Creating a Counsellor Mindset

Diverse values, specialist development, varied experiences, a unique mindset – mix it up and include a touch of interpretation and you have a human being with a social outlook. Leveraging differences between people is a daily necessity of living in societies, and leveraging our own perspective of the world – and others in it – is one of the utmost challenges in pursuing a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

So how do we detach from our past experiences and values to see the world from a clearer perspective? The answer is simple: we don’t. What we need to do is critically analyse our own process of thinking, and pursue reason and appropriateness in our actions. Whilst willingness to help is a premise for counselling, willingness to adjust is a professional requirement – and the following overlapping stages discuss the process of becoming an effective counsellor, facing its challenges, surviving the experience, and learning from it.

Stage 1: Fundamentals of Professional Care

There is a strong ethical component in any health-related profession, particularly ones which deal directly with consumers – in the case of counselling, the client. One of the most prominent aspects of becoming a professional counsellor lies in understanding the ethical guidelines of the profession, which in turn requires counsellors and prospective counsellors to be able to differentiate between ‘friendly advice’ and professional assistance. This is a challenging proficiency as it not only involves the process of learning which is intrinsic to any professional development (or training), but also remodelling the manner in which people naturally respond to a call for help: emotional and inevitably subjective feedback.

In order to cater for those needs, counsellor training involves a great deal of ethical background theory and practice which aims to develop the objective ‘eye’ – a demanded skill for counselling sessions. Such a methodical approach to interpreting human behaviour and individual needs is rooted in the development of early behavioural sciences.

Method in Counselling

What is ‘method’? Method (from Greek methodos or met hodos meaning “way across”) is a word which entered English in 1541 via French and Latin, and is defined as “a series of steps taken to complete a certain task or to reach a certain objective”. The methodical approach was induced by the need to share common guidelines in the observation and analysis of events, laying grounds for the advent of the scientific method – the central component of any modern science.

In the 19th century, the scientific method served to ‘unleash’ psychology from its bonds with philosophy and medicine – and the consequence was the advent of the original behavioural science. Counselling moved away from psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis in the early 1950s with the intent of enhancing the relationship between counsellor and client. The helping nature of the counselling approach set the standards for this newly adopted discipline – and increased focus was placed in nurturing the relationship with the client, encouraging client’s responsiveness, and developing a bond which would lay grounds for the client’s progressive development.

Stage 2: Becoming a Counsellor 

According to Meier and Davis (1997, p.61) “in no other profession does the personality and behavior of the professional make such difference as it does in counseling. Beginning counselors need to work at increasing their self awareness as well as their knowledge of counseling procedures. Your willingness to be open to supervision, to accept clients’ failures and criticisms, to participate in counseling yourself when appropriate, and to acknowledge your limits will contribute to your eventual success and satisfaction”.

Acknowledging Values

The client-counsellor relationship is fundamentally a relationship between two human beings. Obviously there are two different roles in the relationship but both counsellor and client have a history of experiences that have shaped who they are, how they view the world and what their values are.

An effective client-counsellor relationship does not ignore the “human” side of the profession. To establish trust, clients need to sense that the counsellors are genuine and sincere in their communications. But when they begin to suspect their own biases, conflicting values or judgements are influencing their work with a client, it is critical that they reflect upon this behaviour and seek to rectify it.

Critically reflecting in supervision, through journaling or personal inner work is required to establish an appropriate plan of action.

Recognising Limitations

It is easy for inexperienced counsellors to fall into the trap of feeling solely responsible for their client’s progress. Counsellors do not possess a magic wand to solve all of life’s problems and it is important to remember that ultimately it is the client that makes choices in their own life.

Counsellors can assist clients to think through options, explore motivators and hurdles, set goals, formulate plans of action and so on. A client, however, must assume the responsibility for taking actions in order to accomplish progress in their life.

There are many aspects of the counselling relationship in which it is important to recognise the limitations of counselling. When progress seems “stuck”, some of the best plans involve tolerating ambiguity, sharing responsibility with the client, re-establishing the role of the counsellor and/or sharing information with a supervisor.

Drawing the Line

Maintaining a critical perspective towards the counsellor-client relationship is essential in order to avoid emotional burnout, misjudgement and unproductive distribution of power. “A common mistake for beginners is to worry too much about clients. There is a danger of incorporating clients’ neuroses into our own personality. We lose sleep wondering what decisions they are making. We sometimes identify so closely with clients that we lose our own sense of identity and assume their identity. Empathy becomes distorted and militates against a therapeutic intervention” (Corey 2001, p. 34).

Stage 3: Dealing with Challenging Situations

One of the foremost challenges facing counselling professionals is to understand the complex role that diversity plays in their work. In counselling, each client’s needs and objectives should be considered and used to guide the counselling process. These needs vary for each individual according to factors such as personality, culture, gender and age.

Counselling with Difference

It is vital that counsellors working with issues of difference recognise the unique needs of their client and plan intervention accordingly. The counsellor must decide on the approach that will provide better responsiveness from the client, and therefore lead to a constructive outcome.

Clients affected by systems of inequity in our culture are frequently subjected to acts of discrimination and prejudice. Counsellors need to understand the impact of such in order to analyse the depth to which a client may be culturally traumatised. Prejudice impacts on self-esteem and may evoke imbalances in a client’s wellbeing. They may experience feelings of being left out of the larger group, feelings of powerlessness, loneliness and hopelessness.

Working with Groups

Group counselling is a challenging and dynamic form of counselling that requires all-round professional skills from counsellors. It implies that any challenges a counsellor may find in helping an individual can potentially duplicate, triplicate, or vastly multiply – however, the more intricate the challenge is, the higher the rewards.

Similar to mathematics theory, the dynamic interactions which occur within a group, along with the external influencing factors upon that group, pose challenges to controlling and interpreting group outcomes. When dealing with groups, the primary objective (whether a group is formed to develop a project or a group united by the need to tackle an analogous problem) is to ensure that the group is healthy and productive. As such, core communication skills which are based on interpersonal communication theory are applicable for groups – promoting good communication between group individuals creates a safe and productive environment for the group to work.

When dealing with groups, there are several major issues that should be noted by professional counsellors, such as:

  1. Understanding power relationships – in other words – how the interaction between counsellor and the group’s individuals impact interpersonal relationships;
  2. Consciously avoiding generalisations and stereotypes;
  3. Accepting that all people are multi-dimensional;
  4. Making judgements exclusively on situationally relevant criteria;
  5. Adopting communication patterns which minimise stereotyping and increase dignity and respect to induce more appropriate decisions (based on information relevant to the particular context) and;
  6. Consciously controlling group communication which is likely to aggravate negative perceptions by others.

The Unfaithful Mind

Counsellors are also faced with situations in which their own personal perspective creates a challenge in their relationships with clients. A client’s personality, behaviour or opinion may diverge from the counsellor in such a radical way that it becomes a motive for dislike or disassociation. It is a complex situation which requires the counsellor to reflect on their own capabilities of dealing with such situation.

The risk of developing hatred against ‘opposing’ groups of society can perpetuate negative behaviour – a kind of traumatic response to what has been perceived as a threat. Recognising value in the individual is part of the process of developing the client’s self-confidence through providing a supportive environment during counselling sessions.

What is the solution? Primarily, the counsellor will need to reflect on whether he/she is able to restrain his/her own negative feelings towards the client and work together in a productive manner. If he/she decides that it is feasible, strategies need to be devised in order to avoid conflict and lack of alignment in the relationship goals. If the counsellor believes that it is not appropriate to deal with the client due to personal motives, there should be a contingency plan to refer that client to appropriate support and ensure that this process is done efficiently – without incurring in any psychological harm to the client.

Stage 4: Ongoing Development

Dealing with human behaviour is never a static process. Learning from each experience is the secret to naturally widen one’s perspective towards the world, improve one’s ability to understand people and to effectively communicate with them. Therefore, learning also plays a big role in the process of developing a positive counsellor perspective. How to improve learning? The best way is to construct a disciplined approach is be attentive to details and situations which produce unexpected results in counselling sessions and other interaction with clients. Learning through observation is of considerable value in terms of experience and maturity for a counsellor.

Perpetuating constitutes the maintenance of the basic backbone that allows a counsellor to be a productive and efficient professional: mental and physical health. Counsellors are deemed to deal with stress throughout their careers – whether through emotional attachment, excessive work, lack of self-care, or a combination of these factors. It is of vital importance that counsellors avoid burnout because emotional stress tends to accumulate overtime and it can result in trauma. All these issues directly affect the counsellor’s ability to oblige to ethical and professional guidelines.

Most people ignore the first signs of excessive stress, and by doing so, become vulnerable to further pressure from work. At some point, counsellors may find it very difficult to attend counselling sessions, to get to work, and to perform in several other areas of life. Preventing burnout is simply a necessary task to anyone aiming for a balanced and fulfilling career (and life).

Reference List

  • Scientific Method Wikipedia. Retrieved on: 14/08/2006 –
  • Corey, G. (Ed). (2001). Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Wadsworth: Thomson Learning
  • Meier, S., & Davis, S. (1997). The Elements of Counselling. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole.