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Miscellaneous Musings

What Is Co-Counseling?
by David B. Wilson

Co-counseling is a tool for personal and social transformation that has been very helpful for a large number of people, including myself. This article is a brief introduction to the principles and practice of co-counseling as I understand them.

The basic agreement of co-counseling is that each person takes a turn being "counselor" (the person listening) and "client" (the person being listened to). This is usually done in pairs, although it also works well in larger groups. It is a peer relationship, in that one person is not seen as more in need of help or more of an "authority" -- we believe that each of us is the best authority on our own experience. The role of the counselor is to be a supportive, attentive listener and ally, not someone to interpret reality for us or tell us how to live our lives.

One important difference between a co-counseling session and just talking about your problems with a friend is that we focus on one person at a time: rather than waiting for an opportunity to interrupt your friend and talk about your own problems, you can put your full attention on the other person, with the knowledge that you'll get your own turn to talk. We time counseling sessions so that each person receives the same amount of time, because each of us has the same right to be listened to.

Human Nature

Co-counselors believe that all human beings are born highly intelligent, creative, powerful, capable and loving, with high expectations and a tremendous appetite for new experiences. Our experience with very young children bears this out.

But if you take a quick look around the world, you see that most people don't act that way much of the time. Why's that? We think that the only reason people don't always act according to our true nature is that people get hurt emotionally, and are then prevented from healing those hurts.

The Healing Process

The same way the human body can heal itself from physical hurts, there's a healing process for emotional hurts. This takes the form of crying when we're sad, laughing when we're embarrassed or afraid, raging ("throwing a tantrum") when we're angry, trembling when we're scared, and sweating when we're afraid or upset. Yawning is also part of this process, and it seems to be associated with the emotional effects of physical hurts. When the healing process (sometimes called "discharge") is allowed to operate normally, with another person's attention, it will continue by itself until the hurt has been completely gone: in the case of tears, until it's been "cried out." The healing process can work even if you're by yourself, but it works a lot better when there's someone else around to reassure you that you're not all alone with your hurt.

Unfortunately, this process is often interrupted by well-meaning people who confuse the healing with the hurt itself -- for example, people who think that by stopping the tears, they're stopping the sadness. It's really the opposite: if we get to cry about something, when we're done the sadness is no longer there. But when we're prevented from healing ("Big girls don't cry," "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about," "See the shiny toy?," "Yawning is rude") the painful emotion remains. Worse, it colors all of our future experiences and impairs our judgment: someone who's been teased in school (and not allowed to heal) may become shy, hoping to avoid further teasing by fading into the woodwork; conversely, the same person might become part of the in crowd and start teasing other children. Both these responses are unconscious attempts to get help healing from the earlier hurt. As time goes by, we accumulate more and more of these unhealed hurts, and often by the time we're in our teens we may rarely or never cry, rage, or shake.

A Co-Counseling Session

In co-counseling we give each other the support we need to go back and heal the old hurts that are getting in our way today. We do this by listening nonjudgmentally, by letting the client know that we care about what happened to them, and encouraging the emotional healing process. There are many specific techniques we use as counselors, including role play, offering phrases or directions, self-appreciation, commitments, identity checks and others. A full discussion of those is beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few of the basic dos and don'ts:

Listen carefully.Give advice.
Offer physical contact.Interrupt the healing process.
Notice where your client is having trouble.Pull the focus onto yourself.
Be delighted with your client!

We start each session with something that's going well in the client's life (to remind the client that there are good things, even in the worst of times) and end each session with something the client is looking forward to.

Social Oppressions

While each of us has a unique history and our own unique hurts, there are many hurts that are common within certain socially-defined groups: for example, if you're born female, you can count on receiving a lot of negative feedback, reduced expectations and disappointments, just because you're female. We consider that oppressive social systems like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, "adultism" (the oppression of children by adults) and the mental health system are responsible for the majority of the emotional hurts we receive. These systems perpetuate themselves by passing on the hurts: No one comes into the world with sexist, racist, or greedy attitudes -- we are terrorized into them.

Recovering from hurts is a two-step process: healing the painful emotion, and stopping whatever it was that hurt you, so that it can't hurt you again. It's fine to shake and rage about sexism, and heal hurts you've previously received in that area, but unless we work to dismantle that entire system, you're just going to get hurt the very same way all over again. One difference between co-counseling and many other "self-help" approaches is that we don't believe in adjusting the individual to society: we believe that society needs to change dramatically for us to be fully realized individuals.

The Sparks Co-Counseling Community

I'm a member of the Sparks Co-Counseling Community, a group of counselors that organizes fundamentals classes, advanced classes on counseling techniques and liberation areas, support groups and workshops. We were formerly part of the International Reevaluation Counseling Communities based in Seattle; we disaffiliated in 1993 because we wanted to run our community more democratically.

We offer fundamentals classes for new counselors consisting of two eight-week cycles where the basics of co-counseling theory and practice are covered -- low-cost and sliding scale. After finishing two cycles of fundamentals, counselors are eligible to participate in support groups, workshops, community meetings and advanced classes. Or you can just continue to set up one-on-one counseling sessions, as many or as few as you want, with other counselors in the community (no cost, of course). Due to limited resources, we cannot guarantee that we will accommodate everyone who wants to join a class, but we'll do our best! For more information on Sparks, e-mail me at or see our World Wide Web site at

This article may be freely redistributed, reprinted, photocopied, etc. with the provision that the text (including this notice) not be modified in any way.
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