Communication and Counselling

Communication is one of the fundamental necessities of our relationships with other people, whether it is a stranger, work colleague, family member, child or life partner. While our interpersonal relationships can be rewarding, many of us find ourselves in situations of mis-communication and communication breakdown, often leading to interpersonal conflict.

Do you find that people often misinterpret what you are saying or your intentions? Have you ever felt that you have totally missed the meaning of what someone else was communicating to you? Do you have difficulty expressing what you would like to say? Rest assured, many of us are confronted with situations like this in our relationships with others! We are left feeling like we are not being heard and our relationships suffer. In the end, our most developed societal tool is also one of the most productive conflict factories in the history of mankind.

In order to tackle two problems with a single solution, we’ve devised a comprehensive article on communication – and how improving it can not only improve your personal relationships, but also ensure that your professional life is on the right lane.

What is communication?

Body language, sign language, verbal language, writing, gestures, broadcasting – you name it, it is part of the process of communication. Communication is a broad concept and its history can be traced from a wide variety of pathways. Gesture and body language are the most primitive forms of communication, being practiced even before humans were able to produce ‘sound’ verbal language.

Verbal language is possibly the most prominent human form of communication (albeit not the most used – it is perceived to be only 7% to 11% of communication). Some philosophers affirm that our capacity to verbally communicate with each other is the link which separates humans from other animals in the evolutionary scale.

Written language, another particularly prominent and advanced form of human communication, was initiated not so long ago – around 3,000 B.C. when the Egyptian civilisation created their first set of hieroglyphics. The complexity of human communication evolved analogously with the human capacity of learning, invoking major evolutionary changes in the brain structure and resulting in our capacity to improve (or arguably complicate) the way in which we communicate to each other. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on verbal communication and body language.

Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication can be defined as the transactional process of creating meaning through mutually responsive entities – or less formally, transmitting and receiving messages to and from other individuals. When people are communicating, they’re being bombarded with information which, in most cases, they vastly fail to perceive. Why? Because people are not aware of the manner in which others perceive the world and themselves. They may have a rough idea, and even share some commonalities, but being able to predict interpretation of meaning to its full extent is impossible. However, it is possible to recognise some general trends.

Interpersonal communication has a core structure: sender, receiver, message and context. When the first ‘message’ is produced, a receiver will interpret that message according to his personal background (values, culture, experiences, knowledge and more) and according to the context in which the message was produced (situation, relevance, sender characteristics and more).

To effectively communicate, people need to be able to align each individual’s background information to the verbal or cultural significance of the message being transmitted. Relationships are based on that common level of understanding, and the more people fail to communicate to each other, the more they develop personal assumptions that could lead to conflict.

Barriers to communication

Considering its complexity, understanding the core challenges to interpersonal communication can vastly improve the process of interpreting people’s messages, and helping them understand how to interpret yours. According to Bolton (1993) there are twelve major communication spoilers, listed in three different categories:


  • Criticising – making a negative evaluation of the other person.
  • Name-calling – stereotyping the other person.
  • Diagnosing – analysing the other person’s behaviour.
  • Praising evaluatively – making excessive positive judgments to the other person.

Sending Solutions

  • Ordering – commanding the other person to do something you would like.
  • Threatening – controlling the other person’s actions by warning about consequences.
  • Moralising – telling what the other person should do in a given situation.
  • Inappropriate or excessive questioning – using close-ended questions in excess.
  • Advising – giving the other person a solution to a problem.

Avoiding the Other’s Concerns

  • Diverting – “pushing” a solution to the other person’s problems.
  • Logical argument – attempting to convince the other with an appeal to logic and facts.
  • Reassuring – trying to stop the other person from feeling negative emotions.

Improving Communication

There are many effective strategies to help improve interpersonal communication. Effective communication does not only involve the transmission of a message, but also ensuring that the other person is devoting enough attention and that the environment is appropriate to transmit the message (controlling the ‘noise’ and ‘interruption’ levels).

Attention is the major skill that needs to be ‘practised’ during the communication process. The more attention devoted to a dialogue, for example, the better a communicator can recognise body language and voice trends. Furthermore, understanding the context of each message and aligning that to the other person’s cultural and emotional background plays a key role in creating reliability in the interpretation.

Counselling and Communication

Being able to effectively communicate is a counsellor’s intrinsic role. The counsellor’s job during a session is to provide support to clients, and it commences during the client’s initial assessment. In most cases, the client’s emotional state will become a barrier for him or her to effectively communicate with the counsellor – at this point, it is the time to observe the client’s body language in order to recognise what is occurring ‘between the lines’. It is not an assumption game, but rather an analysis based on behavioural tendencies.

It is reasonable to affirm that the counsellor’s main focus in the communication process is to focus on the client’s expression, and if needed, encourage that expression. But what are the requirements for good listening? In essence, there are no requirements – in practice, there are several guidelines which tend to improve the client’s confidence in expressing his/her issues, improve the counsellor’s ability to capture the messages which are being given, and encourage positive feedback from the client.

The Counselling Setting

There are aspects of a counselling setting that will contribute to improved communication.

  • Comfort – a comfortable setting improves client expression of feelings.
  • Security/Privacy – providing the client with security during a session.
  • Noise control – ensuring that noise does not affect communication.
  • Stimuli control – a neutral environment (light colours and decoration).
  • Unhurried/supportive environment – a space in which the client can share in their own pace.

Basic Communication Skills

Once the appropriate counselling setting has been provided, it is time to apply basic communication skills to help improve the client’s expression of emotions and formulation of thoughts. Such rules are beneficial for any communication process, but particularly important during a counselling relationship.

  1. Listening well – valuing the client and demonstrating interest for the conversation.
  2. Observing – observing body language, voice tone and emotive expressions.
  3. Acknowledgement – the recognition for the client’s initiative to state his/her issues.
  4. Awareness – ensuring that the counsellor’s body language is appropriate for the context.
  5. Thinking – reasoning about what is and what is not appropriate input to the process.
  6. Verbal expression – ensuring the use of the appropriate tone, rhythm and volume of voice.
  7. Reflecting – clarifying and verifying what the client has expressed to the counsellor.