What is Counselling?

See also: Counselling Approaches.

Many people will, at some point in their lives, find themselves in the role of a counsellor without having a true understanding of the concept of counselling or what the role of the professional counsellor entails. 

There is a big difference between a professional counsellor and a person who uses some counselling skills as part of their role, for example their role as a friend or colleague.  A professional counsellor is a highly trained individual who is able to use a different range of counselling approaches with their clients. 

This page defines and introduces the concept of counselling and the role of a counsellor.

'Counselling' can be a confusing term - it often has different meanings for different people.


The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th Edition) gives at least two definitions of counselling, which appear to be conflicting, adding to potential confusion:

give advice to (a person) on social or personal problems, especially professionally.

and

the process of assisting and guiding clients, especially by a trained person on a professional basis, to resolve especially personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties.

Counselling is:

  • The process that occurs when a client and counsellor set aside time in order to explore difficulties which may include the stressful or emotional feelings of the client. 
  • The act of helping the client to see things more clearly, possibly from a different view-point. This can enable the client to focus on feelings, experiences or behaviour, with a goal to facilitating positive change.
  • A relationship of trust.  Confidentiality is paramount to successful counselling.  Professional counsellors will usually explain their policy on confidentiality, they may, however, be required by law to disclose information if they believe that there is a risk to life.

Counselling is Not:

  • Giving advice.
  • Judgemental.
  • Attempting to sort out the problems of the client.
  • Expecting or encouraging a client to behave in a way in which the counsellor may have behaved when confronted with a similar problem in their own life.
  • Getting emotionally involved with the client.
  • Looking at a client's problems from your own perspective, based on your own value system.

Counselling and Psychotherapy

Both ‘psychotherapy’ and ‘counselling’ are terms that are used to describe the same process.  Both terms relate to overcoming personal difficulties and working towards positive changes. 

Counselling is a helping approach that highlights the emotional and intellectual experience of a client, how a client is feeling and what they think about the problem they have sought help for.  

Psychotherapy, however, is based in the psychodynamic approach to counselling - it encourages the client to go back to their earlier experiences and explore how these experiences effect their current ‘problem’.

A psychotherapist, therefore, helps the client to become conscious of experiences which they were previously unaware of.  Counsellors, however, are less likely to be concerned with the past experiences of the client and are generally trained in a humanistic approach, using techniques from client-centred therapy.

See our page: Counselling Approaches for more information about psychodynamic, humanistic and behavioural approaches to counselling.


The Role of the Counsellor

First and foremost the counsellor is aware that no two people are alike.  No two people understand the same language in the same way; their understanding will always be linked to their personal experience of the world.  Therefore, during the counselling process, it is important that the counsellor does not try to fit clients into his/her idea of what they should be and how they should act.

The role of the counsellor is to enable the client to explore many aspects of their life and feelings, by talking openly and freely.  Talking in such a way it is rarely possible with family or friends, who are likely to be emotionally involved and have opinions and biases that may be detrimental to the success of the counselling.  It is important that the counsellor is not emotionally involved with the client and does not become so during counselling sessions.  The counsellor neither judges, nor offers advice.  The counsellor gives the client an opportunity to express difficult feelings such as anger, resentment, guilt and fear in a confidential environment.

The counsellor may encourage the client to examine parts of their lives that they may have found difficult or impossible to face before.  There may be some exploration of early childhood experiences in order to throw some light on why an individual reacts or responds in certain ways in given situations.  This is often followed by considering ways in which the client may change such behaviours.

Effective counselling reduces confusion, allowing the client to make effective decisions leading to positive changes in their attitude and/or behaviour.  Effective counselling is not advice-giving and is not acting on someone else's behalf (these are more the roles of a life coach).  The ultimate aim of counselling is to enable the client to make their own choices, reach their own decisions and to act upon them accordingly.


Counselling Skills

Communication skills are obviously of utmost importance to counsellors, we have lots of further pages covering these skills including: active listening, clarification, reflection and effective questioning skills.

The counsellor will attempt to build a certain amount of rapport with their client, but not to an extent that would allow them to become emotionally involved. 

Counsellors need to be empathetic, seeing things from the client’s point of view, rather than sympathetic (feeling sorry for their clients).  Empathy can help the counsellor to ask appropriate questions and lead the client to positive conclusions. See our page: What is Empathy? for more. 

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