One of the most difficult issues you may face in formal or informal counseling situations is a lack of teachability in the person whom you are trying to help. When a counselee is resistant or unwilling to receive your input, it can be a frustrating, disappointing, and even heartbreaking experience. Unfortunately, all pastors and counselors will face this issue sooner or later with individuals they disciple and/or counsel. What truths should guide our thinking when this happens? How should we respond? Here are 3 essential truths to remember when a counselee is unteachable.
Truth 1: Not everyone who appears unteachable is actually unteachable.
The first truth that is essential to remember is that not everyone who appears unteachable is actually unteachable. It is possible we are misperceiving how a counselee is reacting to our counsel. If we reflect on our pasts, we all can see times when a misperception has occurred in how we have perceived others and how others have perceived us.
One reason this may occur is that people process information differently. Someone who is an internal processor may appear to shut down after you provide counsel. You may interpret this as a lack of teachability. In reality, you may be correct and the person is rejecting your counsel. However, it is also possible the person appears to shut down because he or she is taking your counsel seriously and taking an extended time to internally process what you have said. We should not infer or assume why a person responds to our counsel with silence. On the other side of the spectrum, a person who is very analytical or an external processor may appear to reject your counsel by asking lots of questions or voicing reasons they do not agree with you. Although this could mean someone is rejecting your counsel, it also could indicate that the person is trying to understand your counsel, understand what led you to your perspective, and process through their disagreements as they honestly consider if they are wrong.
People may appear unteachable for other reasons. Some individuals may disagree with us on a specific understanding, interpretation, or solution to a problem, but they may still be teachable and willing to receive counsel in other areas of life. There are several individuals to whom I have provided formal and informal counseling who appeared unteachable and did not want to accept my counsel. Some of these individuals were unteachable in general and wanted to reject any counsel. Others appeared unteachable only because they disagreed with me on a specific issue.
Regardless if a person is truly unteachable, appears unteachable while actually being teachable, or just disagrees with our conclusions, there are several Christ-like responses to consider. Our counseling should be diverse like Christ’s counsel was. In Luke 18, when addressing the rich young ruler, Jesus did not directly rebuke the ruler’s incorrect presuppositions that he could not earn his own salvation. Instead, Jesus gave the ruler counsel that opened the eyes of the ruler so that he could see he was not obeying the law like he claimed he was. At other times, Jesus taught people using parables, direct rebuke, stories, or quoting Scripture. Our responses as counselors should be varied and individualized as well.
Truth 2: People can be unteachable for different reasons
The second essential truth we need to remember when our counsel is rejected is that people are unteachable for different reasons. When people appear unteachable it is important to recognize there are different reasons and factors at work. People may reject your counsel because they are arrogant. They may think they know better than you and be unwilling to consider that they are wrong.
However, there are other factors that may need to be addressed. Perhaps a counselee rejects your counsel because there is a lack of trust between you and that person. It may be that if you address the lack of trust and work at strengthening your relationship, then that person may become willing to accept your counsel.
Another factor that could be at work is that their presuppositions or understanding of Scripture may be different from yours. By addressing those presuppositions you may find a person becomes much more open to accepting your conclusions and counsel.
Counselees may also have a difficult time accepting correction from a counselor if the counselor is significantly younger than they are.
A counselee may also appear unteachable due to youthful immaturity, a hard hearted lack of repentance, foolishness, love for sin, or other reasons. Trying to understand why they are rejecting your counsel can help you analyze if it’s possible to overcome their resistance or if the time has come to cease counseling.
Truth 3: A person may reject your counsel in the moment but accept it later
The third essential truth we need to remember when our counsel is rejected is that a person may reject your counsel in the moment but accept it later. While I was in seminary I attended several different churches. I desired to serve in different church contexts to figure out what kind of ministry I wanted to be involved in after seminary. At one of the first churches I attended, the pastor told me I was critical and needed to address this part of my character. I thought he was wrong and didn’t understand me. I didn’t agree with him and didn’t see what he was trying to point out. Initially, I seemed unteachable to this pastor when he offered me counsel. A few years later, I had two other pastors give me the same feedback. At that point there was no denying I had a problem with being critical. Those three pastors all probably experienced me as unteachable when they gave me counsel and rebuke. However, I can say now I am so very thankful each of those men provided me with this counsel and rebuke. I’ve gone back and thanked each of them, years after I left their churches. I thanked them because I needed firm confrontation about a character flaw I genuinely did not recognize. I think my story is important to remember because each of those individuals probably felt like they failed in their conversations with me. In the moment, I rejected their counsel, pushed back, and challenged their observations to varying degrees.
You may question yourself, doubt yourself, or feel like you failed when someone rejects your counsel too. However, we need to remember our counsel is given to individuals undergoing a lifelong process of change. While a person may appear to reject your counsel, you do not know how God will use that counsel later in his or her life. If a person rejects you and your counsel, do not see this as a counseling failure. Speak the truth faithfully, clearly, and strongly to counselees. Do this even if the counseling relationship is prematurely terminated. Remember that God will use your words, even if it takes years for the counselee to “get it.” Remember Philippians 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” The Holy Spirit will convict Christians of their sin and give them the power to obey. Each of us knows this is a lifelong process. We need to remember the counsel we provide is one small part of this greater process. Remember God is still at work in His people, even when they reject your counsel.
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How have you dealt with a counselee rejecting your counsel?