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What is Counseling?


Disciplines > Counselling > What is Counseling?

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The dictionary describes counseling as provision of advice or guidance in decision-making, in particularly in emotionally significant situations. Counselors help their clients by counseling them. Counselors also help clients explore and understand their worlds and so discover better ways of thinking and living.

Some definitions include: clients understand and clarify their views of their lifespace, and to learn to reach their self-determined goals through meaning ful, well-informed choices and through resolution or problems of an emotional or interpersonal nature. (Burks and Steffire, 1979) with individuals and with relationships which may be developmental, crisis support, psychotherapeutic, guiding or problem-solving... (BAC 1984)

The task of counseling is to give the client an opportunity to explore, discover and clarify ways of giving more satisfyingly and resourcefully. (BAC 1984)

A principled relationship characterized by the application of one or more psychological theories and a recognized set of communication skills, modified by experience, intuition and other interpersonal factors, to clients' intimate concerns, problems or aspirations. (Feltham and Dryden, 1993)

A common factor in most counseling situations is that the client is demoralized, distressed or otherwise in a negative state of mind about something.

Counseling can be for one person or a group (typically couples and families) and may be delivered through a number of methods, from face-face dialogue, group work, telephone, email and written materials.

Counseling is largely a voluntary activity whereby clients must wish to change and collaborate willingly with the counselor. Early counseling activity in some cases involves bringing referred clients to this point of readiness.

Results of counseling can include:

  • Insight and understanding of oneself, with greater self-awareness.
  • Changing of one's beliefs and mental models.
  • Increased acceptance and appreciation of oneself.
  • Increased emotional intelligence.
  • Increased ability to control oneself and one's urges.
  • Development of skills and abilities that require self-management.
  • Improved motivation towards actions that are good for one's self.
  • Understanding of others and why they act as they do.
  • Increased appreciation and care for others.
  • Improvement in relationships with others.
  • Changing of relationship with family, friends and others.
  • Making amends for past negative actions.

In summary, counseling typically leads to resolution of a living problem, learning of some kind and/or improvements in social inclusion.

Counseling is also a profession, with national associations and control bodies, who, along with academics, have explored its detail further.


Contact between counselors and clients may be through a third party who refers the client. The client may also seek out the counselor for help with their troubles.

Counselors often subscribe to particular schools of thought as to the most effective and useful way of helping. A critical variable in this is the extent to which the solution to problems are provided by the counselor or by the client. This leads to two very different roles for the counselor: problem-solving or facilitator. A facilitative approach may also be used when a more open exploration approach is used.

There are hence a number of theories in counseling, including those held by the client and those held by the counselor. Theories provide simplified models for understanding and ways of acting. They help the counselor how to percieve the client and decide what to do. They may also provide the client ideas for what to think and do differently.

Counseling is particularly common at transition points in a person's life, where they are moving from the familiar to the strange, going from child to adult, single to married and so on. These changes can be difficult and the counselor can help their client successfully make the change, both emotionally and cognitively.

There has been ongoing debate about the difference between counseling, coaching and therapy and the boundaries are not at all clear. Therapy can be more clinical but counseling still addresses serious issues, whilst 'coaching' can effectively be a euphemism for lighter forms of counseling. Generally, counseling tends to have a more social focus, whilst therapy and coaching are more individually focused.

Historically counseling in personal issues was done by close relatives, friends or the local priest. Although counsel has always been given within families, parents and siblings are not always the best people to do this when they are effectively a part of the problem. Likewise with friends, the penetrating need of counseling means a fun-based friendship is not the best place to go.

With the rise of the industrial revolution and the mobility of populations, this stable support network was often lost. At this time caring professions started to develop and the asylum as a place of entertainment faded as mental illness and simpler personal issues were taken more seriously.

In the 20th century, counseling emerged as a profession, splitting from therapeutic approaches and developing its own ways, although still retaining much in common with therapy. There are still competing approaches within counseling that parallel therapeutic though.

Religion has continued to be an influence in the development of counseling and several counseling agencies grew out of religious organizations which sought to help people in need. This has influence the general thinking withing counseling, which is suffused with Judeo-Christian thought.

Counseling has also been influence by the arts and has had some focus here, for example in using methods such as dance, painting and drama for therapeutic benefit in providing a channel that enables people to express their emotions.

See also

A Brief History of Counseling and Therapy, Beliefs, Meaning, Learning Theory, Motivation


Burks, H.M. and Stefflre, B, (eds) (1979). Theories of Counseling, New York: McGraw-Hill

Dryden, W. and Feltham, C. (1993). Brief Counselling, A practical guide for beginning practitioners, Milton Keynes: Open University Press



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