By Laura Shannonhouse
Researchers indicate that counseling students with higher levels of cognitive complexity (CC) are able to take multiple perspectives, apply counseling skills more effectively, reflect more deeply on their own thinking, and recognize their own limitations. Cognitively complex counselors remain objective, accept client ideas, encourage exploration, have more confidence, tolerate ambiguity, avoid stereotyping, describe their clients in interactional terms, and form more complex case conceptualizations. Since CC is important for practitioners to consider both for the sake of the supervisees and in their own work, some practical knowledge about CC is provided.
Though CC is defined in various ways, there is consensus that there are concrete clinical gains associated with increases in CC. Granello (2010) described cognitive complexity as “the ability to absorb, integrate and make use of multiple perspectives.” Since CC tends to be domain specific (an individual may be able to think more complexly about some topics than others), it is vital for counselors supervising others’ development to become familiar with how higher (or lower) levels of CC manifest in one’s counseling if they are to effectively mentor.
CC tends to increase during counselor training, and supervisors can take steps to assess their supervisees’ current CC in order to present experiences which can foster that growth. Owen and Lindley (2010) presented sample questions that may be used in supervision to assess and promote various aspects of CC. Their paradigm incorporates three major aspects that should be developed: identification of session activities (understanding what is going on), metacognitions (reflecting on and evaluating the counseling relationship), and epistemic cognitions (views on knowledge). For practitioners, the underlying theme is one of intentionality in understanding one’s supervisees and in selecting methods to encourage their growth. Malikiosi-Loizos and colleagues reported that specific supervisory approaches work more effectively with counselors in different levels of CC.
Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives has been used to foster CC development. Incorporating this ubiquitous educational theory enables supervisors to include questions and interventions that target CC in their supervisees. Granello and Underfer-Babalis (2004) stated that minimal training is required to understand the interventions used at each stage; supervisors can quickly understand this model and the intuitive nature is often appealing. Many of the applications are specifically tailored for group supervision. Practitioners should note that those who have used Bloom’s taxonomy for group supervision report an increased awareness of the need to attend to their own cognitive development.
There is also an argument that pre-existing characteristics position counselor trainees to develop higher order levels of thinking faster. Supervisors should recognize and foster the following: drawing upon accumulated experiences, taking multiple perspectives, and valuing ambiguity along with specific counseling techniques and the general wellness of their supervisees. Researchers have indicated that counseling experience, supervisory experience, counselor education experience, and higher degrees all contribute to one’s level of CC. Of personal significance to practitioners, Granello (2010) reported “how counselors think changes with experience.” Specifically, there appears to be a shift in practitioner CC between 5-10 and greater than 10 years of experience. Awareness of this pattern when observing colleagues and during one’s own career journey should help a practitioner’s personal development of CC.
CC, while a difficult construct to measure, is an important way to conceptualize the cognitive domain of counselor development (and has implications for the emotional and relational domains as well). The articles listed below contain several models of CC development, some of which can easily be implemented in supervisory contexts.
Recommended Readings for Practitioners:
Granello, D. H. (2010). Cognitive complexity among practicing counselors: How thinking changes with experience. Journal of Counseling and Development, 88, 92-100.
Granello, D. H., & Underfer-Babalis, J. (2004). Supervision of group work: A model to increase supervisee cognitive complexity. Journal of Specialists in Group Work, 29, 159-173.
Jennings, L., & Skovholt, T. (1999). The cognitive emotional, and relational characteristics of master therapists. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 46, 3-11.
Malikiosi-Loizos, M., Gold, J., Mehnert, W., & Work, G. (1981). Differential supervision and cognitive structure effects on empathy and counseling effectiveness. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 4, 119-129.
Owen, J. & Lindley, L. D. (2010). Therapists’ cognitive complexity: Review of theoretical models and development of an integrated approach for training. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 4, 128-137.