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Counseling Skills in a Therapeutic Relationship

22 Jan

The American Counseling Association (ACA) defines counseling as the process of building therapeutic relationships that help individuals reach goals in their mental health, education and/or careers. Counseling is a collaborative partnership between counselor and client, in which the client can be an individual, couple, family or group. It is typical for counselors to engage with more than one type of client over the course of their careers.1

While all counselor-client relationships may strive for similar big-picture goals, each type of relationship has specific characteristics and desired outcomes:

  • Individual counseling focuses on an individual’s mental health and is the most common type
  • Couples counseling focuses on overcoming conflict and building a stronger relationship between romantic partners
  • Family counseling explores the social dynamics between multiple family members, oftentimes for the purpose of assessing each member’s effect on the family structure
  • Group counseling focuses on the interaction of unrelated individuals in a variety of social settings

While a number of general counseling processes can be applicable in any situation, each type of counseling requires its own unique skill set, comprised of techniques designed to best reach certain kinds of clients. Below, we offer a brief overview of both general processes and skills that can help you on your developing counseling career, regardless of the type of client encounter you see in your future.

General Processes

Traditionally, the counselor/client encounter can be divided into the following six components:2

1. Opening: The initial portion of the counseling process is one of the most important because it provides both counselor and client the opportunity to get to know each other. It also allows the counselor to set the tone for the therapeutic relationship.

2. Exploring Client Understanding: Counselors begin to understand their clients at this stage by exploring their past and their current situation. The counselor and client also work together in this component to establish their goals and expectations for the therapeutic relationship.

3. Understanding: In this stage, the relationship between counselor and client develops further as counselors demonstrate their understanding of the client’s needs and desires. Attentiveness to both verbal and nonverbal cues is key to helping forge this understanding.

4. Intervention: At this point in the process, counselors must choose the specific technique or techniques that they believe will be most effective in promoting growth in their client. The techniques chosen can vary greatly between clients, depending on their background and personal attributes.

5. Exploring Problems: In order to move the client toward real personal growth, counselors must learn more about their clients, especially the reasons for which they’re seeking counseling. This allows the counselor to understand their clients’ thoughts and feelings regarding their most pressing concerns.

6. Empowerment: Finally, the desired outcome of the counseling encounter is for the counselor to provide clients with the means to find their own solutions to their problems, and to ease their reliance on others to provide specific answers for them.

Essential Skills

Each component of counseling requires a specific skill or set of skills, which students should continue to develop throughout the course of their career. The most important counseling skills include the following:

1. Listening: Listening skills do not just refer to aural attention, they also include observation of the client’s appearance and behavior. These are some of the most valuable skills a counselor can have, and they may be further classified into the following forms:3

  • Verbal listening is an audible demonstration that you’re listening and encourages the client’s continued exploration. Verbal cues can be simple statements like “go on,” or may include repeating important things the client has just said
  • Active listening is about listening with all your senses, providing full attention and listening for meaning beyond what is said, which can involve the counselor speaking to ensure they’ve properly understood their client
  • Attending involves the counselor’s physical presence with the client and includes giving the client undivided attention, which can be demonstrated through nonverbal responses like eye contact, nodding and body language

2. Asking Questions: Questions allow counselors to learn more about their clients and set the tone for the counseling process. The types of questions that a counselor asks in a session may be classified into:4

  • Open questions, which cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” They should begin with “how” or “what,” and they can prompt detailed responses that result in exploration and reflection
  • Closed questions, which can be answered with a definitive “yes” or “no.” Counselors generally avoid asking closed questions, as they can discourage clients from deeply exploring issues

3. Reflection: Reflection is the process of responding to the client’s feelings rather than the content of their statement. It’s used in therapeutic settings to guide the client toward greater self-awareness and understanding. Reflection techniques may be classified into the following categories:4

  • Affirmation: Encouraging clients in some way, whether for improvements in their behavior, choices or knowledge, can help foster the bond between counselor and client
  • Restating: Repeating a client’s statements can let the counselor better understand the message that a client is trying to convey, either explicitly or implicitly
  • Reflecting feelings: Allowing clients to hear the feelings they have just expressed can help them better understand their emotional responses to various stimuli
  • Restating: Tying multiple client statements together in your own words can help them develop a more holistic understanding of their personal issues

4. Self-Disclosure: Counselors may disclose personal information about themselves to a client under limited circumstances, but this is a difficult skill to master. It should only be used if it benefits the therapeutic process and if it appears essential to help counselors relate to the client more effectively.5

5. Genuineness: Being genuine is the process of creating congruence between what you think and what you do, including verbal and nonverbal cues. Genuineness is essential for all forms of counseling to build a solid foundation of trust between yourself and your clients.5

6. Empathy: Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place. This is distinct from sympathy, which is the expression of sadness for someone else’s problems. True empathy requires the counselor to show a real understanding of the client’s situation and an appreciation of the complex feelings and behaviors it produces.5

7. Unconditional Positive Regard: Unconditional positive regard is the demonstration of your acceptance of your clients for who they are. By expressing warmth and respect for the client, regardless of their words and actions, you can promote their own sense of self-worth and set them on the path to personal growth.5

Develop Your Counseling Skill Set With William & Mary

If you are interested in transitioning into a career in counseling or improving your existing counseling skills, the Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling from William & Mary can give you the support you need. Learn more about the two concentrations in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and School Counseling that we offer in this flexible online program.

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