What is Counselling?

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

What is Counselling?

Type in ‘What is counselling?’ to a search engine and you will find that it is called a ‘talking therapy’. The implication is that it helps to talk to someone else about our feelings and thoughts. While we may have found this to be true in our life already, it can also raise some real questions. I think these questions point to limits in this idea of counselling. Counselling isn’t a talking therapy as much as a relational therapy.

More than talking

How does talking solve anything? Why do I need to see someone trained, if all they need to do is listen? What do I talk about? What if I have nothing to say? Will the counsellor get me? Respect me? Like me? Will I end up spilling everything and looking foolish? What will they say back?

These questions highlight the limits of counselling as a talking therapy. Counselling goes beyond talk*. Rather, talking is the vehicle for something else that is transformative: a new kind of relationship. Counselling holds that, inasmuch as problems are woven from relationships past or present, so they can be untangled in relationship.

You wouldn’t say that football is kicking a ball and trying to get it into a goal (well, some might!). There are various tactics and skills that all go towards scoring more goals than the other team. Similarly, in counselling, there are different relationships that occur between the client and counsellor. Some might be needed at different times in a session or over sessions. Some might be needed in different life circumstances, when the opponents start doing something different: some when we are ‘losing’ and at the bottom of the table; some to simply stop letting in any more goals; some to help us play more freely, score more abundantly and become top-five challengers. They are all part of counselling.

More than tactics

Of course, relating relationships to football tactics has serious limits. A primary one is that, fundamentally, a meaningful relationship cannot be a means to an end. Thus, these relationships cannot be tactics used by a counsellor in order to make the client better. This strays into the dark side of therapy, where we might need to show results in order to prove ourselves or our modality. Rather, defining counselling as a relational therapy necessitates that, at its roots, the counsellor cares for the client, respects them, and values them as a person, seeking to respond to them in ways that are helpful and avoiding ways that are unhelpful to their whole being and not just the ‘symptoms’ that might look good on a league table.

Nevertheless, there are different types of relationship that can emerge in the counselling room (and in everyday life) and that all have the potential to be helpful or harmful. They can be helpful, if the counsellor meets the client in the relationship with respect and care, and will often be unhelpful, if the counsellor fails to do this. A counsellor’s training should be extensive enough (and involve sufficient personal therapy for themselves) to help them, more often than not, sense what type of relationship is needed and is emerging, and be available to offer that relationship to the client when they need it.

What do you mean by a relationship?

A relationship is simply how we relate to or connect with another person. There are many different ways we can relate: as children, parents, students, teachers, mentees, mentors, managers, peers, friends and even as humans. In the next blog, I will discuss four main ways that the counsellor and client might find themselves relating, and how these have the potential to be helpful or unhelpful. Hopefully, this will help to demystify counselling further and point to what clients might expect from counselling, how it can be deeply helpful, and why counsellors need sufficient training to avoid inadvertent harm.

* This is evident by the fact that you may use creative means (sand trays, collages, images, etc.) in therapy, and, indeed, some sessions have been recorded where neither counsellor or client said a word!

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