Ethics and Disclosure

There are two critical aspects to disclosure within the counselling relationship. The first relates to client confidentiality and the second relates to counsellor self-disclosure (i.e. how much does a counsellor tell the client about themselves).

When clients enter into a counselling agreement, they are often assured that their confidentiality will be respected (within certain limits). This encourages honesty by providing the client with the security of knowing that their private information will not be disclosed to irrelevant individuals. However, clients must also be made aware that their right to confidentiality is not absolute. Clients must be told that the counsellor may breach confidentiality in situations when the counsellor believes that the client or another individual is at risk or when there is a legal necessity to do so. Counsellors can be subpoenaed to give evidence in court (Geldard & Geldard, 2005) and if the counsellor chooses to withhold information at the hearing they can be held in contempt of court. Client files can also be subpoenaed by the court. In some states of Australia, mandatory reporting is required by counsellors in regard to issues such as child abuse. Therefore, it is important that clients are aware of the counsellor’s duty to disclose in such situations.

Issues of disclosure can also relate to how much the counsellor chooses to disclose about themselves to the client. The issue of self-disclosure is somewhat contentious – some argue that nothing at all should be disclosed to a client, whereas others argue that counsellors should self-disclose when such a disclosure would be helpful to the client. For the counsellor who is hoping to find some guidelines for disclosure, Corey (2004) advises that the skill is knowing what to disclose, when it is appropriate to disclose, and how much to disclose.

Inexperienced counsellors often have a desire to do the right thing by the client and therefore behave strictly according to the code, often losing their unique style in an attempt to uphold professionalism. Hence, Corey (1996) explains that inexperienced counsellors in their desire to be effective often become passive, listening and reflecting not going with their own insight or intuition. They often therefore miss opportunities to build rapport and can leave the client feeling that their counsellor could not empathise with them.

Corey (1996) explains further that at the other end of the spectrum, counsellors can be so eager to prove their humanness to the client, that they tell clients too much about themselves, taking the focus of therapy off the client and onto themselves. The key point to remember is that disclosure should encourage the client to deepen their level of self-exploration or enhance the therapeutic relationship.

Excessive counsellor disclosure could mean that the counsellor is satisfying his/her own needs and not the needs of the client. The effect of over disclosure by the counsellor could be damaging to the client.

Clients can feel empathy for the counsellor, suffer vicarious transference or simply be shocked that such a thing could happen to the counsellor. On the other hand, clients may feel that their concerns are being trivialised if the counsellor’s experience is similar, but worse, than their own.

Short Case Study

Susan is a sole parent who sought the services of a counsellor some time after her marriage ended in divorce. She felt over-whelmed by the demands of taking care of three children on her own and coping with the every day problems of getting them to their respective schools each day and to their extracurricular activities after school. She was also studying and working part-time at night.

Susan understood that her ex-husband could not be relied upon for child support and therefore knew she needed to work to ensure she could provide for her children. While she understood the quality of their lives would lessen a little until she completed her studies, she hoped to make it up to the children afterwards. She also believed in helping at her children’s schools and a little at the local church.

After two years of burning the candle at both ends, with study, work and being a sole mother, Susan felt burnt out. She decided to seek the assistance of a counsellor to help her decide where to draw her boundaries and how to reduce her workload before she became sick.

The first counsellor (Counsellor A) Susan met, introduced herself politely, led Susan to an office and explained the counselling process and the limits of confidentiality. She offered Susan a glass of water, then sat back ready to listen.

Then it was Susan’s turn to speak and explain the reasons why she sought counselling. Susan explained that she felt that her life was one continuous rush between study, children, housework and work.

That she didn’t get the chance to stop for a break during the day, her breaks at work were spent doing homework and when she had to wait in the car to pick up her children she used this time again for study. She did not socialise with friends as she did not have time and while surviving on four hours sleep a night, she was still falling behind in her studies.

While Counsellor A, at first seemed to understand and empathise with Susan’s plight, she asked few questions, and then immediately set about problem solving for Susan, drawing Susan the Wheel of Life, explaining that Susan did not balance her time.

She explained that Susan must learn to say “no” to other people, and then gave Susan time management strategies to take home. Counsellor A was efficient, logical and rational, but totally missed the opportunity to help Susan to explore her underlying problems relating to a need for perfection and personal family values.

Susan left the office feeling frustrated. She felt that the counsellor was not interested in her as a person and that she did not have or want the time to give to Susan. Susan knew she would not return to Counsellor A. Susan felt that the counsellor did not understand her need to fulfil her responsibilities to her family.

The counsellor had simply told her what she already knew. She knew life was out of balance, she also knew she had excellent time management skills (this is how she managed to do three times the work of her friends). What she wanted to know was how to change.

After some weeks, Susan decided to try another counsellor. This counsellor, (Counsellor B), again greeted Susan in the reception area, lead her through to the office, explained the counselling process, offered her a glass of water and sat back to listen.

As Susan explained her story again, Counsellor B seemed so much more compassionate, she explained to Susan, “I went through something similar”, and “Oh, I know just what you mean”. Before long Susan found herself listening to the counsellor and identifying with a lot of what the counsellor said. At the end of the session, the counsellor said to Susan, “You will get through this, I did”.

Susan paid her account, but felt that she had counselled the counsellor rather than the other way round. Susan was not given the opportunity in a safe environment of exploring her underlying beliefs and values. She left unaware of how to challenge her own irrational beliefs and she felt even more fearful about her future.

Susan knew she needed to change her behaviour, but she did not know how to do that. Susan felt frustrated that she did not get what she came for. She felt angry at herself for not being more assertive with the counsellor, and angry at the counsellor for taking her money, when clearly she did not earn it.

Twice she had reached out for help, and twice no-one listened to her. Susan felt despondent and decided to just give up on seeing counsellors.


  • Corey, G. (1996). Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy. CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Corey, G. (2004). Theory and practice of group counselling. USA: Thomson, Brooks/Cole.
  • Geldard, D., & Geldard, K. (2005) Basic personal counselling: A training manual for counsellors. NSW, Australia: Pearson Education.