Combining Groups, Narratives and Online Tools Satisfies Clients and Counselors
by Lisa Severy
Although many of us consider career counseling our life's work, it doesn't come without its frustrations. We have large caseloads and a distinct lack of time for creative programming. The irony is that, as busy as we are, we also struggle getting our busy clients to really engage in the counseling process. Our clients come to us looking for finite answers (usually in an extremely short period of time) without wanting to think about long-term issues. We find them in our offices over and over again and each time a new decision must be made. This dysfunctional pattern of short-term decision making is not only frustrating for counselors, it's tedious and counter-productive. Those fantastic clients who come to us seeking understanding and are willing to really put in the time and work needed to find life's work are few and far between - just enough to keep us all hooked.
Pros and Cons of Groups
To save time and resources (and shake things up a bit), many of us have turned to groups. A group of people all struggling with the same issues provide each other comfort and normalization. Participants feel good by helping others as they help themselves. They also help to widen clients' networking. Groups offer a whole new set of activities not available to individual clients. Groups can be fun for both clients and counselors - allowing for creativity and breaking the mold of daily practice.
If groups are so great, why don't more of us run them? Here are a few obstacles we're aware of:
- It can be difficult to get clients to engage, especially if individual counseling is available to them
- If you haven't run groups before, creating them from scratch can be intimidating.
- As with individual clients, short-term groups run the risk of sending the wrong message to clients- like career decision-making can be done quickly.
Career Navigator groups have begun solving these obstacles at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We've been running them for a year now and have found success with undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni. I believe that these successes can be traced back to three main components:
- theoretical underpinnings in narrative-style self-assessment,
- hybrid curriculum from the Turning Points Leader's Guide and the Career Navigator online tools, and;
- the long-term availability of online tools allows clients to work and stay engaged long after the group ends.
The Narrative Model Solution
Narrative interventions designed to assist clients in creating and understanding their own personal mythology represent a new wave of innovation in career development. Rather than comparing clients to specific criterion, we ask clients to be creative. Instead of using our career counseling language, clients use their own. Narrative models respect and celebrate individual and cultural differences by inviting clients to speak their own truth rather than comparing them to a "normal" curve. In that narrative interventions do not provide answers but rather guiding questions, they also encourage clients to take more personal responsibility. They support creativity and development of life work through meaning and purpose rather than through crisis-driven "just in time" decision-making. This is the key distinction between transition management and reactive decision-making.
In a complex world, these theories seem to provide a more flexible way of creating individualized solutions for diverse student populations. Linear patterns of education/work/retirement are giving way to diverse patterns of people returning to school, taking time off between school and work, or working while going to school. Many people work more than one job not only to make ends meet, but also to satisfy their own diverse interests. We encourage people to think like free-agents, thinking of employers as clients rather than expecting long-term corporate loyalty. Person-to-position matching assumes that both the person and the position will stay the same. How often does that actually happen in the world today?
While some of us are drawn to these theories, they have one significant obstacle - in practice they take a long time. In fact, by helping clients to think about this as a long-term process of self-discovery, you are insuring they'll be on your caseload for a long time! In addition to the very nature of the theory making it more time-consuming, there have been few interventions or assessments out there to help you be more efficient. Career Navigator provides a variety of activities based on a narrative model. Designed to appeal to varying learning styles, some activities use guided journaling techniques, others checklists, and others short-answers. There is even a Jungian typology piece to bring in personality descriptives. Counselors can embrace the narrative model by working with clients individually or in groups. By assigning the bulk of the work as online homework, students create a solid foundation for their group or individual counseling, which helps to accelerate the work they must do.
Online Tools Empower Clients
The Turning Points Leader's Guide provides the framework for starting your own group program. The groups we've run at CU-Boulder are six weeks with three weeks dedicated to self-understanding culminating in a statement of purpose followed by three weeks of helping clients turn that vision into reality with interviewing, networking, and job search skills. The Turning Points curriculum gives the leader a high level of guidance while encouraging flexibility. Experienced group leaders can build in their favorite activities while novices can use the guide to start from scratch.
Perhaps the feature I like the most about Turning Points curricula is that clients have access to the online tools for two years. By explaining this in the first session, we emphasize to clients that the seminar series is designed to be a starting point in a much longer term process, that being confused is exactly where they should be and that taking the seminar is an admirable first-step in what should be an exciting journey of self-discovery. As with most narrative models, the key here is to empower clients to take control of their own process over a lifetime. Career Navigator quite literally puts the power in the clients' hands.
How do we know that these groups are working? Our evaluations have gone well beyond our expectations. Not one person has ever replied "no" when asked if they would refer this group to a friend. In fact, more than one person wrote in the margin that they already had! Judging by the dramatic increase in demand for the groups, we believe that many people are referring friends. For example, while our first alumni group had twenty members, our last group has to be capped at thirty-two. Even assuming only half of those participants would have sought individual counseling, you can see how many hours have been saved. Most importantly, these groups are fun for both counselors and clients!
With the narrative-based, online tools at your client's fingertips and the seminar curriculum at yours, you'll engage your clients and energize your own practice.
Lisa Severy is the Director of Career Services at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has been working as a career counselor since 1996, including seven years of practice at the University of Florida's Career Resource Center. She received her doctorate in mental health counseling in 2006 from the University of Florida. Lisa is a Master Career Counselor (NCDA), a Nationally Certified Counselor (NBCC) and a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado. She is currently president of the Colorado Career Development Association (CCDA) as well as past-president of the Collegiate Career Services Association of Colorado and Wyoming (CCSA). This year she was selected to participate in the inaugural NCDA Emerging Leaders Program joining a select group of sixteen individuals selected as emerging leaders in the field of career development.
In 1998 Lisa received the Outstanding Practitioner & Supervisor of the year from Chi Sigma Iota, International Counseling & Academic Honorary, awarded at the ACA National Conference in San Diego. In 2001, she was awarded the NACE Excellence in Educational Programming for UF's Cultural Diversity Reception. She can be reached at Lisa.Severy@Colorado.EDU
People who want more information about Career Navigator can contact Mike Ballard at firstname.lastname@example.org. People can find Turning Points at http://TPNavigator.com where there is information about becoming an authorized provider and purchasing log-ins for use with clients.
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