The preconditioning level is “the long-standing underlying pattern of non-biblical responses which often stems back into childhood.” It is a term used by Jay Adams in Competent to Counsel to describe the third level of involvement in the counseling process (p. 148).
When the counselee comes to your office, he tells you what brought him to you in the first place (the presenting level), but the presenting problem is usually caused by something else going on in his life (the performance problem). When the performance problem is identified and examined more closely, it becomes apparent that behind the presenting problem stands a long pattern of life decisions and behaviors that result in the presenting problems. These patterns are called the preconditioning problems and are the result of things going on at the preconditioning level. Taken together, the presenting level, performance level, and the preconditioning level all point to the status of the heart. Out of the abundance of the mouth the heart speaks, acts, thinks, and is (Luke 6:43-45).
Using our friend Elizabeth as the example, we can see that she presented a very different picture of her situation than appeared from further questioning. Whereas in the beginning I was thinking I needed to teach her how to look for work, then I thought I needed to teach her how to react when others persecuted her. But knowing that people do things because they have certain things in their heart led me to probe into the preconditioning level to see what kind of background Elizabeth had and how that might impact our newly expanded discussion. This newest level of inquiry is called the preconditioning level. When we enter this level we are working to discover patterns and responses that show the trial that brought Elizabeth to where she is today. As it turns out, she has always been able to get her way by making a lot of noise and throwing a tantrum. From the time she was a little girl, she could always manipulate her surroundings by going ballistic. When she did it growing up, no one ever held her accountable for her actions. When she got married, the same things resulted from her behavior. Then when her world collided with her husband’s world, everything caved in on her and she was divorced. She was no longer able to get what she wanted by screaming and shouting. Now, instead of temporary peace, it brought others who behaved the same way she did, and they beat her up, fired her, and eventually threw her in jail.
Only after revealing the basics of her life, her heart, was Elizabeth able to see that her problems were not the people around her. Elizabeth’s problems came from her heart, which strove to get its way by blowing up at the least little thing that displeased her. Her need was to come to Christ, beg him to renew her heart, and turn to him with all she had in repentance and thanksgiving.