E is For Ethics (Corlett, 2009) is a wonderful book that enables children to begin thinking about ethical character through the lens of everyday choices and decisions.  Values, such as honesty, responsibility, trust, and effort, are explored through an incident, relevant questions, and a summary by the author.  In the first reading, the right response seems obvious; however, when the reader is invited into the discussion, there comes to the surface deeper truth and meaning to the particular ethical principle that is being addressed.  At any age, the reader is also challenged to think about choices available to them and take a critical analysis of the ethical foundation upon which they build their character.

Now, flash forward several years to where a current therapist in actual practice uses the same model and acts upon the similar ethical principles Corlett introduces to children in E is for Ethics.

R is for Responsibility.  What is the depth and breadth of responsibility in shaping ethical character?  An easy answer might address:  record keeping, practicing within one’s scope of expertise, not misinforming the public through one’s credentials, education, etc.  And then there are every day behaviors that at first glance are not often seen as shaping ethical character but all the same, very definitely are part of ethical character building.  Included in this list are such factors as time, dress, language, acknowledgment, and accountability.

T is for time.  Time is a relevant issue to consider in all professions as well as one’s daily life.  How one uses time often reflects what a person values.  In theory, time has been discussed and interpreted through many different theoretical lenses.  Through racial, ethnicity, cultural and even gender lens, there is not always an agreed upon understanding of time.

In the therapeutic alliance, time takes on a much defined role and meaning that are underscored by the ethical view of the counselor.  The value and worth of the therapeutic alliance and ultimately the person (client) are demonstrated by the counselor’s honoring the appointed time for a session to begin.

I once had a counselor who worked at a center where I was the Director.  One day, I stepped into the waiting area to see an individual reading a magazine.  It was about 1:15 p.m.  I inquired if they needed help.  Their response was, “Oh, no.  I’m waiting for my counselor.  He’s usually fifteen to twenty minutes late.”  And, so the counselor was.

Later in supervision, when I asked about the incident, the counselor did not seem to articulate any concern for their being late nor did they believe it had any reflection on their work or how they valued the therapeutic alliance.  Further reflection did not reveal any insight into possible meta-communications the counselor might have been giving the client.  After several failed attempts to help the counselor understand that habitually being late for client sessions was inexcusable, as it revealed a lack of respect for the client and unethical character on the part of the counselor, I fired the counselor.

D is for dress.  In the current atmosphere of informality, some of the hierarchal stigma of counseling has been eliminated.  The general public has become a little more relaxed in seeking out counseling and counseling is less of a luxury for the wealthy, a mandate only for drug or alcohol treatment, and a one size fits all treatment theory or process.  Within this transition, there has been a subtle change that has ethical reverberations:  the dress of the therapist.  It would almost seem that common sense has gone to sleep with some clinicians when it comes to dress or a dress code for agencies.  Imagine coming to a session and being greeted by a counselor in a muscle shirt, tank top, or flip flops and shorts.  How a person dresses may say next to nothing about their competencies; however, how the counselor dresses might be interpreted by the client as a statement regarding the importance of their session and their presence.  Clinicians, on their part, have a responsibility to minimize as many obstacles they can as they start a therapeutic alliance with a client.  How a clinician dresses speaks before their mouth does about who they are and what they value in a counselor/client relationship.

L is for language.  It is in our language that we have something specific to offer a client.  Our ability to be at ease in conversation with clients reflects a non-anxious presence and a holding place for the client’s stories, our responses and together, becoming meaning-makers.  Sometimes the language a clinician uses and what is said before and after a session is characteristic of how the clinician hears and views the voices of those who come for counseling.  Hallway and break room chatter about a client’s personality or the counselor’s personal likes or dislikes for a particular client, can often set in place judgments against the client or stereotype the client into a fixed role and, consequently, put in motion a treatment pattern that can ultimately harm the outcome of the therapy.

Buzz phrases in conversation also have a devaluing affect on the therapeutic relationship.  Once a clinician said they were going to “fire their client.”  I assumed they meant “move toward termination.”  My concern regarding the statement was focused on the perceived attitude the phrase betrayed of the clinician’s view of the client and possibly abuse of their power differential.  In discussion, the counselor explained that the phrase had been a common one in the agency and the counselor had even heard their supervisor use the phrase in reference to clients.  The conclusion of our conversation was an agreement that the phrase would not be used in our agency.

A is for acknowledgement.  How we acknowledge people carries an ethical component to how we honor and value those in our presence.  Growing up on a farm, my family would often take hogs or cattle to the stock yards in Omaha, Nebraska.  On the way home, we would have coffee at the truck stop.  It wasn’t uncommon for a middle age waitress to call the men “darlings” and a young adolescent, like myself, “dear.”  At the health care center where my mother is a resident, it is routine to hear staff call residents, “sweetheart,” “sweetie,” “dear,” and when talking to one another in the hallway, making reference to residents as “119” or “127” rather than by name.  How we acknowledge people has a profound impact on the early impressions we make in seeking to create a therapeutic alliance.

On a personal basis, connecting acknowledgement of people and valuing them was made very clear to me early in my ministry.  On a parish call, I visited a lady whose husband had been in parish ministry for forty years.  Rev. Jones had died three years prior to my coming to the parish.  Mrs. Jones lived in a comfortable apartment and seemed to be genuinely happy with having me as her pastor.  During our visit, I referred to her several times by her first name.  It soon became apparent that she was starting to react and withdraw from the conversation.  Finally, the “light” came on for me and I said, “Ms. Jones, when I called you Martha, you seemed to be upset.  I apologize if I have offended you.”

She smiled slightly and responded, “Oh, I hoped it didn’t show, but you see, Rev. Jones and I had been married for forty-five years.  Since our first parish, people always addressed me as Mrs. Jones.  I guess I just grew so accustomed to the title that calling me by my first name seems uncomfortable.”  To me, she was Mrs. Jones from that day forward.

Whether we agree or disagree, asking a client their preference in how we address them honors and acknowledges their presence.  It also connects our acknowledgement of their presence with valuing the strengths, gifts, and graces they bring to the session.  Names are very personal and powerful.  A person of ethical character calls out another’s name very carefully, because it is through our naming we find our worth and identity.

And, A is also for acceptance.  Before a counselor can truly sit with a non-anxious presence face to face with another person (client), they have to be able to sit with themselves.  Past hurts, griefs, regrets, mistakes, need to be appropriately honored and remembered “rightly.” (Volf, 2006)  Present thoughts intertwined with anxieties, prejudices, bias, expectations, hopes, fears, and discernment need to be acted upon out of strengths, personally owned and not projected, and new narratives valued as expressions of who we are.  Future dreams, goals and desires need to reflect what and who it is we are and who it is we are becoming.

The process of accomplishing this non-anxious presence intersects insight (making the unconscious, conscious) and the desire to grow emotional maturity in our moral lives and ethical character.  It is almost impossible to say that one accepts another person from a non-anxious presence without accepting one’s own essence, warts and all.  Counselors who sit with a non-anxious presence have been tested by fire and if they are truthful, they will be aware of being tested again and again in the acceptance of self and other.

There truly are many factors that build ethical character.  Those mentioned in this article are but a few; however, they are everyday incidental factors that don’t really stand out on their own until it makes a difference in the life of those we commit ourselves to serve.  And, it is in the process of the therapeutic alliance we come to see more clearly who it is that sits where we do as a person of ethical character.



Corlett, Ian James.  (2009).  E is for ethics:  How to talk to kids about morals, values, and what matters most.  New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.

Volf, Miroslav.  (2006).  The end of memory:  Remembering rightly in a violent world.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.