20 Basic Counseling Skills to Become an Effective Therapist

Counseling SkillsEffective counseling skills are vital in forming a strong alliance between the client and therapist.

When combined, such competencies support clients through treatment and help them reach their goal of overcoming the pressures of modern life and leading a more fulfilling existence (Tan, Leong, Tan, & Tan, 2015).

Various counseling skills can be learned and developed to foster and maintain the psychological process, including good communication, problem solving, and goal setting, and introduce coping techniques such as self-talk and visualization (Nelson-Jones, 2014; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).

This article introduces and examines counseling skills and techniques for supporting the psychological process underpinning therapy and setting and achieving counseling goals.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.

What Are Counseling Skills?

Most therapists and counselors would agree that a good counseling relationship is fundamental to being effective with clients. Such alliances build on several counselor-offered qualities, core conditions, and skills, including “empathic understanding, respect and acceptance for clients’ current states of being, and congruence or genuineness” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 9).

While psychological practitioners recognize the importance of the counseling relationship, they also agree on the need for interventions using skills directed by their theoretical orientation.

When viewed as a relationship with core conditions and a selection of interventions, counseling is recognized as a psychological process, usually with the goal of “altering how people feel, think and act so that they may live their lives more effectively” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 10).

Various counseling skills underpin the psychological process and are required to become an effective therapist. They have five different goals (Nelson-Jones, 2014):

  • Supportive listening
    Clients feel heard, understood, and affirmed.

  • Managing a problem situation
    Clients often need help tackling a specific, problematic situation.

  • Problem management
    The individual requires support in overcoming more general problems, such as feeling depressed.

  • Strengthening insufficiently strong skills
    Clients can develop or replace the weak and deficient skills that cause them to face the same problems repeatedly, such as broken relationships or challenges at work.

  • Enhancing skill strength goals
    Clients do not always seek help in resolving specific problems; sometimes, they simply require the skills to function better.

The therapist’s skills help the client achieve one or more of the goals above, overcome the problems they face, and acquire techniques to support new ways of thinking and behaving.

 

3 Real Examples of Good Counseling Skills

Good counseling skillsEffective counseling and therapy require many skills; they combine to build and maintain the therapeutic relationship and improve the likelihood of a positive outcome from the psychological process (Cochran & Cochran, 2015; Nelson-Jones, 2014).

While there are various skills, the following are practical examples requiring positive and specific counseling skills.

 

Creating visual images

Visual images can be powerful tools for entering and understanding a client’s frame of reference (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

When a client explains their situation and the challenges they face, it can be helpful to form a mental representation of what life may be like for them. Visualization can provide insight into how they interpret events problematically, using their personal experiences and beliefs to shape their internal representation (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

 

Creating self-talk

Self-talk is a valuable intervention for clients learning to cope with stress and anger (Nelson-Jones, 2014). Skilled therapists help clients with self-talk in the following ways:

  • Highlight negative self-talk
    Clients often rely on damaging, negative self-talk. Skilled therapists can show clients how to explore their statements in problematic situations, such as presenting at work or forming relationships.

  • Educate clients about coping self-talk
    Clients can learn positive self-talk as a helpful coping strategy, supporting an internal dialogue that calms nerves and focuses on the task at hand.

  • Capture helpful self-talk
    Clients can discover how to capture positive self-talk and use it at the correct time.

 

Crisis counseling

Therapists may occasionally counsel clients in potential or immediate danger. While their influence may feel limited, “counselors’ primary source of influence to keep clients safe through situations of imminent danger is the therapeutic relationship they form with each client” (Cochran & Cochran, 2015, p. 201).

Strong therapeutic relationship skills, such as the following, help manage client crises:

  • Acceptance
    While tempting to see only the dilemma faced, it is crucial to know the person and accept them. It is imperative to connect with the client and make your understanding visible.

  • Empathy
    Empathy is essential within any therapeutic relationship yet may need to be increased during times of crisis. It must be communicated clearly to the client so that they are aware of the connection formed.

  • Explain what is going on
    If the therapist is distracted, perhaps listening for and assessing danger signals, they must tell the client. Otherwise, if the client senses anything less than the therapist’s full attention, they may assume judgmental and critical thoughts or even boredom.

  • Carefully state feeling
    Clients may not always be aware that the therapist cares for them. Stating that they want the clients to be safe, well, and happy and sharing concern for their wellbeing can help justify a request to plan, complete an assessment, or follow a course of treatment.

  • Therapeutic listening and reflection
    Therapeutic listening and reflection throughout each session show caring and connection.

  • Making plans
    Planning for a client’s wellbeing and safety requires agreeing with the client what steps they will take and actions they are willing to put in place.

 

20 Basic Counseling Skills: A Checklist

The following checklists contain skills that a therapist or counselor would typically possess or be working toward to help their clients reach their therapeutic goals effectively.

 

Listening and communication skills

While “good therapeutic listening is extremely rare,” effective therapists should develop the following skills (Cochran & Cochran, 2015, p. 25):

  • Focus on what a client is telling them for at least several minutes with total concentration.
  • Summarize the core content of what is said (without their own belief bias) while avoiding missing key details or adding judgments or opinions.
  • Recognize when they are adding in their own, uncommunicated thoughts.
  • Be aware of their body language as a listener and recognize feelings physically and emotionally.
  • Remain comfortable with silences and encourage the client to own them.

Good verbal communication is a valuable skill in therapy. Statements such as “I understand what you are saying” or “I can see you are in pain” can significantly affect the client’s confidence in the therapeutic process and the therapist.

Skilled therapists should ask themselves (Nelson-Jones, 2014):

  • Is the language appropriate to the situation and the client?
    The client may have little or no therapy experience or may have limited vocabulary skills.

  • What does the content of what is being said refer to?
    The therapist must tune in to what is being said and about whom; for example, “I just don’t seem to care anymore.”

  • How much is being said?
    Too little speech may indicate client shyness or difficulty talking about a sensitive subject; too much may be a tactic to avoid sharing what is really wrong. Similarly, there is a problem if the therapist is talking more than the client or regularly interrupting.

  • Ownership of speech
    The pronoun ‘you’ can sound judgmental. Using “I” to talk about how the speaker feels can be less confrontational and more engaging.

 

Reflection skills

Reflection is complex, requiring considerable therapist skills to communicate with clients that they are striving to understand (Cochran & Cochran, 2015).

An effective therapist must become skillful in the art of reflection and able to demonstrate the following (modified from Cochran & Cochran, 2015):

  • Reflect their version of what the client has communicated.
  • Use declarative statements when they believe they understand what has been said.
  • Keep reflections concise.
  • Focus on the main point of what has been shared, particularly the most emotionally laden statements.
  • Accept corrections to what they have said.
  • Interrupt a client with a reflection only when it assists clarity or to avoid being overwhelmed.
  • Use reflections to encourage the client’s communication without damaging the conversation flow.

 

Helping skills

Helping skills typically include specific verbal skills taught to students who are training to become mental healthcare professionals, including (Hill & Lent, 2006):

  • Open questions
    Helping clients elaborate on their internal frames of reference (such as, ‘Tell me about that’).

  • Reflections of feelings
    Being aware of more profound emotional messages and showing that the therapist is attuned to the client.

  • Interpretations
    Uncovering the meaning behind what is said.

  • Direct guidance
    Setting realistic and achievable expectations for goals and appropriate behavior.

Helping skills can be learned through instruction or by modeling experts.

 

Counseling Microskills Explained

Counseling microskillsAttending and listening are vital skills for forming a helpful ongoing dialogue between the therapist and client and are often referred to as microskills (Tan et al., 2015).

 

Attending

Attending refers to how the therapist presents to the client physically, psychologically, and emotionally. The therapist must be present, available to the client, and, rather than turning up with a fixed agenda, flexible and prepared to put themselves in the client’s situation.

Therapists should maintain an open and relaxed posture, including uncrossed arms and legs, and eye contact while following the conversation closely.

 

Listening

Listening relates to the importance of understanding the client’s narrative. Empathy is key to good listening. Being capable of seeing the world from the client’s perspective can create a growth-promoting therapeutic environment.

Together, microskills combine to form an effective counseling conversation (Tan et al., 2015).

 

Effective Techniques Used by Counselors

Counselors combine several techniques to be effective with clients, including challenging and reflecting feelings.

 

Challenging skills

Challenging clients’ existing perceptions can help offer new perspectives, reframing how they see problems or previous events (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

The following guidelines can help develop the skills of challenging without confronting (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2014):

  • Reflecting thoughts
    Begin by showing the client that they have been heard and understood.

  • Helping clients challenge themselves
    Sending mixed messages or asking clients to back up their arguments encourages clients to question their internal frame of reference.

  • Challenges should not be put-downs
    Avoid messages that begin with “you” that can be taken negatively.

  • Avoiding strong challenges
    Challenging too hard can create resistance.

  • Avoiding threats
    Avoid verbal or nonverbal threats, such as pointing or a raised voice.

  • Leaving the client responsible
    Let the client choose if they move forward with the challenge.

  • Neither overdoing nor avoiding challenges
    Challenging can be valuable, pushing toward client change. Too much can create the perception of an unsafe emotional climate.

 

Reflecting feelings

“Reflecting feelings, rather than reflecting thoughts alone, can establish a climate for initial and subsequent sessions where clients share rather than bury feelings” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 102).

Unlike paraphrasing, reflecting feelings involves picking up both verbal and nonverbal messages and requires skills as both a receiver and a sender (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Receiver skills include:

  • Understanding the client’s face, body, vocal, and verbal messages.
  • Being in tune with their own emotional reactions.
  • Considering the context of the message sent.
  • Being aware of both the surface and deeper messages from the client.

Sender skills include:

  • Responding to the client, showing awareness and understanding of feelings.
  • Using expressive responses rather than wooden replies.
  • Confirming the accuracy of understanding.

 

How to Improve Your Counseling Skills

Mental health professionals need to become their own best counselors; if therapists truly believe in their approach when applied to clients, it should also help them “lead happier and more fulfilled lives” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 483).

Trainees may find it helpful to consider undergoing therapy themselves. The experience will benefit their personal growth, empathic understanding, and knowledge of the psychological process and therapeutic relationship (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Once trained, mental health professionals should assume responsibility for their continuing professional development. Such training will keep therapists up to date with new developments in their field and advances in technology that support them professionally (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Other ways to improve your counseling skills include being supervised, presenting at and attending conferences, and reading professional counseling books and articles.

 

Assessing Counseling Skills: A Scale

Therapists, particularly students and trainees, should regularly reflect on their skill set and recognize opportunities for development and growth.

While there are limited instruments to assess the skills of mental health professionals directly, the following resources are helpful for therapists or supervisors:

  • Skill Evaluation Form – Kent State University has produced a Counseling Skills and Techniques measure that while developed for students, can be relevant for trainees and more experienced therapists.

  • American Counseling Association Code of Ethics – This Code of Ethics includes details of the competencies required for a counselor along with ethical considerations and standards for the counseling relationship.

  • Psychotherapy Process Q-Set – This 100-item questionnaire is used to score therapy sessions and classify the overall therapy process.

 

3 Books to Foster Your Counseling Skills

While there are many books available on counseling skills, the following are three of our favorites.

 

1. The Heart of Counseling: Counseling Skills Through Therapeutic Relationships – Jeff Cochran and Nancy Cochran

The Heart of Counseling

This valuable and detailed guide helps students and trainees build on their existing knowledge and develop the qualities and skills required to form effective therapeutic relationships and deliver on treatment outcomes.

The book includes case studies, clear guidance on applying theoretical concepts in therapy, and supporting videos.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. Practical Counselling and Helping Skills – Richard Nelson-Jones

Practical Counseling and Helping Skills

Now in its sixth edition, this book by Richard Nelson-Jones provides a detailed, step-by-step guide to applying his three-stage model (relating, understanding, and changing) to counseling.

This thorough and practical book helps the reader develop the skills to become an effective counselor and deliver treatment goals.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

3. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques – John Sommers-Flanagan and Rita Sommers-Flanagan

Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories

This comprehensive guide presents all the key counseling and psychotherapy theories and how to apply them in clinical practice.

Including chapter outlines, graphics, tests, charts, and links to videos, this is a valuable resource for students and teachers.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

Tools From PositivePsychology.com

We have many tools that support the counseling and therapy process, including worksheets that help improve communication and empathy. Some of these tools have been selected from our Positive Psychology Toolkit©, the world’s largest online positive psychology resource, containing more than 370 exercises, activities, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments.

Why not try out the following?

  • From My Way – No, My Way to OUR Way
    We can avoid conflict by engaging in constructive and cooperative problem solving. This worksheet helps us understand multiple points of view and reach a compromise.

  • TRAPS to Avoid and TIPS for Success
    A closed mindset can be damaging for communication. This worksheet explores the traps to avoid and tips for success.

  • Listening Without Trying to Solve
    This valuable tool supports communication skill development by encouraging listening without jumping in to offer solutions.

  • Small Talk to Build Connection
    Use this tool to improve your small talk and connect with new contacts and strangers.

  • Giving Negative Feedback Positively
    If handled well, feedback can provide the opportunity to help others grow and develop. This tool includes eight steps to offer negative feedback constructively.

  • Mindful Speaking
    This helpful group exercise encourages us to be present, open, and truthful when sharing our thoughts and listening to others.

  • 17 Strength-Finding Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, check out this collection of 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.

 

A Take-Home Message

Becoming and persisting as an effective counselor requires expertise and a rich and diverse set of skills (Hill, Spiegel, Hoffman, Kivlighan, & Gelso, 2017). These skills can be developed through education, training, practice, experience, and supervision.

Good counseling skills are vital to building robust and positive therapeutic alliances, delivering on agreed goals, and achieving successful outcomes as part of the psychological process.

By investing time and energy, it is possible for counselors to grow new and develop existing skill sets and help people move closer to how they wish to live by changing how they think, feel, and act.

While open communication and showing empathy are vital, so too are sharing the tools needed by the client to solve their problems. Once empowered, they can overcome new and existing difficulties.

Explore the skills discussed within this article and identify the support you need to develop them further. It is ultimately beneficial to you and your clients that you become the most skilled counselor possible.

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

  • Cochran, J. L., & Cochran, N. H. (2015). The heart of counseling: Counseling skills through therapeutic relationships. Routledge.
  • Hill, C. E., & Lent, R. W. (2006). A narrative and meta-analytic review of helping skills training: Time to revive a dormant area of inquiry. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 43(2), 154–172.
  • Hill, C. E., Spiegel, S. B., Hoffman, M. A., Kivlighan, D. M., & Gelso, C. J. (2017). Therapist expertise in psychotherapy revisited. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(1), 7–53.
  • Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills (6th ed.). Sage.
  • Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2015). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques. Wiley.
  • Tan, C. T., Leong, J., Tan, A., & Tan, D. (2015). Essentials of counselling competencies: A practical guide. Write Editions.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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