Counseling has been used to guide individuals toward new insights and coping mechanisms since the beginning of the 20th century.
With its widespread use, it is imperative that counseling is performed based on research-supported methods that promote positive client adjustment.
Researchers have identified some key behaviors that should be avoided for counselors to be effective in their therapeutic roles, and this article consolidates the biggest mistakes and how to prevent them.
By avoiding these common counseling pitfalls, therapists will be in a better position to empower, guide, and support their clients toward greater emotional fulfillment and well-being.
This article contains:
General Counseling: 11 Mistakes
The following mistakes, which are of general importance across counseling types, are divided by the following categories listed below.
As maintaining confidentiality is paramount to the ethical implementation of mental health treatments, violating confidentiality represents a significant clinical mistake. Unless the client has provided permission OR there is a sufficient reason to break confidentiality (e.g., the client poses a danger to him/herself or others), counselors are bound by specific confidentiality regulations (Hodgson, Mendenhall, & Lamson, 2013).
Not only is protecting privacy and confidentiality the client’s right, but it also provides legal protection for the therapist. There are several ways in which mental health professionals are required to protect a client’s privacy. For example, it is the counselor’s responsibility to maintain secure paper and electronic files and to only discuss a patient’s information with those for whom legal access is permitted.
Along with understanding confidentiality requirements, counselors must also ensure the physical nature of the counseling office affords adequate client privacy (Hodgson et al., 2013). Therefore, the waiting room should have proper seating and space, and counseling offices need to be private and soundproof.
Similarly, all counseling staff must understand the importance of confidentiality and thus avoid exposing client information to others in the waiting room. Not only is maintaining confidentiality the law, but it is the professional counselor’s ethical imperative. Moreover, it is essential for achieving counselor-client trust and thereby enhancing the likelihood that a client will be open and responsive to treatment.
Undergoing counseling is a difficult experience for most people, as it often involves sharing deeply personal and distressing information. It takes time for a client to feel safe enough to open up, particularly when he/she has trust issues, to begin with.
Quality counseling means that the therapist does not make the mistake of jumping in too quickly, but instead, builds rapport early on, taking adequate time to establish trust.
While the exact process of building rapport is dependent on the individuals involved, skilled counselors can gauge each client’s degree of responsiveness at the beginning of treatment. Building rapport in ways that serve the unique needs of clients is essential, as it enhances the client’s motivation to work with the therapist toward achieving his/her treatment goals (Tahan & Sminkey, 2012).
3. Fit between Client and Counselor
Just as there is a wide range of physician specialties, mental health professionals are also diverse in terms of academic training and treatment focus. Therefore, mental health counselors also need to be matched with their clients’ needs, presenting problems, and expectations.
Individuals seeking counseling will benefit from doing their homework regarding differing counseling styles. The therapist’s transparency aids this in terms of his/her background, training, and professional manner.
Along with providing clients with easy access to such information, a discussion regarding the counselor’s background and treatment approach should occur before initiating therapy. By taking these steps, the counselor is in a better position to avoid the mistake of poor client-counselor fit.
A typical example of a mismatch between counseling approaches and client needs occurs when clients expect more direction than is offered. For example, a counselor trained in client-centered therapy might be less inclined to provide specific guidance to clients; but rather, may guide them toward discovering their own solutions (Rogers, 1945).
On the other hand, a therapist trained in a directive approach would be more inclined to actively advise, teach and support clients in ways to deal with their issues (e.g., Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy; Ellis, 1996).
Stated more simply, a client who sits through silent sessions wishing for the counselor to say something, is not likely to benefit from or continue with such treatment.
Of course, most people are not educated concerning counselor training philosophies, but they do have an idea of what they generally expect from a therapist. If the counseling approach does not seem to fit with the client’s needs, it is essential for the counselor to check-in with the client to ensure that his/her expectations are being met.
Therapy may also be undermined due to a poor client-counselor fit in terms of demographic qualities such as age or gender. For example, a female with a violent history with males may be best supported by a female counselor. In sum, research supports the importance of a compatible therapist-client match as a predictor of therapeutic success (Bernier & Dozier, 2002).
In the words of noted psychologist Alfred Adler (goodreads.com):
We learn in friendship to look with the eyes of another person, to listen with her ears, and to feel with her heart.
Adler is referring to a quality that is fundamental to good therapy: Empathy. Making the mistake of conveying a non-empathetic attitude may result in a resentful, unmotivated client; while also obscuring the therapist’s ability to understand the client’s situation truly.
Of course, counselors are human and thus may be emotionally affected by a client’s problems and behaviors. Nonetheless, professional counselors need to “develop an understanding of how their clients feel and must be able to respect those feelings even when they appear to be making the counselor’s job difficult” (Vacc & Loesch, 2000, p. 22).
The construct of empathy plays such a key role in the therapeutic relationship that empathetic listening skills have been suggested as an essential component of evidence-based counselor training (Moyers & Miller, 2013).
Non-professional therapist behavior represents a grave mistake with the potential to undermine the goals of therapy.
In many ways, professionalism in the therapeutic setting is much the same as that in other types of jobs.
For example, counselors are expected to be on time, well-groomed, and appropriately dressed. Showing up late is a significant error for therapists, as it sends a message that the client’s time is not important. Such a message is, of course, contradictory to the counseling objective of promoting a client’s self-esteem and positive well-being.
Additionally, counseling sessions are typically brief and expensive, so tardiness has other costs for clients.
Clients also are put off by counselors who fail to respond to their phone calls, act distracted during sessions (e.g., glancing at the clock), or talk either too much or about themselves. The client is there to receive attention focused on his/her problems and is likely irritated by a counselor who doesn’t listen or comes across as self-interested.
The office setting also needs to project a professional climate, as a disorganized office does not inspire confidence. Additionally, disorganized files may elicit privacy-related concerns for the client. Professional therapists also engage in adequate preparation for each counseling session.
For example, when counselors fail to remember important client information from week to week, clients are unlikely to feel that they are being heard. While many examples of professional counseling behaviors are commonsensical, more detailed and specific guidelines regarding ethical and professional counseling practices are also available to readers (e.g., ‘Professionalism, Ethics, and Value-Based Conflicts in Counseling,’ Francis & Dugger, 2014).
6. Skill, Knowledge, and Confidence
Counselors are expected to be skilled communicators who are “knowledgeable of those aspects of mental health that relate to the development, relief, and solution of an individual’s emotional and other concerns which are associated with quality of life” (Vacc & Loesch, 2000, p. 18).
Making the mistake of administering treatment without adequate skill, knowledge, or confidence diminishes the client’s trust in the guidance being provided. Similarly, if a counselor comes across as nervous and lacking self-confidence, he/she has personal work to do before seeing clients.
A good counselor also has acquired adequate substantive knowledge and is confident about his/her theoretical approach. Losing sight of one’s theory is problematic as it may result in advice that is not scientifically based.
Skilled counselors also understand timing and can avoid the negative consequences of prescribing a particular intervention before the client is ready (Methven, Odell, & Weeks, 2005).
Performing as a competent therapist is an ongoing process. It means that counselors are informed about evidence-based practices and that they stay abreast of new developments. As such, it is through continued growth and education that counselors can provide the best available treatment for their clients.
The client-counselor relationship is not like those that occur in other aspects of life.
It is bound by specific constraints for a good reason, as it is a professional relationship and not a friendship.
Making the mistake of blurring client-therapist boundaries leads to several issues related to trust, as well as a misunderstanding regarding the roles and responsibilities of both parties.
For example, pursuing a client relationship outside of therapy is a major boundary violation that diminishes the therapist’s professional role. Being emotionally reactive to or overprotective of clients also represent additional ways in which a counselor may blur therapeutic boundaries and increase the likelihood of making poor treatment choices (Methven et al., 2005).
Therapists also violate boundaries by allowing sessions to go over-time and by oversharing personal information. Failing to attend to their nonverbal cues is another area related to boundaries, as clients have reported a therapist’s body language as important for early therapeutic alliance-building (Bedi, 2006).
Generally speaking, some boundary violations are pretty obvious; whereas, others depend upon the individuals involved. The important point is that both the therapist and the client are comfortable and in agreement with the parameters established during the counseling process.
It is often the case that clients continue to attend treatment despite a lack of satisfaction with the process. However, as clients will not always raise these issues, it is a mistake for therapists to make assumptions regarding the client’s satisfaction with the nature and progression of treatment.
For example, if a client would prefer that the counselor offer more directive guidance, he/she may not have the confidence to make such a request. Moreover, the client may not even realize that the counselor has the flexibility to alter his/her approach.
By checking in regularly with the client, the counselor is better able to avoid making assumptions and thus to develop a counseling strategy that is consistent with the client’s needs and expectations.
It is for this reason that consistent monitoring of a client’s responses to counseling is encouraged by the Task Force on Empirically Supported Relationships (Ackerman, Benjamin, & Beutler et al., 2001).
A client seeking mental health treatment needs to feel that the practitioner has hope in his/her ability to get better. After all, if the counselor isn’t optimistic about the client’s future, then why should the client have confidence in the treatment?
This notion is supported by research indicating that an optimistic and confident attitude among counselors is vital for positive patient outcomes during short-term therapy (Heinonen, Lindfors, & Laaksonen et al., 2012).
Along these lines, competent counselors express genuineness, courage, and positive skepticism toward their clients (Vacc & Loesch, 2000).
Failing to convey a generally optimistic attitude represents a significant counseling mistake, as it is the role of the counselor to instill a sense of encouragement, as well as to inspire and motivate. Moreover, by identifying and encouraging specific goals along the way, the counselor sets-up a hopeful trajectory that inspires the client’s confidence in the therapeutic process.
10. Multicultural Competence
Counselors need always to be sensitive to each client’s cultural background—a concept that is becoming increasingly relevant in countries where the prevalence of minority groups is on the rise.
The mistake of failing to understand and convey multicultural competence with diverse clients represents such a vital counseling mistake that multicultural competence in counseling is among the ethical guidelines established by both the American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists (Prout & Brown, 2007).
Trust is diminished when therapists are unable to relate to or empathize with a client’s acculturation challenges. While it may be optimal for clients to be matched with counselors in terms of ethnic background, this is rarely feasible. However, counselors convey respect by educating themselves in terms of the history and culture of minority clients, as well as methods that enhance multicultural sensitivity.
The importance of multicultural competence is indeed supported by academic literature. For example, cultural competency training has been associated with increased client satisfaction with the counseling process (Way, Stone, & Schwager et al., 2002). Additionally, cross-cultural sensitivity has been reported as an essential counseling component across various racial and ethnic groups.
For example, in her work with Muslim refugees, Eltaiba (2014) found rapport-building to be an essential aspect of culturally sensitive therapy. Similarly, in a study examining cross-cultural counseling with Asian clients, miscommunications and unintended insensitivities were diminished when therapists understood important language and cultural differences between themselves and their clients. (Eum Kim, 2004).
Generally speaking, a counselor’s beliefs, background, sexual orientation, prejudices, and racial or cultural identity may come into play during therapy—mainly when working with clients from diverse backgrounds (Prout & Brown, 2007).
The counselor’s ability to be introspective and to understand the potential impact of his/her personal beliefs and attributes on the therapeutic process is essential for achieving sensitive, unbiased therapy. Included in this understanding is the counselor’s examination of his/her degree of privilege (Arredondo, Tovar-Blank, & Parham, 2008) and the potential for abuse of power.
Additionally, a multiculturally competent therapist is better able to select culturally appropriate therapy intervention approaches for clients (Prout & Brown, 2007).
Mental health professionals are often compassionate people by nature. However, being a therapist is not easy, as listening to others’ problems on a day-to-day basis can take an emotional toll. As such, failing to practice self-compassion is a mistake that increases the risk of burn-out among therapists (Patsiopoulos & Buchanan, 2011).
There are a variety of effective ways for a counselor to exercise self-care (e.g., regular breaks, relaxation exercises, eating well, exercising, etc.); the choice of approaches depends upon his/her unique interests and needs.
For example, engaging in meditation is a self-care method that has been associated with reduced burnout among professional counselors (Ringenbach, 2009). Overall, by identifying and practicing self-compassion, therapists will be in a far better position to enjoy a fulfilling career in which they support the emotional needs of their clients.
Couples’ Counseling: 5 Mistakes
While the above counseling mistakes apply across counseling types, several issues are especially applicable within particular counseling contexts.
Couples’ counseling represents one such situation.
For example, couples counselors must work consistently to avoid showing a bias toward one individual. This is tricky territory, as the counselor may feel that one member of a couple is relatively more at fault.
However, showing favoritism toward one person is likely to perpetuate the couple’s mutual antagonism. Moreover, it may create resentment toward the therapist or alienate a spouse who was not overly motivated about participating in counseling in the first place.
When working with two clients, the counselor also must be mindful that he/she is dealing with two—often highly opposing—sides of a story. Therefore, to avoid making incorrect assumptions, the counselor needs to collect sufficient information to get a good sense of the couple’s presenting issues and individual perspectives (Methven et al., 2005).
In a similar vein, counselors need to recognize how their own experiences may impact the assumptions they make about clients. For example, Kottler and Carlson (2011) describe a teachable moment in which, based on his sexual orientation, a therapist made the problematic assumption that his clients also belonged to the dominant heterosexual population.
Other mistakes made among couples counselors include not identifying the actual client (e.g., the couple versus one individual), not establishing ground rules at the outset, and believing that there is an objective truth to be discovered (Methven et al., 2005).
In summary, when dealing with couples, counselors should avoid making the following mistakes:
- Showing bias or favoritism
- Failing to collect enough information about both people to avoid making assumptions
- Failing to establish ground rules at the beginning
- Failing to identify the actual client
- Engaging in a “search for truth”
Group Counseling: 8 Mistakes
As with couples counseling, group therapy requires a seemingly unbiased therapist who allows equal attention and time for each member of a group.
Because the counselor is dealing with multiple people, personalities, and issues at once, he/she needs to be prepared for several problems that may arise. In their informative book: ‘Group Counseling: Strategies and Skills,’ Jacobs, Masson, Harvill, and Schimmel (2012) outline several problematic situations that are common in group counseling.
One such issue occurs when the leader’s approach lacks in purpose or structure. Group counseling is challenging, as it requires a confident leader who establishes the objectives, rules, and general structure of the group at the beginning.
If a counselor lacks the leadership skills and confidence needed to do so, performing group therapy may not be the best idea—at least not until undergoing relevant training. Otherwise, group dynamics may take over, resulting in disorganized and nonproductive sessions.
Other salient issues that occur during group counseling include the following: Chronic talkers who monopolize conversations; group members who refuse to speak at all; dominating personalities who attempt to take over the group; pessimistic group members; individuals who try to distract others; persistent criers; and those who behave with hostility (Jacobs et al., 2012).
Additionally, group leaders are more likely to create successful sessions when they give participants sufficient time to speak, model appropriate ways to respond, are sensitive to minority group participants, react appropriately to tearful individuals, and help quiet group members to be heard (Chen & Rybak, 2018).
Overall, failing to be a confident leader and mentor who can successfully manage these types of situations during group counseling is a proven way to derail the therapeutic benefit for everyone involved.
In summary, when dealing with groups, counselors should avoid making the following mistakes:
- Lacking a clear purpose
- Failing to establish objectives, rules, and structure at the outset
- Lacking in leadership skills or confidence
- Failing to deal with challenging client personalities and behaviors
- Failing to show sensitivity to emotional clients
- Failing to model adaptive responses when needed
- Failing to divide time among group members fairly
- Failing to show sensitivity to diversity within the group
Child and Adolescent Counseling: 9 Mistakes
Working with children and adolescents is a unique skill that requires many important considerations.
First, counselors working with minors must be highly aware of state laws surrounding issues of privacy (e.g., with respect to sexual behavior or drug use).
Moreover, failure to discuss such laws with both the child and participating adults may result in a variety of problems.
For example, if a parent is not aware that his/her child has the right to discuss topics privately with the therapist, he/she may become upset and insistent on breaching the minor’s rights to confidentiality. The therapist’s transparency easily avoids this situation before commencing therapy.
Second, child/adolescent therapists must understand that children are different from adults in multiple ways, including linguistic and cognitive development. As such, expressing emotions may be more challenging for children because of their relative lack of verbal ability and abstract thinking (Prout & Brown, 2007).
Therefore, the counselor may need to create alternative ways for the child to express his/her feelings. Similarly, counselors may fail to recognize the unique motivation of children/adolescents versus adult family members with respect to attending therapy.
For example, a child or teen may not have volunteered for therapy nor understand why it is needed—situations that may quickly diminish his/her level of treatment motivation.
Third, child therapists must be able to deal with a troubled and dysfunctional family system. This may result in a child who lacks trust in adults in general, particularly authority figures. Failure to recognize the youth’s perspective concerning treatment and the counselor’s role may result in an unwilling participant.
To avoid this situation, counselors working with children and adolescents need to take extra time and care in developing rapport early on (Vernon, 2002). Additionally, therapists will achieve better results if they avoid perpetuating child labels within the family dynamic, ensure that their young clients are told the truth, and involve kids and teens in counseling-related decisions and objectives (Myers, Shoffner, & Briggs, 2002).
Approaching youth counseling in this way provides young people with the confidence and empowerment that comes from knowing that their opinions matter.
Fourth, successful youth counseling requires the therapist to understand the client’s developmental period (Myers et al., 2002). Clearly, how a child or adolescent perceives the world will be reflected in his/her behavior. Failure to recognize developmental processes will lead to potential misunderstandings and assumptions regarding client needs.
For example, it is not uncommon for adolescents to display symptoms of depression that are somewhat different than those presented by children and adults. Along with different emotional and intellectual capacities, adolescents are in the unique position of trying to navigate their autonomy while transitioning into adulthood. Failure to recognize this may result in teen clients who feel misunderstood by the counselor.
Group therapy counselors who work with children and adolescents also need to adequately account for differing ages, developmental stages, and behavioral issues. For example, in terms of group size, young children—versus adolescents—are more likely to benefit from small positive psychology groups. Additionally, children with behavioral problems may require even smaller groups (Prout & Brown, 2007).
In summary, when dealing with youths, counselors should avoid making the following mistakes:
- Failing to understand and communicate privacy issues
- Failing to recognize the differing needs of children versus adults
- Failing to communicate the reason for treatment and to motivate children and teens
- Failing to recognize the youth’s role and perspective within a family system
- Failing to establish rapport among youths adequately
- Failing to involve youths in counseling-related decisions and objectives
- Failing to recognize different developmental periods
- Failing to understand the unique needs of adolescents in a therapeutic setting
- Failing to develop a group counseling structure based on the specific needs of youth participants
A Take-Home Message
Countless individuals worldwide undergo mental health counseling each year. Therapists are tasked with the difficult job of providing best practices for clients who have a multitude of diverse backgrounds, problems, and expectations. Therapists also have their own biases and other qualities that may affect the counseling process.
The primary take-away from this article is that there is a wealth of research-guided information available to therapists that will help to steer them away from making potentially damaging counseling errors. Such mistakes are wide-ranging and fall into categories such as rapport-building, confidentiality, client-counselor fit, and multicultural competence.
Additionally, counseling mistakes are easily identified across a range of counseling situations such as couples counseling, group counseling, and youth counseling.
Generally speaking, therapists who approach counseling in a professional, ethical, empathetic, and optimistic way will be on a more positive track toward achieving desired treatment results.
Moreover, optimal outcomes are more attainable when counselors build trust with clients; are sensitive to the influence of boundaries; avoid making assumptions; practice self-compassion, and approach therapy with adequate knowledge, skills, confidence, and flexibility.
By recognizing the importance of these concepts, therapists will avoid countless mistakes and thus be better equipped to support their clients in achieving meaningful therapeutic outcomes.
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