Counselling skills for all.

Skills that we can develop in everyday conversations.

Counselling skills are for all of us not only for practitioners in the mental health area. These skills help us to communicate more effectively and understand other people on the same level as we wish to be understood.

In a previous post, I talked about what it means to be a Good enough Counsellor and I describe the first part of therapeutic skills. Today I will tell a bit more about attending, listening, paraphrasing, reflecting and summarising, questioning and focusing in the counselling room. All the skills are important in the therapeutic process. 


Attending-which is to give full attention to the person and value them as an individual. Noticing all the body language which the client exhibits and all the words which the client says, keeping eye contact and not gazing out the window or at any other object. Being entirely present in the counselling room to show client respect and dignity. Displaying attending behaviour makes for positive therapeutic collaboration between client and therapist.

Attending is one of the counselling skills which all counsellors and psychotherapists should hold. Without this ability, counselling is not decent and the client cannot realise their expectation of the counselling sessions. Having the wrong attitude toward the client and lacking attending skills may break the relationship between the client and the therapist. By participating the counsellor pays full attention to the client through proper behaviours in posture and body language. It is important to make the client as comfortable as possible by being open and warm to the client before starting the session, correct seating or letting the client lie comfortably. Also, the counsellor should keep good eye contact without eyeballing or grimacing and being careful to look straight at the client. The counsellor needs to be aware that some clients could find this awkward, which may be a disadvantage in counselling.

Listen to the client carefully and notice all pauses and silences during the session. Notice all what the client says and show them that we understand what they mean through our facial expressions, gestures or by using short words and questions. Placement of seating is also essential as it creates appropriate distance from the client, as does the level of voice and imitating distractions around the room. It is worth remembering about heritage in counselling: through this knowledge, we can avoid unpleasant situations during the session. Where we will sit depends on which psychotherapy technique we are employing. For instance, in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, the client will sit next to the therapist. In analytical Freudian practice, the therapist will sit behind the client; mimicking Freud who would not pay attention to a client-facing him. Keep the seats of equal height. The client should not feel physically uncomfortable in any way during the counselling session. All aspects of attending as a counselling skill are essential to a satisfactory counselling session.

Silence and listening.

Silence is the space in which both counsellor and client have time for reflection and processing their thoughts. It often happens during a period of silence both client and therapist are analysing what is essential for them and contemplating what has not been said yet, or just waiting for a new image or a set of missing words. It is a space in which the client can recover from “here and now” emotions. It is one of the hardest parts of listening, but those particular moments of silence are the time for a counsellor to read the body language of their client.

The counsellor has to be capable of listening carefully and speaking only when it is necessary. A particular example of good listening habits was expressed by philosopher Marcus Aurelius when he asked the question “Why do we have two ears and one mouth? to which he concluded, “It is so we can listen twice as much as we speak”. Silence shows patience to the client and gives them space to express themselves. Active listening is essential but also can be difficult. It is often easy to get distracted and drift away from concentrating on what the client is saying if they are speaking for a long period. It is essential that the counsellor listens carefully, reflects on the client’s thoughts, and is prepared to remember important events and feelings which they disclose to the therapist.

I could not help her, all I could do was sit and listen (O’Farrell, 2014).

Reflecting and paraphrasing.

Reflecting and paraphrasing is the time when the therapist repeats back some words to a client to ensure that all that what they said was understood correctly by the therapist, and for the client to know that the therapist has listened thoroughly. Reflecting shows that the counsellor not only heard what was said but what feelings and emotions the client is experiencing. Reflecting the words to the client is useful for probing meaning and checking understanding with them because words have many faces. The word ‘home’, for example, could have different implications for different people.

Summarising is similar to paraphrasing but differs in that summarising takes a whole session and gives a client an extended paraphrase which contains the essence of what a client is saying or feeling current.

Questioning and Focusing

Questioning in the counselling room is to clarify what a client’s feelings are. Using a question means that the counsellor is trying to understand what is being said so he is not confused. Someone skilled in the ‘art of listening’ will use open questions to help them clarify what the client is saying so that they can reflect and paraphrase more accurately. It is good practice to ask open questions to avoid short answers like ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The open question begins with ‘ How…?’ ‘What…?’ ‘Who…?’. By questioning as a counsellor, it allows the client to tell their story.

Clients have to feel comfortable with the questions and know that it means they are being listened to, not interrogated. A question must be to clarify the topic not to be intrusive. Questions beginning with ‘Why…?’ should be avoided as the client could understand those questions as implying suspicion or judgement (e.g. ‘Why did you do that?). A person under stress is sometimes unable to deal with their emotions and they can give vague answers to avoid the problematic situation. It is difficult for the therapist in that situation to ask the right questions to get a clear picture of what the client is feeling.

It is wise to be mindful of yourself first before becoming a counsellor. Our self is an integral part of the therapeutic relationship. Knowing one’s self lets us understand what the client brings with themselves. Focusing involves helping the client to decide what issues they want to deal with within themselves. This skill allows both client and counsellor to avoid lesser or unnecessary matters and concentrate on what is more important at that time. A particular point is when a client tends to magnify or deflect the problem. When the counsellor already knows a client’s story, then they are more prepared to set the aims of counselling and work in the area of greatest possibility.

I hope you find it interesting and perhaps you would like to share your experiences. Any more about how to be a good enough counsellor and his skills, are in the next blog titled: Social Skills and Personal Growth.

Thank you for reading.

Published by Marcin Bogucki

Counselling & Psychotherapy for both English and Polish speakers.

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