Defining the Counseling Process and Its Stages

Counseling processCounseling typically helps bring about change.

The process begins with exploring the challenges a client faces before assisting them in resolving developmental and situational difficulties (Sajjad, 2017).

The counselor supports clients with physical, emotional, and mental health issues, helping them resolve crises, reduce feelings of distress, and improve their sense of wellbeing (American Psychological Association, 2008).

When successful, treatment can change how a client thinks, feels, and behaves regarding an upsetting experience or situation (Krishnan, n.d.).

This article explores what counseling is and is not, and the stages and steps involved in a successful outcome.

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Defining the Counseling Process

All of us will, occasionally, take on the role of counselor. We informally offer family, friends, and colleagues advice regarding their relationships, finances, career, and education.

On the other hand, “a professional counselor is a highly trained individual who is able to use a different range of counseling approaches with their clients” (Krishnan, n.d., p. 5).

Counseling as a profession involves (Krishnan, n.d.):

  • Dedicated time set aside to explore difficulties, stressful situations, or emotional upset faced by a client
  • Helping that client see their situation and feelings from a different viewpoint, potentially to facilitate change
  • Building a relationship based on trust and confidentiality

The counseling process should not include:

  • Providing advice
  • Being judgmental
  • Pushing the counselor’s values
  • Encouraging the client to behave as the counselor would in their own life
  • Emotional attachment between the counselor and client

According to the American Psychological Association (2008), counseling psychologists “help people with physical, emotional and mental health issues improve their sense of wellbeing, alleviate feelings of distress and resolve crises.”

Counseling works with clients from childhood through to old age, focusing on “developmental (lifespan), environmental and cultural perspectives,” including (American Psychological Association, 2008):

  • Issues and concerns in education and career
  • Decisions regarding school, work, and retirement transitions
  • Marital and family relationship difficulties
  • Managing stressful life events
  • Coping with ill health and physical disability
  • Mental disorders
  • Ongoing difficulties with getting along with people in general

While we often see counseling and psychotherapy as interchangeable, there are subtle distinctions. Counseling is typically short term, dealing with present issues and involving a helping approach that “highlights the emotional and intellectual experience of a client,” including how they feel and think about a problem or concern (Krishnan, n.d., p. 6).

Psychotherapy is often a longer term intensive treatment, helping the client overcome profound difficulties resulting from their psychological history and requiring them to return to earlier experiences (Krishnan, n.d.; Australia Counselling, n.d.).

The counseling process has been described as both an art and a science, helping to bring about changes in thought, emotion, and behavior in the client (Sajjad, 2017).

The Stages of the Counseling Process

Counseling StagesWhile counseling varies in both form and purpose, most counseling theories embody some form of the following three stages (Krishnan, n.d.): relationship building, problem assessment, and goal setting.

Counselors and clients must both be aware that the counseling process requires patience. There is rarely a quick fix, and things may need to get worse before they get better. In addition, the counseling process is collaborative. The counselor does not fix the client; the work requires interaction and commitment from both parties (Krishnan, n.d.).

The counseling process is a planned and structured dialogue between client and counselor. The counselor is a trained and qualified professional who helps the client identify the source of their concerns or difficulties; then, together, they find counseling approaches to help deal with the problems faced (Krishnan, n.d.).

Hackney and Cormier (2005) propose a five-stage model for defining the counseling process through which both counselor and client move (Krishnan, n.d.).

Stage one: (Initial disclosure) Relationship building

The counseling process begins with relationship building. This stage focuses on the counselor engaging with the client to explore the issues that directly affect them.

The vital first interview can set the scene for what is to come, with the client reading the counselor’s verbal and nonverbal signals to draw inferences about the counselor and the process. The counselor focuses on using good listening skills and building a positive relationship.

When successful, it ensures a strong foundation for future dialogue and the continuing counseling process.

Stage two: (In-depth exploration) Problem assessment

While the counselor and client continue to build a beneficial, collaborative relationship, another process is underway: problem assessment.

The counselor carefully listens and draws out information regarding the client’s situation (life, work, home, education, etc.) and the reason they have engaged in counseling.

Information crucial to subsequent stages of counseling includes identifying triggers, timing, environmental factors, stress levels, and other contributing factors.

Stage three: (Commitment to action) Goal setting

Effective counseling relies on setting appropriate and realistic goals, building on the previous stages. The goals must be identified and developed collaboratively, with the client committing to a set of steps leading to a particular outcome.

Stage four: Counseling intervention

This stage varies depending on the counselor and the theories they are familiar with, as well as the situation the client faces.

For example, a behavioral approach may suggest engaging in activities designed to help the client alter their behavior. In comparison, a person-centered approach seeks to engage the client’s self-actualizing tendency.

Stage five: Evaluation, termination, or referral

Termination may not seem like a stage, but the art of ending the counseling is critical.

Drawing counseling to a close must be planned well in advance to ensure a positive conclusion is reached while avoiding anger, sadness, or anxiety (Fragkiadaki & Strauss, 2012).

Part of the process is to reach an early agreement on how the therapy will end and what success looks like. This may lead to a referral if required.

While there are clear stages to the typical counseling process, other than termination, each may be ongoing. For example, while setting goals, new information or understanding may surface that requires additional assessment of the problem.

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7 Steps in the Counseling Process

Many crucial steps go together to form the five stages of the counseling process. How well they are performed can affect the success of each stage and overall outcome of counseling (Krishnan, n.d.).

Key steps for the client

The client must take the following four steps for counseling to be successful (Krishnan, n.d.):

  1. Willingness
    Being willing to seek and attend counseling is a crucial step for any individual. It involves the recognition that they need to make changes and require help to do so. Taking the next action often involves overcoming the anxiety of moving out of the comfort zone and engaging in new thinking patterns and behaviors.
  2. Motivation
    Being willing to make changes and engage in them involves maintaining and sustaining motivation. Without it, the counseling process will falter when the real work begins.
  3. Commitment
    The client may be willing and motivated, but change will not happen without continued patience and commitment. Commitment may be a series of repeating decisions to persist and move forward.
  4. Faith
    Counseling is unlikely to succeed unless the client has faith in themselves, the counselor, and the process. Taking the step to begin and continue with counseling requires the belief that it can be successful.

Key steps for the counselor

Each step in the counseling process is vital to forming and maintaining an effective counselor–client relationship. Together they support what Carl Rogers (1957) describes as the core conditions for successful therapy:

  1. Unconditional positive regard
    Through acceptance and nonjudgmental behavior, the therapist makes space for the needs of the client and treats them with dignity. For more on developing this, we have these Unconditional Positive Regard worksheets, which may prove helpful.
  2. Empathy
    The counselor shows genuine understanding, even if they disagree with the client.
  3. Congruence
    The words, feelings, and actions of the counselor embody consistency.

Counselors often help clients make important and emotional decisions in their lives. To form empathy, they must intimately take part in the client’s inner realm or inscape.

Several well-performed steps can help the counselor engage with the client and ensure they listen openly, without judgment or expectation. The counselor must work on the following measures to build and maintain the relationship with the client (Krishnan, n.d.):

  1. Introduce themselves clearly and with warmth.
  2. Invite the client to take a seat.
  3. Address the client by the name they are most comfortable with.
  4. Engage in relaxed social conversation to reduce anxiety.
  5. Pay attention to nonverbal communication to identify the client’s emotional state.
  6. Invite the client using open questions to explain their reason for coming to counseling.
  7. Allow the client time to answer fully, without pressure.
  8. Show that they are interested in the client as a person.

Each of the above steps is important. Taken together, they can facilitate the formation of a valuable counseling relationship.

Ultimately, counseling is collaborative and requires a series of ongoing steps – some taken by the client, others by the counselor, and several jointly. For a successful outcome, appropriate resources, time, and focus must be given to each one, and every win must be recognized and used to support the next.

Real-Life Examples of the Counseling Phases

Each client’s story is personal and unique.

While there are guiding theories and principles, the counselor must make the counseling process specific to the individual.

The following two real-life examples provide a brief insight into the counseling process and richness of the scenarios counselors face.

Lost direction

‘Jenny’ arrived in counseling with little income, no sense of direction, and lacking a sense of control over her life (Fielding, 2014).

The counselor began by forming a picture of her situation and what had led her to that point.

Sessions then moved on to explore Jenny’s beliefs about herself: where they came from, how they affected her, and their appropriateness for current and future circumstances.

A series of brainstorming sessions were used to understand Jenny’s needs, family relationships, and past, and identify her irrational beliefs. Once Jenny uncovered her core beliefs, the counselor worked with her to replace them with more rational ones.

Jenny ended counseling overjoyed with her new preferred beliefs, along with a renewed sense of confidence and control over her life.

Saving a marriage

It is not just individuals who need help, but relationships too. When ‘John’ and ‘Sue-Anne’ attended counseling early on in their marriage, it was because, having lost their group of friends, they found themselves on their own with only each other’s company (Starak, 2010).

Early on in counseling, it became clear that they both needed time to ponder some serious questions, including:

Who am I?
What values do I bring to this relationship?

The exercises helped John and Sue-Anne better understand their values, strengths, and what motivated their daily actions. By focusing on what each of them wanted their relationship to look like, they could clarify how much time they wanted to spend together and their roles within the marriage.

The counseling process enabled them to form a shared picture of how their marriage and life would look from now on.

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12 Valuable Skills for Each Phase

Good communication is vital to all stages of counseling. Skills should ideally include (Krishnan, n.d.; Lesley University, n.d.; American Psychological Association, 2008):

Beyond that, to build rapport with the client, counselors must also:

  • Be able to experience and show empathy (rather than sympathy)
  • See things from the client’s perspective
  • Have a genuine interest in others’ wellbeing
  • Use self-reflection to observe themselves and empathize with others
  • Show accessibility and authenticity during counseling sessions
  • Be flexible in their views and thinking regarding differing values and multicultural issues
  • Be able to maintain a sense of humor
  • Be resilient and able to bounce back from difficult situations

A mental health practitioner delivering positive outcomes in increasingly diverse populations benefits from developing theory, knowledge, and skills.

A Look at the Process in Group Counseling

Group CounselingOver the last few decades, research has confirmed that “group therapy is as effective as individual therapy for many conditions, including depression, obesity, and social anxiety” (Novotney, 2019).

Partly due to its high degree of success, low cost, and wide availability, group therapy can be a good option for many clients.

It is essential to remember that group therapy is not the same as individual therapy performed within a group setting; it has specific and dedicated techniques and an additional skillset. Unfortunately, however, training has not always kept up with the specialist needs of group therapy (Novotney, 2019).

There are other, unique considerations and processes involved when offering and running group therapy, including being able to (Novotney, 2019):

  • Get the right fit
    Not all clients are suitable for group therapy. They may be better placed in a one-to-one setting. High-quality screening is required to ensure the fit of the individual to the group and vice versa.

The Group Readiness Questionnaire has been designed to identify risk factors and the potential for dropout.

  • Explain expectations upfront
    Individuals’ expectations of group therapy must be realistic. Change takes time, whether in a group or an individual setting. Also, the counselor must educate clients that group therapy is not about shouting and heated exchanges. Sessions can be fun and rewarding.
  • Build cohesion quickly
    The issues being addressed can set the tone of the group and the speed at which it bonds. Grief groups, for example, often form cohesion quickly, while others can take more work and require splitting into smaller groups or pairs.
  • Seek feedback
    Early and regular feedback can help assess how individuals and the group are functioning and whether dropout is likely.
  • Identify and address ruptures
    Group work can lead to disagreements. Concerns and ruptures should be worked through early on, either bringing up issues directly with the members involved or more generally as a group.

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A Take-Home Message

Counseling helps clients by bringing much-needed change to their lives (Sajjad, 2017).

While personal and theoretical approaches may vary, a professional counselor will typically begin by building a relationship with the client before understanding their situation and their reason for seeking help. They can then explore how to move forward and assist the client in changing their thinking, emotional responses, and behavior.

Whether performed individually or as a group, empathy and a collaborative approach are crucial to therapeutic success. The stronger the relationship and the more committed and motivated the client, the more likely a robust and appropriate outcome is reached.

When successful, counseling offers the client the opportunity to change by establishing specific goals, improving their coping skills, promoting decision making, and improving relationships across life domains (Sajjad, 2017).

Time spent gaining knowledge, training, and practicing is vital to gaining the required skills for this challenging yet rewarding profession. In return, mental health professionals have the potential to help people in a wide variety of situations live more productive and satisfying lives.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

The 10 principles of counseling are:

  1. Respect for client autonomy
  2. Empathy and understanding
  3. Non-judgmental attitude
  4. Confidentiality
  5. Cultural sensitivity and competence
  6. Trust and rapport
  7. Collaborative approach
  8. Professional boundaries
  9. Self-awareness and self-reflection
  10. Ethical and legal standards

The 5 C’s of counseling refer to the essential qualities that a counselor should possess:

  • Competence: possessing the necessary knowledge and skills to effectively help clients
  • Compassion: showing empathy and caring for clients
  • Confidence: having confidence in oneself and one’s abilities as a counselor
  • Connection: building a strong therapeutic relationship with clients
  • Character: demonstrating ethical and professional behavior

The golden rule in counseling is to treat others how you would like to be treated. This means being respectful, empathetic, and non-judgmental with clients, and creating a safe and supportive environment for them to explore their issues and concerns. It also means adhering to ethical and professional standards and always acting in the best interest of the client.

  • American Psychological Association. (2008). Counseling psychology. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/counseling
  • Australia Counselling. (n.d.). What’s the difference between counselling and psychotherapy? Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://www.australiacounselling.com.au/whats-difference-between-counselling-and-psychotherapy/
  • Fielding, L. (2014, November 25). A case of lost direction. Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/a-case-of-lost-direction/
  • Fragkiadaki, E., & Strauss, S. M. (2012). Termination of psychotherapy: The journey of 10 psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapists. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 85(3), 335–350.
  • Hackney, H., & Cormier, L. S. (2005). The professional counselor: A process guide to helping. Pearson.
  • Krishnan, S. (n.d.). The counselling process. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from http://www.dspmuranchi.ac.in/pdf/Blog/stages%20of%20counselling.pdf
  • Lesley University. (n.d.). 6 critical skills every counselor should cultivate. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://lesley.edu/article/6-critical-skills-every-counselor-should-cultivate
  • Novotney, A. (2019). Keys to great group therapy. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/04/group-therapy
  • Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95–103.
  • Sajjad, K. S. M. (2017). Essentials of counseling. Abosar Prokashana Sangstha.
  • Starak, Z. (2010, October 6). How to save your marriage by creating a relationship. Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/how-to-save-your-marriage-by-creating-a-relationship/

What our readers think

  1. Modester

    Wow u have been helpful with these notes am grateful

  2. Sr. Benedicta Mante

    I wish to thank you very much for this useful article, which throws more light on both the concept and process of counselling.
    I am a Guidance – Counsellor in a secondary school where students have a lot of behavioural issues. I believe this article has thrown more light that will help me figure out how best to journey with them.

  3. Kanak

    I loved this article. So precise and to the point and so easy to understand. I am an undergraduate psychology student and needed to study this topic for my exam. From the examination point of view this is perfect.

  4. Dr Radhakrishnan Sreedharakurup

    The theme of Counseling explained in practical and easily understandable language.Respect to the client and unconstitutional positive regard, confidentiality and maintaining professional etiquette must be of prime concern. I am highly benefited.

  5. EN Imani Kosasih

    I love the simplicity, directness and comprehensiveness of this well written article on Counselling. It contains all that’s needed to impart the knowledge and skills of this important and useful process that counselling is.

  6. Folake Abimbola

    Well written article and simplest in all forms of understanding. Very useful in imparting knowledge to others

  7. Mariam Musa

    The articles here are very informative and relevant to my work. I am a counseling psychologist from Kenya. I would love to learn more.

  8. David Nuhu Adze

    This peice is carefully researched and clearly presented in a simple and clear term. I hope this is collectively applied in all areas to solve psychological problems.

  9. David Kastom Omwony

    Refugee needs counseling to reduce mental tension. I wish I could have such a book. Domestic conflict and violence are rampant in the community.Thanks.(Koboko Uganda)


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