Just What Is Counseling: The Basics

umbrellaBy: Jonathan Noble

Counselling is simply defined as “the provision of assistance and guidance in resolving personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties, especially by a professional.” However, there is probably far, far more “lay counselling” than professional counselling that occurs on a daily basis.

The American Counseling Association remarks:

Counseling is a collaborative effort between the counselor and client. Professional counselors help clients identify goals and potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil; seek to improve communication and coping skills; strengthen self-esteem; and promote behavior change and optimal mental health.

Breaking this down then (and adding to), any true counseling, even at the lay-level (which, again, occurs far more often than at the professional level) includes:

  • Identifying the problem(s)
  • Understanding the problem(s)
    • You can listen and hear the problem, yet not truly understand the problem. Which is why it is important to repeat back what you’ve just heard in your own words so the “client,” family member or friend, has the opportunity to correct you, if necessary, and elaborate, all for the purpose of genuine understanding
  • Identifying goals and possible solutions to the problem(s)
  • Trying to create and implement coping skills — that is, abilities and the aptitude to manage day-to-day living while the problem(s) is being solved or, if the problem(s) are ultimately unsolvable , then the abilities and aptitude to minimalize the problem(s) as much as is reasonably possibly while continuing to live as healthily and vibrantly as possible on a day-to-day basis
  • Strengthening self-esteem, which necessarily goes hand-in-glove with the above
  • Promoting behavioral change — if, when and to the extent necessary — while also helping strive for optimal psychological, physical and spiritual health

This is not to say everyone can do this, but this at least provides a baseline for basic counseling even, or especially, at the lay level. And, yes, professional help may certainly be necessary, so the “lay counselor” should ideally know when to say, “You really need more help than I can provide. Let’s see about getting you in to talk with a professional about all of this.” Responses will vary, but if this step is necessary then it’s necessary and non-negotiable.

An awful lot of counseling — dare we say most — not only occurs at the “lay level” but is individual, that is, one-to-one. And this often involves an individual prospect of receiving support and experiencing growth during very difficult, taxing times in life. Consequently, the “lay counselor” can help that family member or friend (or whomever) deal with an array personal issues in life such as: anger, depression, stress, alcoholism, relationship difficulties, changes in employment … and the list goes on.

However, there are some “ground rules” even for “lay counselling,” and even more so for professionals. Suppose a friend comes to you with a crisis in her life, there are a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind:

  • If the problem/crisis is beyond your skills and capabilities, by all means listen and be compassionate, but recommend professional counseling. Don’t jump into the deep end of the pool if you’re not a good swimmer or not a swimmer at all. You could end up hurting more than helping … and that happens far too often as it is!
  • Listen carefully. Concentrate. Think. Repeat back what you’ve just heard in your own words so your friend has the opportunity to correct you, if necessary, and elaborate on the crisis-issue, all for the purpose of genuine understanding.
  • By all means, maintain confidentiality unless they are planning on hurting themselves or someone else.
  • Try to remain as calm as possible. Your friend is probably already as emotionally charged as she needs to be already, whether she shows this outwardly or not. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Remain calm … but not dispassionate, which leads to…
  • Be as empathetic and as affirmative as is reasonably possible. Even when trying to discourage certain behavior and/or actions, try to do this as compassionately and considerately as possible.
  • If you have jumped in the pool with your friend, so to speak, set a time limit for swimming. You don’t want to drown yourself while trying to save her; in the end, both of you will drown.
    • This means setting some kind of time limit for individual, one-on-one conversation — much like professionals — as well as broader time limit on trying to help your friend deal with her crisis-issue. So for the one-on-one, you may not want to go past an hour or so, except for the initial conversation that might naturally last longer precisely because it is the initial conversation. Even then, you need to know when to start winding things down and bringing the one-on-one to a close. More broadly speaking, if you have been “counseling” your friend two or three times a week for a number of weeks and there has obviously been no progress, then perhaps it’s time to call it quits — not on the friendship! but the counseling — and encourage her to seek out and obtain professional help.
  • Know yourself. No matter what time limits you’ve tentatively established, there are other boundaries, too. If you find yourself struggling to stay afloat in your own daily life because of your friend’s problem(s), then it is perhaps best to encourage her toward better, healthier, stronger help, which may (but not necessarily) mean someone who is a professional.

So, can just anyone be a counselor? No, not even a “lay counselor,” because they just don’t have the wherewithal to do it and do it right. If that’s you, then it’s okay. It’s better to openly admit that to yourself, and other if and when necessary, than to risk hurting someone. However, if this is not you and you find yourself in a counseling-type position, then hopefully this brief article has been of some benefit to you. Even still, two or three courses (online or on-campus) in basic counseling might not be a bad idea!

Note: Jonathan David Noble is an essayist, poet, cultural critic and social service volunteer, who currently resides in Dothan, Alabama. Jonathan Noble holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, with a double-minor in English and Latin from Troy State University (Troy, Alabama), and a Master of Arts degree in Christian studies from Wesley Seminary (Jackson, Mississippi.) Furthermore, he has earned post-graduate certification in Information and Referral Services through AIRS (Alliance of Information and Referral Specialists); certification in Integrative and Complementary Healthcare, certification in Integrative Mental Health; and certification in Spirituality, Health & Healing through ALLEGRA Learning Solutions, LLC. The copyrights on the article belong to the author. The responsibility for the opinions expressed in the article belongs exclusively to the author.