & IllfelderKaye, 2004). The conference resulted in the proliferation of numerous articles and presentations on the topic and has captured the attention of counseling, clinical, and school psychologists. Clearly, competency-based education, training, and credentialing have emerged as standard practice (Kaslow, 2004; Kaslow, Collins, & Illfelder-Kaye, 2004; Rubin et al., 2007).
The publication of the competency benchmarks, representing the latest in this emergent standard of practice, builds on previous initiatives within psychology (Fouad et al., 2009). The document outlines 15 core competencies deemed by the authors as foundational and fundamental in professional psychology. These competencies are described across three levels of professional development: readiness for practicum, readiness for internship, and readiness for entry to practice. The descriptions include components of the core competencies and behavioral indicators. While exclaiming the benefits of the benchmarks document, the authors acknowledge the need to determine its practical utility and predictive validity as well as its linkage to best practices in the assessment of competence.
We recognize the benchmarks document as a landmark in the field. Its scope of competencies is broad, whereas its levels of professional development are deep. We agree with the authors that the document builds on and is informed by previous efforts to identify and assess trainee learning outcomes. In this regard, we are confident about its long reach in shaping education

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and training in professional psychology. We also believe that the behavioral anchors give grounding to the various competencies. The anchors are reference points for identifying and assessing learning outcomes.
On the other hand, we raise three concerns that are not identified by the authors. Most notably, although differentiating competencies from and subsuming them under competence, the widely used definition of competence in the document is oversimplified and ambiguous. Second, like the microskills approach, the benchmark document limits its attention to the cognitive and affective components of competence—the intrapersonal processing needed by clinicians to facilitate therapeutic change. Third, although the competencies are behaviorally anchored, many of the anchors are framed descriptively rather than prescriptively, a constructive criticism previously noted about cultural competencies (Ridley, Baker, & Hill, 2001). The anchors describe what clinicians should do, but they do not provide guidance on how to perform the competencies. Therefore, although allowing clinicians considerable discretion in their performance, the lack of guidance gives them too little direction. Perhaps it gives clinicians so much room that they might miss altogether the aim of a competency. We consider the behavioral anchors in the document to be initial references for prescribing more specific counselor behaviors.
Overall, a host of issues have emanated from the national conversation, all pointing to the dire challenge of defining, developing, and maintaining competence among professional psychologists. Nothing is more critical to the conversation on competence than actually defining the term. However, there remains no universal agreement on what composes competence (Barnett, Doll, Younggren, & Rubin, 2007). On this subject, Rubin and colleagues (2007) made a disconcerting observation:
The issue of competence is not new to practicing psychologists who aim to work effectively within their scope of practice. However, when psychologists ask themselves specifically, “What is competence?” as applied to professional psychology, the answer is not readily forthcoming. (p. 453)
Similarly, Barnett (2007) was prompted to ask a series of provocative questions: “Yet just what is competence, how does one achieve it, how does one maintain it, and what are the threats to it that psychologists must guard against?” (p. 510). Finally, Barber, Sharpless, Klostermann, and McCarthy (2007) went a step further, implicating the definitional problem as an issue of accountability:

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Defining therapists’ competence is no easy task. In fact, we have serious doubts that the field, using the measures reviewed, is ready to meet the challenges raised by different bodies asking for evaluations of therapists’ competency. Be this as it may, there are continued pressures to come up with such requirements. (p. 495)
Serious problems center on the training of competent psychologists. With increased pressures for accountability, professionals find it difficult to validate their competence. Then, they may be tempted to practice beyond the scope of their competence (Doll, 2007). As already mentioned, the effectiveness of graduate training stands in serious question. These problems demand solutions. In recognition of such an arduous task and in the spirit of modesty, we now attempt to conceptualize counseling competence.

A Modest Proposal for Defining Counseling Competence
Joining the current discourse on professional competence, we developed a model to address the gaps in training and inability of the field to establish a clear relationship between training and expertise. We took serious stock of Kaslow’s (2004) admonition that “psychologists must not define competencies in a manner that reduces the profession to a collection of specific skills . . . and, as a result, train technicians rather than professionals” (p. 779). And we received the counsel from several scholars that additional development in professional competence is necessary (Kaslow, Borden, et al., 2004; Rubin et al., 2007; Schulte & Daly, 2009).
Several definitions of competence have been set forth (i.e., Epstein & Hundert, 2002; Rodolfa et al., 2005; Spruill et al., 2004; Willis & Dubin, 1990). Although these definitions helped to further the competence conversation, they are marked by oversimplification and ambiguity. Each definition omits critical components of competence. Multiple meanings can be assigned to each definition, depending on the context in which it is used or the lack of clarity in a particular context (Halpern, 1996; Moore & Parker, 1995). The indeterminable meaning makes it impossible for professionals to reach consensus on how to actually demonstrate and evaluate competence.
Consider the widely cited definition of competence put forth by Epstein and Hundert (2002): “the habitual and judicious use of communication, knowledge, technical skills, clinical reasoning, emotions, values, and reflection in daily practice for the benefit of the individual and community being served,” which depends on “habits of mind, including attentiveness, critical

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Beyond Microskills: Toward a Model of Counseling Competence