5 Counselling Skills You Might Already Have
Technical know-how is required to become a counsellor, but people who are drawn to the job tend to have relevant characteristics already. Many people choose to go into a counselling career because they hold an innate ability to empathise, care for, and help others build their mental health and wellbeing. Chances are, if you’re thinking about this career you probably already have a lot of the necessary basic counselling skills to thrive in it.
Being a great listener and communicator by showing clients that you’re focused and there to help.
Nonjudgmentally allowing clients to talk about whatever is on their mind.
Counsellors help clients come to their own conclusions while usefully offering constructive feedback on when they aren’t acting in their best interests or contradicting themselves, or what strategies could be helpful.
Showing clients you understand what they’re going through and being motivated to make a positive difference in their life.
Making sure you prioritise your own wellbeing, and rest and rewind to make your career sustainable.
Skill 1: Attentiveness
When clients first come to a counselling session, they often have worries about how it’s going to go. They might wonder if their problems are too big or small, whether the counsellor will be bored by their concerns, or if they will understand them.
“Attending behaviour” refers to a set of counselling microskills that allow counsellors to show clients that they have their full attention. They can do this explicitly by reassuring them, but also nonverbally, a more subtle form of communication. These nonverbal cues include:
Undivided attention in clients is an important skill to help establish rapport, and to show that they can trust you and that their concerns are valid and worthy of the time you talk about them. As you work with a client over time, the perfect candidate counsellor is able to maintain this attentiveness through the therapeutic relationship, which may involve being patient. Sometimes change is slow and people can take a while confronting the same problems before their situation improves.
Some people show interest in others naturally, but it can be helpful to practice nonverbal communication skills and nonverbal behaviour in everyday life by doing things such as:
Skill 2: Openness
When a person is open, you can tell them anything without fear of being judged. It also means that a conversation can go in unexpected directions. A counsellor’s openness allows them to understand the client’s story and how the client feels.
Part of cultivating openness is in the microskill of asking open-ended questions – questions that can’t be answered with only one word, like “yes” or “no”. They play a role in facilitating people to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. By contrast, closed questions can be clarifying if you need specific information, but tend to shut the conversation down.
Closed questions can also come across as presumptive, leading, or judgemental. For example, a question like, “Are you here because you don’t like your job?” doesn’t let the client use their own words to identify their personal issues. It could also make it feel like you think their problem is their attitude rather than a harmful work environment, and could make them think that they can only talk about work. An open question like, “What brings you here today?” avoids those pitfalls, allowing clients to lead the conversation, and talk at length about what’s on their mind.
Openness is a quality of a perfect candidate to become a counsellor because it’s key to being able to identify what the client wants to work on, and allowing them to build their trust in you to help them through the counselling process.
Openness is a skill you can practice by noticing times when you’re being judgemental about another person. You can remind yourself in those moments:
You can also practice asking more open questions in your daily life. Questions beginning with the words “what”, “why”, “how” or “could” are useful for opening up conversations, while “is”, “are” and “do” tend to be more closed. Alternatively, you could make a note of what types of questions you ask in your daily life and what kind of answers you get as a result.
Skill 3: Knowing when to offer guidance or opinions
Counsellors walk a thin, tricky line. The overall goal is to empower people to come to their own conclusions about their life, how to solve their own problems, and how to move forward. Telling people what to do, or offering unsolicited advice, or talking about your personal experiences at length is often inappropriate. It can feel imposing or judgemental for clients; or like you don’t trust them to make their own decisions or problem-solving abilities, which may make them lose confidence.
Still, counsellors have useful expertise to draw on when they relate to clients. It can be helpful to:
Knowing when to offer comments and when not to is a key part of building effective communication skills, and it makes someone an ideal candidate to become a counsellor. It shows they can draw on their training and experience to be helpful, while still giving clients the space to come up with their own ideas, which is likely going to be more empowering in the long run.
You can practice this skill in everyday life by refraining from giving unsolicited advice to friends and family members when they talk about problems they’re having. Instead, focus on hearing them out, paraphrase what they’ve said to show that you’ve understood them, and letting them express their feelings. If you have suggestions or thoughts about a friend or relative’s situation, you can ask them if they want to hear it before sharing. If someone asks directly for advice, it could also be good practice to ask them questions about their situation and how they feel before immediately trying to solve their problem.
Skill 4: Empathy
Counsellors should be motivated by wanting to help other people. This means that they understand the emotional issues their clients are going through, and bring genuineness and validation to their verbal communication. They’re compassionate encouragers. They use sensitive and diplomatic language in an effort not to offend their client or leave their words open to harmful misinterpretation. They also respect diverse beliefs, values, and multicultural backgrounds.
Humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers says that it’s important for therapeutic and health care professionals like counsellors to hold an “unconditional positive regard” for their clients because while they have the potential to accept and understand themselves, this potential requires nurturing. It’s helpful if the client realises that someone else accepts and understands them too.
This level of empathy makes someone an ideal candidate to become a counsellor because it’s challenging. You won’t immediately like or relate to every client, some may be difficult, unresponsive, or may have very different experiences to your own. Having the skill to still see their strengths and build a fondness for them is very powerful.
You can build empathy by:
Skill 5: Self-care
Self-care involves not taking on other people’s problems as your own; giving yourself time to relax and unwind; having self-awareness of stressors; and having strategies in place for when you’re feeling frustrated, worried, or unsettled.
Self-care is important as a counsellor because it is difficult to extend the empathy, openness, and attention that clients need if you’re feeling burnt out.
Self-care is also integral to having a sustainable career: clients will often be going through a rough time and may share confronting stories, some may be difficult to relate to, and some may be slow to make progress. An ideal counsellor deals with these frustrations as they arise rather than letting them build up and affect their mindset. They’re also prepared to talk about their own emotions with colleagues or others in their life (without breaking confidentiality) and ask for help when they need it.
If you’re considering becoming a counsellor, it’s a good idea to make a list of activities you enjoy that help you restore your energy levels and take your mind off work. As well, as counsellor, Karen Philip advises, “It is… vital any counsellor has appropriately dealt with any trauma, abuse or events to ensure they are not carrying any bias into the counselling room.”
Counselling is a rewarding profession which helps people make positive change in their lives. Building the skills to set yourself up for success as a professional counsellor involves reflecting on your attitudes, building communication skills, being committed to professional development, taking care of yourself, and cultivating these character traits you may already have.
Feeling ready and confident in your innate skills? Find out which counselling course is right for you.
Discover a resource library that can take you from A to B on your journey to becoming a counsellor. From figuring out what specialisation to choose, to insights from professional counsellors, this guide has everything you need.
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