Exit counseling, also termed strategic intervention therapy, cult intervention or thought reform consultation, is an intervention designed to persuade an individual to leave a group perceived to be a cult. Exit counseling is distinguished from deprogramming by the fact that it's a voluntary procedure, that the follower is treated with respect, can leave any time, and that the decision to stay with the group or leave it is wholly up to the follower and will be accepted by the exit counselor.
Generally, the person is presented with information about the group in question or other groups, including especially information which is usually not available to followers, testimonies from former members of this or other cults, along with information on the nature of mind control theory. The conviction of the exit-counselor is that once the member is aware of the logical flaws in his belief structure and his allegiance, as well as the emotional factors binding him to the cult, he will not feel comfortable remaining in the organization.
During the 1970s and 1980s a series of techniques called deprogramming were developed to persuade or force a person to abandon allegiance to a religious or political group. Deprogramming was mainly involuntary, the targets were not required to agree to the procedure, they were often taken by force and then held against their will. Advocates of this procedure viewed it as an antidote to illegitimate or deceptive religious conversion practices by those groups. Opponents of this procedure argued against it chiefly of the following grounds:
- that the target of the procedure was held against his will and forced to listen
- that the target is not allowed to make any decision — before or during the procedure — about whether to undergo it
- that the information given about the group was almost entirely negative, and often slanted unfairly or even false
The practice itself is controversial and heavily criticized by new religious movements themselves and some sociologists in that field, both because of its basic assumptions and because of its methods, whose degree of force, stealth and/or deception used is disputed.
When deprogramming fell into disfavor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, exit counseling was born.
Unlike deprogramming, which is usually defined as including coercive factors, exit counseling is usually seen as a voluntary agreement between a follower and an exit counseling specialist to talk about the follower's involvement with the group and it is usually done in presence of the family of the follower. The exit counseling specialist is usually hired by concerned relatives or marriage partner of the follower.
Exit counselors who abide by an ethics code, e.g. Steven Hassan, author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, Rick Ross, or the Thought Reform Consultants including Carol Giambalvo and David Clark, confirm in accordance with their code that exit counseling is a voluntary procedure, that the follower is treated with respect, can leave any time, if he or she wishes, and that the decision to stay with the group or leave it is wholly up to the follower and will be accepted as it is by the exit counselor.
Carol Giambalvo, David Clark, Steven Hassan and Rick Ross describe an exit counseling with the following steps: (Giambalvo 1992, Clark 1993, Hassan 2000, )
- Prior to the exit counseling, the exit counselor has meetings with the family who want the exit counseling, where the specific concerns of the family are determined, the family is informed about the group and its teachings, the goal of the exit counseling: an informed choice of the follower to either stay in the group or leave it, the results which can be expected, as well as further supportive steps when the follower does decide to leave his group.
- Based on this information and often further reading, the family decides whether an exit counseling is not appropriate, should be envisioned somewhere in the future, or should be undertaken. In any case, the exit counselor advises the family how to best handle the situation – e.g. gradually to improve communication with the follower. If an intervention is foreseen, the circumstances are discussed, which family members are going to take part, who is going to be the exit counseling team and who of the family is going to get the agreement of the follower regarding the intervention.
- The intervention takes place in the presence of some family member, who introduces the exit counselor. It is crucial that the exit counselor can build up a rapport with the follower very soon – if this is not possible, the follower will simply leave. During the whole intervention the follower is approached with respect, can voice his views freely, and can decide when to take a break or when he wants to leave.
- The exit counselor's objective is to review the information with the follower and his family, and let the information speak for itself. The content of the information involves usually the family concerns which were the reason for the exit counseling, the nature of mind control, doctrinal, ideological and organizational issues of the respective group, including especially information which is usually not available to followers like an analysis of internal group documents. Helping resources for common problems after leaving a cult are also taken up.
- In the end, it is up to the follower to make his decision about what to do with the information received. Their choices will be respected. If the person chooses to remain with the group, the exit counselor seeks to work with him and the family out how to improve family relationships in the future. If the person chooses to leave the group, the exit counselor will talk about their next steps, support by the family and other resources and possible recovery issues.
Typically an exit counseling takes several days: Giambalvo and Hassan speak of three, Rick Ross of four days average. Hourly rates vary, according to qualification and experience of the consultant, figures given are between 75$ and 150$ per hour, fees for an intervention between 3750 to 5000 US dollar.
Clark speaks of an average of 90% of persons leaving the cult following a three day intervention, Ross of about 75%. Both stress that it is not possible to predict the issue of a specific case in advance.
Approaches in exit counseling
While all exit counselors stress non-violence, respect for the person, and autonomous informed choice of the person, there are three main approaches the field of exit counseling (Clark, 1993):
- an information-oriented approach, which stresses the sharing of information. Proponents of this approach are e.g. Carol Giambalvo, Janja Lalich, David Clark
- a change-oriented psychological approach, which does also share information but includes as well formal counseling. An example for this is the strategic intervention therapy of Steven Hassan.
- a change oriented theological (evangelistic) approach. This is practiced, e.g., by Randall Watters
- "Although many helpers are ethical and competent, we have heard reports indicating that some have exploited vulnerable families and/or may not be as competent as they claim, at least with regard to certain cases. If families fail to check out a prospective helper, they may be led to participate in an unethical and possibly illegal and ineffective intervention." 
Controversy over the terminology
The terms "exit counseling" and "deprogramming" are not always clearly distinguished and at times consciously used interchangeably, especially by critics of the practices who disagree with the basic assumptions. On the other hand, also some critics of the practice(s) assert that the confusion is deliberate and is exploited to conceal the unethical or illegal tactics of deprogrammers, particularly their reliance on coercive persuasion.
People who practice exit counseling (exit counselors) often distinguish between "involuntary deprogramming" and "voluntary exit counseling", pointing out that exit counseling, in contrast to deprogramming, includes neither forceful abductions, physical force or threats and is aimed at getting the cult member to make a voluntary, informed decision, though there are also people who distinguish between "involuntary deprogramming" and "voluntary deprogramming," and others who distinguish between "involuntary exit counseling" and "voluntary exit counseling".
David Clark states "the only necessary distinction between exit counseling and deprogramming is, that the latter physically confines the cultist, at least initially ..." and concludes from this that exit counselors have to establish a rapport with the person almost immediately, while this is not required in deprogramming. Also deprogramming tends to be more emotional - the person often being understandably enraged about the confinement. Moreover, the confinement factor tends to exaggerate the power of the cult on the person. (Clark 1993)
Margaret Singer defines "Deprogramming [as] providing members with information about the cult and showing them how their own decision-making power had been taken away from them" (Singer 1995), a definition which is also applicable to exit counseling.
Rick Ross quotes Singer's definition and adds:
- "Today, regardless of how unsafe or life-threatening a situation may be – due to legal threats and prolonged litigation cult intervention professionals have abandoned "forcible intervention". A succession of new titles and accompanying terms have likewise responded politically to the need felt by many professionals to distance themselves from the title "deprogrammer" and the term "deprogramming". Such titles as "Exit-Counselor," "Strategic Intervention Specialist," "High Demand Group Consultant," "Cult Information Specialist," "Thought Reform Consultant" and "Cult Intervention Specialist" and corresponding terminology are examples of this response." (Ross, 1999)
To avoid terminology confusion, exit counselors who are committed to voluntary interventions created an organization of Thought Reform Consultants. Its members have agreed to abide by a set of ethical standards. (Giambalvo 1996)
Proponents of new religious movements as well as some people who value religious freedom and tolerance very highly oppose exit counseling because it tries to alter the beliefs of a person. Proponents of exit counseling counter that the issue is not the beliefs of a person, but the informed choice of the person regarding their beliefs.
Another point of critique is the fact that exit counseling presumes the group has used some sort of mind control or manipulation on the person, so that the person's informed choice regarding the group is in some way altered. In contrast, adherents of NRMs, theologians, and also some proponents of the counter-cult movement (especially those of Calvinistic tradition) deny that mind control exists or that manipulation could be a factor in choosing a religious affiliation. An argument used in this context is that "exit counseling" is merely "mind control in reverse", a case of "fighting fire with fire". So, even if some degree of coercive persuasion was used to recruit a member into an unpopular new religious movement, coercing him out of the movement would be a clear case of "two wrongs don't make a right". And further, it is argued that the success of exit counseling could depend on forcing the belief on the follower that he is "a victim of cult mind control".
Some critics see no difference between deprogramming and exit counseling or claim that exit counseling is just another name for deprogramming used after a number of legal problems with the latter, and that it includes at least emotional or intellectual coercion. This view is strengthened by some aspects of the controversy about terminology. Another contributing factor could be, that there is a lot more media coverage to be found regarding deprogramming, which does contain more elements which are "newsworthy". Also in fiction and especially in films and TV, there are many examples of getting someone out of a cult by deprogramming and virtually none using exit counseling. (Szimhart, 2004)
- Clark, David et al.: Exit Counseling: A Practical Overview in Michael Langone et al. Recovery from Cults, 1993, ISBN 0-393-31321-2
- Giambalvo, Carol: Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention, 1992, ISBN 0-931337-05-4
- Giambalvo, Carol et al.: Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996 
- Hassan, Steven: Planning and Holding an Intervention in Releasing the bonds, 2000, ISBN 0-9670688-0-0
- Kent, Stephen A. and Szimhart, Joseph: Exit Counseling and the Decline of Deprogramming., Cultic Studies Review 1 No.3, 2002
- Langone, Michael: Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics, Clarifying the Confusion, Christian Research Institute Journal, 1993 
- Ross, Rick: A brief history of cult intervention work, 1999 
- Rick Ross: Intervention 
- Singer, Margaret: Cults in Our Midst, Jossey Bass Publishers, 1995.
- Szimhart, Joseph: Persistence of "Deprogramming" Stereotypes in Film, Cultic Studies Journal, 3/2 2004
- Randal Watters: Deprogramming and Exit-Counseling Describes the procedure of exit counseling