Approaches to Counselling

See also: Mediation Skills

This page provides an overview of three of the main approaches used by professional counsellors, psychodynamic, humanistic and behavioural – there are many more approaches but these three are the most commonly practised. 

While some professional counsellors use only one approach, others are more flexible and might use techniques from more than one method.

Although untrained people may possess and develop some skills that are desirable to a counsellor, if counselling plays a role in your work or personal life then you should undertake a recognised professional counselling course.  You may also be interested in our introductory page – What is Counselling?

Psychodynamic Approach to Counselling

Psychodynamic counselling evolved from the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).  During his career as a medical doctor, Freud came across many patients who suffered from medical conditions which appeared to have no ‘physical cause’.  This led him to believe that the origin of such illnesses lay in the unconscious mind of the patient.  Freud's work investigated the unconscious mind in order to understand his patients and assist in their healing.

Over time many of Freud's original ideas have been adapted, developed, disregarded or even discredited, bringing about many different schools of thought and practice.  However, psychodynamic counselling is based on Freud’s idea that true knowledge of people and their problems is possible through an understanding of particular areas of the human mind, these areas are:

  • The Conscious – things that we are aware of, these could be feelings or emotions, anger, sadness, grief, delight, surprise, happiness, etc.
  • The Subconscious – these are things that are below our conscious awareness but fairly easily accessible.  For example with appropriate questioning a past event which a client had forgotten about may be brought back into the conscious mind.
  • The Unconscious – is the area of the mind where memories have been suppressed and is usually very difficult to access.  Such memories may include extremely traumatic events that have been blocked off and require a highly skilled practitioner to help recover.

Freud's main interest and aim was to bring things from the unconscious into the conscious.  This practice is known as psychoanalysis.  Psychoanalysis is used to encourage the client to examine childhood or early memory trauma to gain a deeper understanding – this in turn may help the client to release negativities that they still hold, associated with earlier events.  Psychoanalysis is based upon the assumption that only by becoming aware of earlier dilemmas, which have been repressed into our unconscious because of painful associations, can we progress psychologically. 

Freud also maintained that the personality consists of three related elements:

Id, Ego and Superego

  • Id - The Id is the part of our personality concerned with satisfying instinctual basic needs of food, comfort and pleasure – the Id is present from (or possibly before) birth.
  • Ego – Defined as “The realistic awareness of self”.  The ‘Ego’ is the logical and commonsense side to our personality.  Freud believed that the Ego develops as the infant becomes aware that it is a separate being from it’s parents.
  • Superego – The Superego develops later in a child’s life from about the age of three, according to Freud.  Superego curbs and controls the basic instincts of the Id, which may be socially unacceptable.  The Superego acts as our conscience.

Freud believed that everybody experiences tension and conflict between the three elements of their personalities.  For example, desire for pleasure (from the Id) is restrained by the moral sense of right and wrong (from the Superego).  The Ego balances up the tension between the Id wanting to be satisfied and the Superego being over strict.  The main goal of psychodynamic counselling, therefore, is to help people to balance the three elements of their personality so that neither the Id nor the Superego is dominant.

Humanistic Approach to Counselling

In contrast to the psychodynamic approach to counselling, childhood events and difficulties are not given the same importance in the humanistic counselling process.  Humanistic counselling recognises the uniqueness of every individual.  Humanistic counselling assumes that everyone has an innate capacity to grow emotionally and psychologically towards the goals of self-actualisation and personal fulfilment.

Humanistic counsellors work with the belief that it is not life events that cause problems, but how the individual experiences life events.  How we experience life events will in turn relate to how we feel about ourselves, influencing self-esteem and confidence.  The Humanistic approach to counselling encourages the client to learn to understand how negative responses to life events can lead to psychological discomfort.  The approach aims for acceptance of both the negative and positive aspects of oneself.

Humanistic counsellors aim to help clients to explore their own thoughts and feelings and to work out their own solutions to their problems.  The American psychologist, Carl Rogers (1902-1987) developed one of the most commonly used humanistic therapies, Client-Centred Counselling, which encourages the client to concentrate on how they feel at the present moment.

Client-Centred Counselling

The central theme of client-centred counselling is the belief that we all have inherent resources that enable us to deal with whatever life brings.   

Client-centred therapy focuses on the belief that the client - and not the counsellor - is the best expert on their own thoughts, feelings, experiences and problems.   It is therefore the client who is most capable of finding the most appropriate solutions.  The counsellor does not suggest any course of action, make recommendations, ask probing questions or try to interpret anything the client says.  The responsibility for working out problems rests wholly with the client.  When the counsellor does respond, their aim is to reflect and clarify what the client has been saying.

A trained client-centred counsellor aims to show empathy, warmth and genuineness, which they believe will enable the client's self-understanding and psychological growth.

  • Empathy involves being able to understand the client’s issues from their own frame of reference.  The counsellor should be able to accurately reflect this understanding back to the client. You may also be interested in our page: What is Empathy?
  • Warmth is to show the client that they are valued, regardless of anything that happens during the counselling session.  The counsellor must be non-judgmental, accepting whatever the client says or does, without imposing evaluations.
  • Genuineness (sometimes termed congruence) refers to the counsellor's ability to be open and honest and not to act in a superior manner or hide behind a 'professional' facade.

Behavioural Approach to Counselling

The Behavioural Approach to Counselling focuses on the assumption that the environment determines an individual's behaviour.  How an individual responds to a given situation is due to behaviour that has been reinforced as a child.  For example, someone who suffers from arachnophobia will probably run away screaming (response) at the sight of a spider (stimulus).  Behavioural therapies evolved from psychological research and theories of learning concerned with observable behaviour, i.e. behaviour that can be objectively viewed and measured. 

Behaviourists believe that that behaviour is 'learned' and, therefore, it can be unlearned.  This is in contrast to the psychodynamic approach, which emphasises that behaviour is determined by instinctual drives.

Behaviour therapy focuses on the behaviour of the individual and aims to help him/her to modify unwanted behaviours.  According to this approach unwanted behaviour is an undesired response to something or someone in a person's environment.  Using this approach a counsellor would identify the unwanted behaviour with a client and together they would work to change or adapt the behaviour.  For example, a client who feels anxious around dogs would learn a more appropriate response to these animals.  Problems which respond well to this type of therapy include phobias, anxiety attacks and eating disorders.  Behavioural counsellors or therapists use a range of behaviour modification techniques.

Once the unwanted behaviour is identified, the client and counsellor might continue the process by drawing up an action plan of realistic, attainable goals.  The aim would be that the unwanted behaviour stops altogether or is changed in such a way that it is no longer a problem.

Clients might be taught skills to help them manage their lives more effectively.  For example, they may be taught how to relax in situations that produce an anxiety response and rewarded or positively reinforced when desirable behaviour occurs. Another method used involves learning desirable behaviour by watching and copying others who already behave in the desired way. In general, the behavioural approach is concerned with the outcome rather than the process of change.

The behavioural counsellor uses the skills of listening, reflection and clarification, but rather than use them as a process of revealing and clarifying the client's thoughts and feelings, the skills would be used to enable the counsellor to make an assessment of all the factors relating to the undesirable behaviour.