People choose counseling as a career for many different reasons. They may be good listeners and find helping others very rewarding, or they might have supported someone in the past and felt it was something they did well. Whatever reasons you have for considering a role in counseling, it makes sense to think about the specialized skills you will need, the work you will be responsible for and the environments in which you practice.
Counselors make a big difference in people’s lives
Across the US, numerous people benefit from counseling sessions at different points in life. Counselors are trained to support those who are vulnerable, need guidance, or want to make sense of troubling feelings. The modern counselor delivers a person-centered service that focuses on the individual and their needs. However, practitioners may have different roles and responsibilities depending on the type of counseling offered and where the therapy is taking place.
Counselors provide a confidential service, whether they are working with a group of people or an individual. They offer support, understanding, and guidance when it is needed. The focus is on enabling individuals to work through the issues troubling them and empower them to make positive choices about their future.
On a day-to-day basis, counselors often have a person-facing role and are mainly occupied with their clients’ work. Their responsibilities will vary depending on the type of counseling they provide.
Providing individual counseling sessions
One-on-one therapy is the most common form of treatment, and these sessions tend to make up the bulk of a counselor’s daily work. They will listen closely to what their patient is telling them and try to identify what is at the heart of the person’s problems. The counselor assists people in making sense of their feelings and experiences and then collaborates with them to develop a plan for alleviating symptoms such as stress or anxiety. They will also agree on goals for the future to improve their client’s outcomes. Most counselors take plenty of notes and offer advice on tackling the mental health struggles their patients are living with.
Working with a family or couple
Smaller groups of two to five people can also benefit from therapy. Counselors may see families hoping to get along better at home or couples who want to improve their relationship. These group sessions are often offered alongside individual sessions, during which people can express their feelings more confidentially. This is usually a theme in child counseling; a young person may not be confident to discuss specific issues in front of a parent, but they may be prepared to confide in a counselor.
Holding a group session
There are sometimes circumstances when a group counseling session is more beneficial. Speaking to multiple people at once is often better when a group has been brought together to provide mutual support. This could be in the case of people who are struggling with addiction or are dealing with grief. The counselor creates a safe space for people to share their emotions and worries with others with similar backgrounds or concerns. Not all counselors will lead a group session during their career, but this is a common part of their practice if they start work in a care home or a rehabilitation facility.
Maintaining confidential records
Record-keeping is an essential skill for most health professionals, and counselors need to accurately note the details of each session. This will include a summary of what was said and the action that was agreed on with the client. Maintaining these confidential records is useful because it allows the counselor to refresh their memory before meeting with a client for an individual session.
These notes are also helpful for measuring the success of a plan and deciding what is working well and what may need to be rethought. Records also serve as a useful source of information for other professionals when the counselor makes a referral. These days, it is unusual to find paper notes. Instead, most counselors will use some type of digital system to store this information.
Collaborating with other healthcare professionals
Counselors working in a facility, such as a hospital, school, or prison, will often be part of a broader team of professionals. They will make referrals when appropriate, discuss the progress of individual patients, and seek advice from psychiatrists and psychologists. These collaborations allow them to gain different perspectives and obtain the best possible outcomes for each client.
This aspect of their work is separate from the confidentiality their clients expect because the counselor can withhold the personal details of a client to respect their privacy while asking for another professional’s perspective on the general situation.
What skills do you need to start a career in counseling?
Whether people have health issues, addictions, or past traumas to deal with, a counselor provides advice and support to help them cope and eventually come to terms with the problem. Part of this involves offering practical suggestions that can improve a client’s situation in the short and long term. Counselors draw on various abilities and skills daily to serve their clients successfully. No one or group of clients is ever the same, so the skills used in this role are diverse.
Working in line with a code of ethics
The American Counseling Association has written a code of ethics for all professional counselors. It is primarily designed to protect the well-being of clients and maintain their dignity. The standards that are set out ensure a client can speak openly about their past or present situation without the fear of exposure or judgment.
One of the key elements of client confidentiality is keeping the content of a session completely secret. Whatever happens in a therapy setting remains there and, in the counselor’s, confidential notes; it is never discussed in detail elsewhere. There are only a few very specific exceptions to this rule, which pertain to client safety. If a counselor feels that getting their client additional protection is a higher priority than maintaining confidentiality, they will seek outside help.
Identifying and solving key problems
People can visit a counselor for many different reasons, but what tends to unite them is the desire to find help with a problem. Sometimes, these problems are relatively small and have a minimal impact on their life. In other cases, clients may be facing a significant challenge. Therefore, counselors should be confident in their ability to solve problems for people who are experiencing varying degrees of difficulty.
A client may have full-blown depression or be temporarily suffering from mild stress. They could be having issues in their relationship or be in the final stages of a divorce. A counselor will assist each person by first identifying the problem that is at the heart of their visit. Then, they will explain it back to the client in very straightforward terms and ensure that they agree with the assessment. The counselor will then move on to ask additional questions about the problem and will consider the case further when they are not with the client.
At this point, the counselor combines their knowledge and problem-solving skills to devise a few potential solutions. At the next session, they will present these ideas to the client and discuss which ones might work best to alleviate their issue. Once a path has been agreed upon, the client will put it into action and report back, either in a follow-up phone call or at the next session. In due course, the counselor will evaluate how well the solutions worked and what progress has been made. The idea is to help clients manage their feelings independently while providing supportive reassurance and encouragement.
This process will be different for each client, so counselors need critical thinking skills to enhance their problem-solving abilities. These help them evaluate highly emotional situations in a calm, logical way and devise reasonable, considered solutions.
Active listening and being attentive
Listening is one of the most important skills for counselors as much of their role is based on understanding what a client is saying and then using this information to offer helpful advice. To listen effectively, counselors will keep their office or workspace free from distractions, such as ringing phones or TVs. This will ensure that everyone involved in the session gives it their full attention.
Counselors demonstrate that they are listening by nodding and not interrupting a client who is speaking about their feelings. Once they do speak, it will be to offer ideas rather than disagree with anything the client has said. Should the client have any questions, they will cover them in full; they never dismiss a question, no matter how irrelevant it might seem.
This is based on the idea of letting a client fully speak their mind to get a full picture of the issue. It can be encouraged through active listening techniques, such as summarizing the points a client makes, which shows the counselor is paying attention. This skill also involves observing the body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions a client uses as many people reveal their feelings in these manners.
Using different forms of empathy
Anyone who is engaged in the process of listening to another person will need empathy to relate to what is being said. Counselors need exceptional empathy as they also need to think beyond what is being said to consider the reasons a client is having the feelings they mention. It’s about understanding another person’s viewpoint and, to a certain extent, sharing it for a while.
Somatic empathy is the ability to feel the pain another person is experiencing. This is what we all feel when we see someone hurt themselves, such as by stubbing a toe. For a counselor, this form of empathy allows them to understand the distress of a client, even when they have never encountered the problems the client is facing.
This can be achieved through a different form of empathy, which is known as cognitive empathy. This term refers to being about to imagine being in the same position as someone else in order to understand the emotions they are going through and relate more effectively to their feelings.
Finally, affective empathy is another aspect of this skill that counselors need. It involves identifying the emotion a person is having and then responding appropriately. Because clients rely on feedback from their counselor, this is one of the most important forms of empathy.
Counselors should never allow their personal experiences or their emotions to influence their professional work. Even when a client has taken part in an activity the counselor is morally opposed to or has acted inappropriately, the counselor has to maintain a level of detachment.
Self-awareness can help in these situations. This skill keeps the counselor cognizant of their personal feelings and the importance of separating them from a work situation. Moreover, it is about the acceptance of the client as a different person, which helps the counselor relate to others without making assumptions or judging them.
Being flexible with each client
Some clients will be able to speak openly about their problems, but others will feel doubt and lack the poise to do so. Everyone is different, so counselors need to adapt their service to the needs of each individual.
In which settings can counselors choose to work?
Depending on their education, area of specialization and preference, counselors can choose to work in a range of settings, including schools, hospitals, and substance abuse facilities.
Ensuring students get the best start in life as a school counselor
School counselors support students on their educational journey. Counselors are not connected to the academic side of schooling, but they help young people earn the best grades and follow their preferred career path. Counselors fulfill this role by assisting students experiencing problems at home, in their peer group, or with their studies. It’s an advantageous role that requires specialist training.
For those considering how to become a school counselor or individuals working in a related field who want to advance their skills, the online master’s in school counseling offered by St. Bonaventure University is a good option. Students get to spend one-on-one time with faculty members, gain practical experience through internships, and graduate ready to pass the licensed professional counselor exam.
Taking on varied roles in hospitals
Counselors can be employed in hospital settings as mental health evaluators or grief counselors. They might work with groups of patients or individuals experiencing behavioral issues or personal struggles. Some also help with the rehabilitation of patients. For those who prefer to work alongside other health professionals in a team in a varied role, being a hospital counselor may be a good choice.
Supporting patients in a substance abuse facility
Substance abuse counselors work in inpatient and outpatient facilities, such as rehabilitation clinics. They may help with designing and implementing 24-hour care plans for high-risk patients or provide support for people who only need counseling sessions to stay on track with their recovery. Some counselors work in more intense roles, such as detox specialists in detoxification centers. These facilities are the first port of call for people who need treatment for drinking too much alcohol or overusing drugs. For those who want to make a real difference in the lives of people who are at their most vulnerable, working as a substance abuse counselor can be very fulfilling.
Helping residents in halfway houses get back on their feet
People seek help in residential care facilities for many different reasons. They may have just left prison, be at risk from harm at home, or have a physical or mental disability. Residential counselors will be part of a team that provides constant support and supervision, in addition to offering one-on-one therapy and group sessions. The focus of their work is to give patients the support and skills they need to leave the facility and live as productive members of the community. If the idea of giving people a fresh start and helping them to live independently is appealing, residential counseling is a career path to consider.
Changing the lives of clients for the better
Whatever specialty you choose to pursue, counseling offers a varied career as an agent for real change. What happens in the therapy room positively impacts the lives of clients, and this allows them to change their lives for the better. Understanding this aspect of their work enriches the lives of counselors in any setting and makes this a very meaningful career.