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 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, as well as the skills required.

'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.


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.

As a simpler definition, the UK’s NHS website defines counselling as:

“A talking therapy that involves a trained therapist listening to you and helping you find ways to deal with emotional issues.”

There are therefore a number of aspects to counselling. For example, it is important that the counsellor is trained. It is also important that the process is about helping you to find ways to deal with your problems, rather than giving advice or telling you what to do.

There are a number of things that it is generally agreed that counselling is, and a number of others that it is not.

Counselling is:

  • The process that occurs when a client and counsellor set aside time 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 of 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.
  • Being judgemental.
  • Attempting to sort out the problems of the client.
  • Expecting or encouraging a client to behave as the counsellor would behave if 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

‘Psychotherapy’ and ‘counselling’ are very similar, but not exactly the same. Both describe a process of helping someone to come to terms with and work out solutions to their problems.

However, they vary in the approach used, and underpinning model and thinking.

  • 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—it encourages the client to go back to their earlier experiences and explore how these experiences affect 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 different approaches to counselling, including psychodynamic, humanist and behavioural.

The Role of the Counsellor

First and foremost, counsellors need to be 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. The role of the counsellor, therefore, is to help the client to develop their own understanding of their situation.

They will enable the client to explore aspects of their life and feelings, by talking openly and freely. Talking like this is rarely possible with family or friends, who are likely to be emotionally involved and have opinions and biases that may affect the discussion. Talking to a counsellor gives clients the 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 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.

Good counselling should reduce the client’s confusion, allowing them to make effective decisions leading to positive changes in their attitude and/or behaviour. The ultimate aim of counselling is to enable the client to make their own choices, reach their own decisions and act upon them.

Counselling Skills

There are a number of skills that are required by counsellors. Perhaps the most important are good communication skills.

Counsellors need to be particularly able to listen effectively, giving their full attention to the client. They need to be aware of body language and other non-verbal communication. Clients will often communicate far more non-verbally than verbally, so this is an important area of skill.

Questioning is an important skill for counsellors, just as it is in coaching. Counsellors use questioning both to improve their understanding (as a form of clarification), and also as an active way to help expose the client’s feelings and emotions. They will also use reflection to show that they have heard the client, and to validate the client’s feelings and words.

Counsellors also need to be able to build a certain amount of rapport with their client, but not to an extent that would allow them to become emotionally involved.

They also need to be empathetic. This means that they are aware of their client’s feelings and emotions. Empathy goes beyond being sympathetic (which is basically feeling sorry for someone), because the root of the word means to ‘feel with’. Empathy therefore means that the counsellor understands how the clients feels and can therefore ask appropriate questions and lead the client to positive conclusions. The nature of empathy is rooted in helping others, and particularly in empowering them to help themselves, so this is an essential skill area for counsellors.

See our page: What is Empathy? for more.

A final thought

Like coaching, counselling is rooted in the principle that individuals can help themselves, provided that they receive the right kind of support

A counsellor is not there to tell their clients what to do, or how to do it, but to help them work out for themselves what they are going do, and the best approach to take. It is, therefore, very individual and person-centred, and those who provide counselling need to remember that above all.