Discernment Counseling: Pros and Cons

I’m following up from last week’s post on Discernment Counseling, where I talked about why I wanted to learn this to begin with, so check that out if you're reading this one first! You guys know, this is all just my personal impression, others will have different experiences. 

I've completed the core training, and now am continuing with the additional supportive training (it's all part of the same package, they just delineate between the core and then additional training). From what I can tally up, it's about 40 hours to complete this training (side note, I'd love for them to have the exact number of hours clearly stated up front because it's a long one!). 



- This is a very well-done, very thoughtfully created training and model. I like that it’s a formal model and there is research behind it with outcome measures. I’m not the kind of person that likes to do something without a model or some structure behind it, so I like that the training has been created this thoughtfully. This to me is the most important pro, because without there being a formal path I wouldn't have any clue about what this stuff is about or what to do with my clients. 

- I like that I have a way to really honor and respect when a client tells me they don't know if they want to be doing couples therapy. 

- I like that the Discernment process is set up to be short-term. Bill Doherty says it really should only be between 1-5 sessions, with the therapist asking at the end of each session if the couples wants another Discernment session.

- I like that the training is mostly audio-recording, so I can clean, cook, and do other stuff around the house while I listen to it. (After a million hours of watching Gottman tapes, glued to my couch every weekend, I am seriously grateful for this feature).

- Bill Doherty is delightful. I like that Bill’s demeanor fits with EFT (gentle, permission-asking, sensitive) even though his style is not (see more under Cons)

- I like that in the individual split sessions, that the work is not just empathy but encouraging the partner to be looking at their role in the cycle, so it’s almost like doing Step 2 but without the other person in the room. This seems to work a little better with these couples because they aren’t totally swimming in their defensive brain with the partner in the room, but with a little space can sometimes look at themselves more. And there is a moment where both couples are in the room after each of their individual time to share one thing they feel comfortable sharing. Think of it like a really separated EFT process, where you distill with one partner alone, bring the other in for the enactment, and then process/distill with the other partner alone, and finish with their enactment.

- I like that I’m handing a couple more than two options: immediate bonding therapy with me or floundering and separating on their own.

- I like being introduced to the concept of the split session. I never had considered splitting an 80 min couples session and checking in with each partner, and sharing a little at the end. In the past, if a couple was really stalled out, I'd have them each come in for an individual session which felt kind of laborious and like too much time with each of them. 

- I like how much transparency Bill brings to the process. He’s super clear with clients about what Discernment counseling is and isn’t, and what the goals are, and what they can expect.

- I like the flexibility that a couple can start couples counseling, and then switch to Discernment at any point. Of course this would also need the clinical perspective of the therapist to decide if that’s appropriate.

- I like that Bill extensively covers additional questions that could come up, like with affairs, mutually ambivalent partners, and more. He has a section called, "Holding the hope for the marriage without sounding like a cheerleader," which is exactly what I need to learn more about.


- I have heard from several clients who have been to other Discernment counselors that they DO NOT LIKE Discernment counseling. In all of these cases, the clients didn’t understand what they were really doing. I highly encourage you, if you do this, to be SUPER CLEAR, and repeat yourself often, with the clients that Discernment is:

            - not going to be working on any problems, or fixing anything in their relationship

            - is only for the purpose of getting clarity on what path they want to take: if they want to put in the effort to try couples counseling, separate, or stay without changing things

            - can be stopped at any point and switch to couples counseling


- Like with anything that’s not EFT, my concern is that people will be way too quick to use this tool instead of trying EFT and seeing what’s possible. I see this as a tool to be used very sparingly, only in the most necessary of cases. I can see a therapist not experienced in EFT thinking Discernment would be appropriate to use with about half their client load. Ahhhh! No! Try EFT!

* If a client contacts our practice saying they want to start with Discernment, I will definitely honor that. But I give them a taste of EFT in the first session, and I have had clients tell me they want to switch to couples therapy quickly after feeling a little EFT.

- Bill’s method in the individual sessions is not EFT. So while I’m listening to the training, it's tough to listen during the parts of how he talks to clients during the individual sessions. He uses a coaching/weighing in method that’s not the EFT style at all. I do see the need for some coaching in this process, because clients have no idea what to do and they are often panicking. The Withdrawers suddenly become super anxious Pursuers, flooding and overwhelming the burnt-out and withdrawn Pursuers. So I get that there should be some coaching, I just think it’s unlikely someone can suddenly change their behavior just because I tell them to. In EFT, we look at behaviors as reactive in the cycle, so to address them as independent and something the person needs to just change without the cycle changing feels incorrect to me. 

- When I'm initially seeing clients individually in the Discernment process, I still have thoughts running through my mind, "Would EFT be better here? Would EFT be showing them something more here?" It's hard to tell up front when Discernment would be better, I almost like it more as something to use when I feel like the couples work has really stalled out due to one partner's ambivalence or super-protectedness. 

- It is really f-ing expensive. It’s about $1,300 for this training. To compare, the entire 4 weekend in-person EFT Core Skills training is $1,600. The Level II Gottman Home Study Training is 20 hours and $550, including videos and a gigantic manual. I struggle with how this is priced and timed out; while I think Bill's pacing and repetition is lovely and helped me learn, I also feel like when I'm on hour 17 of a training, I'm going to pull my hair out to hear another thing repeated. 


I like the idea of this process, and I like getting trained in it so I’m not just doing something willy-nilly. I see this as beneficial in terms of learning the structure and the pitfalls, and also something I would bring my own style to when I'm talking to the clients. Mostly I like that it gives me some breathing room and flexibility to be able to check in with clients individually in a split session in a non-shaming way, versus keeping everything couples no matter what when I sense one partner is not engaged in the work.

However, this is a huge chunk of money and time, for something I will use sparingly. When I spend this kind of money and time on EFT trainings, it's a totally different experience for me. I want to stay in those forever. I want to live in a house built by Lorrie Brubacher and Jennifer Olden, and every day watch them do something amazing and learn from them. With Discernment, I kind of want to drive by it in my car, and be like, "Oh yeah, there's that great gas station … I'll remember that if I need to stop when I'm in this town again."


If, like me, you are a super-rule follower and have a passionate love for training certificates, and also have a practice that is mostly only devoted to couples work, then I think this would be valuable. I think it's important to be well-informed about what else is out there that an educated client may know about. I think the pure Discernment process really would be helpful for some clients. I'm also someone who needs for a person in authority to tell me something is allowed before I do it. If Bill says this is the process, then ok, great, now I can use it. Man, I really need to watch some of my sheep-like tendencies and fervent adoration of authority figures. If you love structure and a more coaching style, this might be valuable for you.

There is no doubt that the training is necessary if you want to do a formal Discernment Counseling process with clients, and tell them/the public that you do Discernment Counseling.

However, if, unlike me, you are a free-spirit who has no trouble following their clinical intuition even if it goes against EFT or another formal model, and doesn't require a person in authority to approve your work, then … I don't know if this would be that valuable for you. Maybe check out the book first (see below) and see if it sparks your interest. Of course you can't say you do Discernment Counseling without the formal training, but you may not even want to.

When I consider investing in a training, I think, "what is the big picture here?" With the primary EFT trainings, the big picture is way too vast to explain in even a paragraph. I'll spend my lifetime doing EFT trainings because EFT is everything to me. With Gottman trainings, I would say my big picture reason for doing those trainings is to understand all their amazing research and to really be educated on one of the most dominant models of couples therapy out there, which I think made it worth the time and money to do Levels I and II, even if I don't use hardly any tactile Gottman in the room. With Discernment, I would say the big picture reason is to understand how to pause, honor, and stay with couples when one is leaning very far out of the relationship. As much as I like Bill's voice and presence, and think Discernment is a valuable process, I also struggle with spending all that time and money just on that reason.  

Just my two cents! Have you guys tried this training? Any thoughts or other questions for me?


Before taking the whole plunge into the training, you can check out Bill’s book:  










Doherty, B., Harris, S. (2017) Helping Couples on the Brink of Divorce, Discernment Counseling for Troubled Relationships. Washington, DC. American Psychological Association