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The Skill of Challenge

What is Challenge in Counselling?

Challenge in counselling is the skill of highlighting incongruence and conflicts in the client’s process, providing the opportunity for therapeutic exploration of the difficulties which emerge. Challenge should be offered thoughtfully, and not in a way which is likely to be perceived as judgemental or reprimanding.

Why do we use Challenge?

We may wish to use challenge as an intervention for a number or reasons. These could include:

  • Highlighting inconsistencies in the client’s process – A client may have conflicting desires or feelings which are causing them discomfort at an unconscious level. Noticing and verbalising conflicts in the client’s narrative can bring these conflicting elements of self into awareness, so they can be heard, explored, and potentially resolved as they are reflected upon in therapy and beyond.
  • Issues in the therapeutic relationship – A client may communicate with their therapist, not only through therapeutic conversations, but perhaps through their behaviour in the relationship too. If a client is persistently late, for example, the therapist may want to raise this in the form of a gentle challenge. The purpose of this intervention is not to scold the client, but rather to put words to what is happening in the relational dynamic, so that therapist and client can together explore whether there is deeper meaning to the behaviour which might relevant to the work.
  • An ethical concern – Occasionally, the client may say something which raises an ethical concern for the therapist. Depending on the situation, the therapist may wish to challenge the client on the material they are discussing. This must be done with care, and in line with the therapeutic contract, organisational policies and procedures, and the law.

Examples of occasions where challenge may be an appropriate intervention:

  • A client who is consistently late or regularly DNAs
  • A client who appears to be under the influence of substances
  • A client who does not wish to engage with therapy
  • A client who is a danger to themselves or others
  • A client who behaves in a way which seems incongruent with how they say they are thinking and feeling
  • A client who needs a different form of support

The Relationship between Challenge and Support

For challenge to be effective, both support and challenge must be clearly offered by the therapist.

A high level of challenge with low support is likely to be received as hostile and scary, and the client is likely to withdraw.

A high level of support with low challenge can, for some clients, become too comfortable, and the work of therapy can stagnate.

A high level of challenge alongside a high level of support is most likely to offer the necessary level of safety and insight for growth and development.

What is High Challenge?

  • Should have a clear therapeutic purpose – not challenge for the sake of it.
  • Should take place within an established therapeutic relationship. It is important that the therapist knows their client and has an idea of how they might respond to challenge.
  • It is important that challenge is offered in an encouraging and non-judgemental way, and that the therapist is empathic, acknowledging that seeking therapeutic change is likely to be difficult for the client.
  • It is important to check in with the client and ensure they are happy for challenge to take place. It should not be imposed upon them.

What is High Support?

  • Any challenge needs to be delivered thoughtfully and accurately. It is important to reflect on the intervention and to maintain a dialogue with the client about its accuracy, being open to clarification and corrections.
  • Again, empathy, non-judgement and encouragement are vital ingredients needed to offer challenge in a supportive way.
  • It is important to look at client movement from the client’s frame of reference –a small shift in the work may feel like a huge leap from the perspective of the client.

Challenge in Different Modalities

The use of challenge is likely to look different depending on the modality of the therapist.

In behavioural therapies such as CBT, cognitive distortions are likely to be highlighted by the therapist, and the therapist may take a lead in looking at ways for the client to adapt their thought processes. This is among the more therapist-led forms of challenge.

A transactional analyst may highlight the client’s interactions in the relationship using the Parent-Adult-Child model, so that the client can identify where their ego state may be contributing to difficulties in their relationships, and to strengthen the adult ego state. This form of challenge is psycho-educational and helps the client to identify and change the way they interact with others.

A challenge in person-centred therapy is likely to be more indirect, and to focus on highlighting incongruence in the client’s process. This may help the client to identify where their conditions of worth or introjected values are in conflict with their authentic self, and make sense of their internal conflicts. In person-centred therapy, challenge is offered tentatively, and is a non-directive intervention.


This article was written for Counselling Tutor by Erin Stevens

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