A critique of Heron’s (1973) “Re-evaluation Counselling: Personal Growth Through Mutual Aid,” using criteria for qualitative ethnographic research from Sells, Smith, and Newfield (1996).  Includes discussion of purpose and guiding questions, the role of theory, sample selection, roles of participants and researchers, data collection and analysis, presentation of results, reliability, and validity.  Concludes that Heron (1973) falls short of best practices in all criteria.

A Critique of Heron’s “Re-evaluation Counseling: Personal Growth Through Mutual Aid” As a Report of Qualitative Research

While in some ways it may not be fair to subject Heron’s (1973) report on co-counseling to modern scrutiny, it appears that his article is the only, and therefore best, piece of work approaching qualitative research on the topic that has appeared in a scholarly journal.  With that in mind, this critique can be seen as both a comment on the state of qualitative research on co-counseling to date and a set of suggestions about how future research might proceed, rather than an exhaustive and arbitrary attack on Heron and his methods.

I say it may not be fair for two reasons.  First, Heron’s article is clearly primarily meant to be an introduction to the ideas and techniques of the co-counseling, and he reports the experiences and reactions of the participants in an ongoing introductory co-counseling class to round out his description, not to be systematic or thorough.  Second, Heron wrote in 1973.  There is the distinct possibility that both co-counseling and qualitative research practices have evolved since that writing.  Also, I will be using Sells, Smith, and Newfield’s (1996) criteria for determining the legitimacy of ethnographic research, which were not available to Heron in 1973.

Note that “re-evaluation counseling” and “co-counseling” are often used as synonyms, but in order to distinguish the organization International Re-evaluation Counseling Communities from the practice that they and other groups endorse, I will hereafter use the term “co-counseling” for that practice.

Author’s note:  In the interest of transparency, two things.  First, I have used co-counseling actively for ten years, and consider it to have been of great benefit, emotionally, cognitively, and interpersonally.  I also believe that I have seen it benefit many others in similar ways.  Second, I wrote this article as an exercise to increase my understanding of qualitative research, and to increase my ability to critique qualitative research.  Do not misunderstand any of this to be a critique of co-counseling or anyone who uses co-counseling.


After describing the creation of co-counseling in the US and its spread to the UK, Heron describes its basic theory and techniques, including some of its proprietary vocabulary and the definitions of those terms.  Co-counseling is a personal growth technique created by Harvey Jackins in 1953, based on the idea that it is helpful for individuals to emote in the presence of loving attention (Heron, 1973; Scheff, 1972; Jackins, 1970).  Co-counselors are trained in a 20-week introductory class to take turns listening attentively to each other, mostly in dyads, contradicting any self-deprecation made by the speaker, and appreciating and encouraging spontaneous emotional behavior in the forms of crying, laughing, shouting, gesticulating, shaking, stretching, and yawning (Jackins, 1970).  Unless followed by an appropriate form and amount of emoting, emotionally and physically painful experiences are thought to cause physical tension and psychological blocks to accumulate in the individual, reducing cognitive ability and the range of behaviors available.  Expressive affect in the presence of loving attention is thought to allow the emoter to think more clearly and be less subject to patterned behavior, the result of having “re-evaluated” past emotional or physical trauma (Jackins, 1970; Somers, 1972).  Heron claims there were 10,000 co-counselors in 1973, and some claim there are up to 1,000,000 co-counselors today (“Re-evaluation Counseling,” 2009).

Heron next distinguishes co-counseling from three other “cathartic therapies,” Freudian psychoanalysis, Reich’s bioenergetic analysis, and Janov’s primal therapy.  He claims that co-counseling is qualitatively different from the other methods because the emoter, not the listener, decides on the pace and content of a co-counseling session, and, except in rare instances, participants have a non-hierarchical, non-professional relationship, which results in an unspecified “radical revision of traditional notions of transference and counter-transference” (Heron, 1973, p. 32).

In the final section, Heron describes a 20-week introductory co-counseling class that he taught in 1971-1972 in a small town in southern England.  The class format included lectures on theory and demonstrations of technique, class discussions, and brief co-counseling sessions in dyads.  Participants were assigned 30 hours of co-counseling outside of class.  On the last day, Heron presented five of the basic principles of co-counseling and took notes on the comments of the class members in the ensuing discussion.


In addition to Heron, there were 14 participants in the co-counseling class, which took place at the University of Surrey, England.  No other information was given about the class members except that “some participants came from widely scattered areas” (Heron, 1973, p. 34).   The course was given through the adult education program, so it may be inferred that the participants were all adults.

Since this work can be viewed as an early attempt at participatory action research, Heron himself counts as one of the participants.  He does not give demographics for himself, but lists himself as part of the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey.  Since he remains a public figure to this day, other relevant demographic information is available: He founded and directed the Human Potential Research Project two years before this publication, and was approximately 43 years old at the time of publication ( John Heron,” 2009).  He appears to be White ( John Heron: Brief CV and Publications,” 2009) and had published twice before, “The phenomenology of social encounter: The gaze” (Heron, 1970), and “Experience and method” (Heron, 1971).  It is also worth noting that Creswell (2009) refers to Heron as a seminal writer for the advocacy and participatory worldview movement, and that Heron went on to publish on participatory inquiry (Heron, 1997) and cooperative inquiry (Heron, 2000)


Purpose and Guiding Questions

Heron writes, “In this article I will review briefly the underlying theory of re-evaluation counseling, will outline the techniques of co-counselling, and will describe a recent ongoing class held in Guildford” (Heron, 1973, p. 27).  And, in the abstract, “…the procedures adopted on a 20-week evening training course are summarized, together with an account of the participants’ evaluation of the theory” (Heron, 1973, p. 26).  These statements may be taken as his purpose, but no guiding questions are articulated.  Furthermore, at no point does he refer to what he is presenting as “research,” call himself a researcher or refer to his participation in the class as research.  It is possible that he decided to write the article after the fact and used notes that he had taken for other purposes.

Since Heron’s apparent purpose in writing was to introduce the readership of The British Journal of Guidance Counselling to the ideas and techniques of co-counseling, I will not fault him for not stating a clear research purpose and guiding questions.  Their absence does, however, limit this article as a presentation of qualitative research in several ways.  It gives the appearance of having undertaken the class as an opportunity to teach about, rather than learn about, co-counseling.  This makes it possible to interpret the documentation of participants’ responses to his final presentation of co-counseling theory as a test of how well they had understood his presentation, or even of how convincing he had been in his presentation.  It also leaves readers in the dark about what questions he might have had about the theory or practice of co-counseling, or of the experiences and culture of its practitioners.  In short, it set a very low bar for success.

Role of Theory

There are two ways that Heron brings theory into play.  First, he gives a summary of what co-counselors call “co-counseling theory.”  I will henceforth refer to this set of ideas as “tenets” rather than “theory” to avoid potential confusion; co-counselors appear to use “theory” in the common sense, to mean “an explanation of how things might work,” rather than in the scientific sense of a story used to generate falsifiable predictions in research.  Second, Heron compares the method of co-counseling to the methods of psychoanalysis, bioenergetics, and primal therapy.  He considers all four “cathartic methods” (Heron, 1973, p. 31) and asserts similarities and differences between them.  Aside from that, Heron does not generalize or compare his findings to existing theory or literature, and this is one of the more disappointing elements of his article.  It is unfortunate that he compared co-counseling to three specific therapies instead of to psychodynamic theory in general, therapeutic common factors, or even the styles of therapy that appear to be most similar to co-counseling, such as client-centered therapy.   This may have been because, as he writes, he considers co-counseling to be a personal-growth exercise rather than a kind of therapy, because therapies tend to be based on the medical model—fixing people who are sick.  On the whole, while allowing that “no system can evolve in total isolation” (Heron, 1973, p. 31), he presents co-counseling without regard to other psychological ideas and literature of the day; his reference section includes only four sources, all specifically about co-counseling and two of which were books by Jackins.

Sample Selection and Roles of Participants and Researchers

Heron’s sample was participants in an evening course on co-counseling at the Centre for Adult Education at the University of Surrey: Likely a form of convenience sampling.  He writes, “Course participants were offered an experiential introduction to re-evaluation counseling” (Heron, 1973, p. 33), which may have been intended to describe what the participants received by attending the class, or to describe what they were led to expect from the class.  If the latter, this statement may have been part of the class description offered by the University, part of other advertising used to attract participants, written or word-of-mouth, and so pertinent to Heron’s sample selection.  It also may have merely been what he intended to offer the participants, and so not relevant to sample selection.  There is not enough information to say.  There is also no information about whether participants paid or were paid to attend the class.  As participants in a co-counseling class, however, Heron’s informants were in a good position to articulate the concepts being studied.

Since Heron can be seen as a participant-observer in the class, his history as a researcher and co-counselor are relevant here.  I infer from what Heron writes in his introduction that he probably learned co-counseling about a year before he became part of the leadership of Re-evaluation Counseling in the UK, which in turn was just before he conducted the co-counseling class presented in his article.  I also infer, based on his becoming a leader and his enthusiastic presentation of the ideas and techniques of co-counseling, that he believed that he had benefited from his experience with co-counseling, that others would benefit from co-counseling, and that these beliefs motivated both his teaching the course and publishing the article.

Objectivity of the researcher is not assumed in qualitative research, especially participant-action research (“Participatory action research” 2009), and I do not get the sense that the lack of information was part of an attempt to obscure insight into researcher bias, but it is unfortunate that it is left to the reader to infer the information in the paragraph above.  It is also unfortunate that Heron did not provide more information that would have illuminated his perspective as a researcher.  It would be useful to know, for example, in some detail, about his training in academia, his training and experiences in co-counseling, his guiding conceptual model and methodological model, and how those models might have been influenced by co-counseling.  It would be useful to know the purpose and principles of the Human Potential Research Project, and how Heron believed they matched or did not match those of co-counseling.  It would have been useful to know whether Heron was at all skeptical of any of the tenets of co-counseling or if he had any questions about how the ideas and techniques of co-counseling would work in his community.

Data Collection

There is some difficulty in determining what information presented constitutes data.  There are five sections in the article: (a) an introduction to the history of co-counseling in the USA and Europe, as well as Heron’s involvement, (b) a presentation of the tenets of co-counseling, (c) a presentation of the techniques of co-counseling, (d) a section comparing co-counseling to other cathartic techniques and considering the potential usefulness of co-counseling to other kinds of counselors and therapists, and (e) a description of a 20-week co-counseling training course, including notes on participants’ reactions to five co-counseling tenets at the end of the course.  Heron’s presentations of the co-counseling tenets and techniques, sections (b) and (c), as I have laid them out, appear to be unelaborated-on summaries of Scheff (1972), Somers (1972), and especially Jackins (1965, 1970), so I will not consider this information as data here.

The introduction section (a) might be very broadly considered a presentation of data, in that Heron may have collected the information from sociologist Tom Scheff and from Harvey Jackins, both of whom visited the UK from the USA to teach co-counseling, and from Heron’s own experience teaching co-counseling prior to his writing.  Unfortunately, there is no way to know what his methods were, how many sources he had, or if what he did could be considered a credibly prolonged engagement.

The section (d) comparing co-counseling to three other cathartic techniques might also very broadly be considered a presentation of data, in that these are apparently Heron’s opinions on the subject based on his own participation in co-counseling.  Unfortunately, if he was the source, he gives no information about his expertise in the compared, psychoanalysis, bioenergetics, and primal therapy.  He also gives no indication of why he chose not to compare co-counseling with other personal growth communities such as EST or therapeutic techniques such Roger’s client-centered therapy.  Here, again, no information about what his methods were, how many sources he had, or if what he did could be considered a credibly prolonged engagement.

The section (e) that is a description of a 20-week co-counseling training course and includes notes on participants’ reactions to five co-counseling tenets is the section most easily considered a presentation of data.  The first part is indeed a description of the course, including the times, dates, and place of meeting, average attendance, class format, homework assigned, and an estimate of the number of hours participants spent co-counseling both in and out of class.  There is no explicit information about data collection except that he taught the course and that it was 20 weeks long.  The level of detail presented (about one page) could have easily been pulled from memory, having taught the course, so even though this presentation again falls short of Sell et al.’s criteria for qualitative research, I see no reason to doubt the information.

In the final part of the last section (e), Heron presents some feedback from participants to five tenets of co-counseling.  Data collection here was by group discussion and note taking.  The group’s discussion took three hours and 12 participants were present.  For each tenet, Heron asked “whether or not they would accept, modify or reject each of the principles in the light of their experience of co-counselling up to that time” (Heron, 1973, p. 34).  In this case, Heron states his method: “The method here was to seek to achieve a consensus view through ongoing cognitive interaction between participants in discussion” (Heron, 1973, p. 34).  This presentation basically satisfies two of four criteria for data collection, that collection procedures and questions are clearly presented, though unfortunately not with a specificity that would allow an audit trail, and the length of time spent collecting data seems defensible for achieving the stated purpose.  Heron does not use multiple sources of data, however, and the notes on participants’ feedback did not include his own reactions to the experience.

I have the sense that data collection was secondary to Heron’s purpose in teaching the course and writing about it for The British Journal of Guidance and Counselling; the project seems to have been motivated most by an enthusiasm for co-counseling and wanting more people in the UK to know what that it existed, what its tenets were, and how to do it.

Data Analysis and Presentation of Results

In all but the section describing the co-counseling course, Heron presents his information as if they were simply facts about co-counseling, not as if it was data he had collected.  Hence, there is no interpretation of data or data analysis mentioned.  His claims about the history, tenets, and techniques of co-counseling nevertheless seem reasonable today, as they are easily checked against widely available sources, scholarly (e.g. Edwards, 1984; Wolfe & Hirsch, 2003), proprietary (e.g. Jackins, 1965; Jackins, 1970; Jackins 1977), and online (e.g. “Re-evaluation Counseling” 2009), though in 1973 there were only two scholarly articles, Scheff (1972) and Somers (1972), plus books by Jackins.  Heron’s other empirical claims are less tenable based on the information given.  In his section distinguishing co-counseling from other cathartic methods, for example, he writes that, because the speaker, not the listener, in a co-counseling session is in charge of the course of the sessions, the speaker “is never engulfed by primitive material, which he is not yet ready to handle, and which may disorganize his behavior and lead him to create new defences against the prematurely-exposed distress.  He proceeds gradually, always working with what he can effectively re-evaluate” (Heron, 1973, p. 32).  This kind of information, presented as a fact about co-counseling rather than a belief or ideal of co-counselors, is not a reasonable claim.  It may well be true, but for the statement to be convincing, it would need to be accompanied by a carefully documented trail of data collection from multiple sources and a reasonable analysis of that data so that I could attempt to replicate the results if I chose.

In his presentation of participants’ feedback to five tenets of co-counseling, Heron clearly notes whether there was general agreement on each point, what additions or modifications participants suggested, and whether any participant actually disagreed with the tenet.  Again, there was no mention of data analysis, but the main weakness was a lack of thoroughness.  It is plausible to assume that the 13 notes presented about the discussion were indeed topics of discussion in the sense that Heron notes them, and that they represented opinions of the participants.  Without a data trail and a discussion of analysis, however, there remains the possibility that this presentation could have been skewed by the focus of his attention at the time.  It is possible, for example that his stated intent to achieve consensus could have caused him to focus too much or too little on the details of participants’ dissent.  Though it may not have been feasible or ethical under the circumstances, it would have made a more convincing case if he had made an audio recording of the discussion, transcribed it, and had it coded by researchers who were not present for the discussion.  Another possibility could have been having some other participants in the discussion take notes as well, so that the final presentation could be based on more than one source.


Based on Sells et al.’s (1996) criteria, this study, interpreted as qualitative research, has potentially very low reliability.  That is, the procedures followed are not presented thoroughly enough to attempt a replication, and there is no mention of the final results having been run by any of the course participants, so they may have had no opportunity to confirm or disconfirm Heron’s interpretations.


The strength of Heron’s work in terms of validity is that he and his participants, as co-counseling practitioners, were ideally suited to describe and comment on the tenets, techniques, and practice of co-counseling.  They had engaged in prolonged and persistent observation of the phenomenon as it occurs in themselves and interpersonally.  Additionally, while the data collection apparently occurred in a classroom setting, the reports of participants were based at least partly on their practice of co-counseling outside of the classroom, in a natural setting.  The weaknesses of Heron’s work in terms of validity for qualitative research is the lack of triangulation—he did not use multiple sources and methods for collecting data—and the probable lack of member checks and peer debriefing.

Heron’s article could have served as a good introduction to researchers interested in conducting qualitative research about co-counseling, but as it appears to stand as the whole body of qualitative literature, as the only piece of even quasi-qualitative research on co-counseling, it is inadequate.  To be fair, Heron was the first scholarly writer to go beyond straight reviews of tenets and techniques (see e.g. Scheff, 1972; Somers, 1972), and he cannot be blamed for the fact that little, and that little purely quantitative, research on co-counseling (e.g. Bierenbaum, 1976; Edwards, 1984; Stevens, Martina, & Gerben, 2006; Wolfe & Hirsch, 2003) followed him.  While it may have moved the field toward an understanding of co-counseling, and the information presented may well be accurate, however, it appears that it was not collected in a systematic or transparent enough manner to qualify as good empirical research.


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Stevens, N. L., Martina, C. M. S., & Gerben, J. W. (2006).  Meeting the need to belong: Predicting effects of a friendship enrichment program for older women.  The Gerontologist, 46(4), 495-502.

Wolf, R. B. & Hirsch, B. J. (2003).  Outcomes of parent education programs based on reevaluation counseling.  Journal of Child and Family Studies, 12(1), 61-76.

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