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In a developing society the role of the counsellor involves

utilising many skills. Discuss the key skills, attributes and

personal development perspectives that contribute to a ‘healthy’
counsellor in a modern Irish setting.

Word Count: 2474

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In the western world we tend to think in a linear way with an emphasis on resolving

contradictions and moving quickly on. On the other hand, underpinning Eastern

Confucianism is the principle of contradiction and paradox which seeks out two

opposing propositions both of which may ultimately be accepted as being true.

Approaching the subject of the skills and attributes of the counsellor from this

perspective, it is possible to postulate an answer that on the one hand is

exquisitely simple and on the other is exceeding complex when the role and

responsibilities of the counsellor are examined in the context of a multifaceted

modern society. In a simple sense, if the counsellor has personal integrity and

allows himself to be human, is a good listener, and approaches the client with

respect and in a non-judgemental way, then the client will sense the shared

humanity which will lead to a therapeutic relationship. If the counsellor has

compassion for himself, compassion is created for the client who will begin to see

his/her own issues with new insight and clarity.

However, in contemporary Ireland we live in a society which faces new questions

and challenges on a daily basis. Within this context, the counsellor typically works

with clients who demand a high standard and a professional service often with the

added expectation that their counsellor must solve the problem for them after a set

number of sessions. Many clients whose daily work is in a knowledge based

economy and who have instantaneous availability of information through the

internet and media may themselves have pre-conceptions about the art of

counselling and may have a level of awareness about the many types of therapy

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and the philosophies which underpin them. Faced then with a multiplicity of client

issues and an ever expanding body of research on counselling theories and

technique, the counsellor must employ a comprehensive range of skills and

personal attributes if he is to offer a professional service. This essay will attempt

to outline the scope of these skills and attributes and identify what is necessary for

the counsellor to stay „healthy‟ in his profession.

Being Fully Present

We live in a world of increasing alienation, disconnection and fragmentation. There

is a Dublin based urban legend which says that our outgoing Taoiseach had, for

many months, the book “Bowling Alone” at his bedside. The central thesis of

Putman (2000) in this book is that we have become increasingly disconnected and

that many of our social structures have disintegrated.

“Countless studies document the link between society and psyche: people who

have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbours and supportive co-workers

are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems

with eating and sleeping”. (Putman 2000). This applies no less to Ireland as it

does to the US and more importantly, the counsellor is not immune. As a direct

consequence, the counsellor needs the counterbalance of knowing that his work is

that of healing and that this calling is part of a long rich and honourable lineage.

Today‟s counsellor follows in the footsteps of shamans. gurus, healers, teachers

and philosophers and wise people of all kinds from all times and places. His task

is, in the words of Thomas Bien (2006) “To practice deep listening, to produce

one‟s own presence, to be deeply available and thereby to create the living water

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of a true encounter”. It is the relationship that brings the healing and the

indispensable instrument is the person of the counsellor himself.

Furthermore, we live in a culture that is largely outside without inside, biased

towards the extroverted and the doing rather than the being. Faced with this milieu,

the counsellor must take a counter cultural stance, placing the emphasis on being

in the now, both in his personal and professional life. This involves taking time out,

often from a heavy schedule, to finding an inner oasis where he can be reflective in

thought and mindful in action so that when he does encounters his client he can

provide a similar oasis of safety where the client can explore his/her troubles and

issues in a safe and grounded environment.


One of the main tasks of the counsellor is to understand the client‟s experiences

and feelings in a sensitive and accurate way. Basic empathy involves listening

carefully to the client and then communicating understanding of what the client is

feeling and the behaviours which underlie these feelings. It implies that the

counsellor will sense the client‟s feelings as if these feelings were his own while at

the same time retaining a sense of his own self and not getting lost in the client‟s

inner world. In the Rogerian person-centered tradition (Rogers, 1957), empathic

understanding underlies the 6 core conditions for constructive change to happen.

Moreover, these core conditions do not vary according to client type and are both

necessary and sufficient for all approaches to therapy. Tutor, K (2006) concludes

that “Most research strongly supports the hypothesis that these conditions are

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necessary for effective counselling, whether this is person centered or not. This

research forms the basis of the mainstream view in counselling and

psychotherapy”. It goes then without saying that one of the main skills which the

counsellor employs in all his work is the skill of empathy. While this skill can be

learned it is not just something which can be switched on and off at will. It must

become innate to the counsellor; in a sense it must be the air which he breathes.

He might have hunches about his client but he must know what triggers these

hunches, where they are coming from and to what extent his own subjectivity is

coming into play. This involves the highest degree of self awareness. As a

consequence, the counsellor can never become complacent about his own level of

self awareness and self knowledge. A commitment to the process of becoming, of

self discovery and emotional growth are a sine qua non for the counsellor.

In addition, in striving to develop the skills of empathic listening, he must be open

to learning about the social and cultural contexts that go to constitute life in Ireland

today. Cultural empathy is about striving for an understanding of the interaction

between the client‟s and counsellor‟s cultures. Culture is about experiences,

values, beliefs and ways of expression. Communication between counsellor and

client can be influenced by any of these factors and it is important that the

counsellor is aware of how these factors influence the dynamic of the relationship.

However, a note of caution is relevant at this point. Egan (1986) has pointed out

that helpers tend to over identify the helping process with the communication skills,

including the skill of empathy that serves it. While communication skills are

essential, there is a danger that technique can replace substance and the helping

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relationship, while not doing any harm, may become bland and hollow. This

presents a life long challenge for the counsellor.


Rogers and Truax (1967) describe genuineness under the term congruence as


“Congruence means that the therapist is what he is during the encounter with the

client. He is without front or façade, openly being the feelings and attitudes which

at the moment are flowing in him. It means that he comes into a direct personal

encounter with his client, meeting him on a person-to person basis. It means that

he is being himself, not denying himself”. Genuine people are at home with

themselves and therefore can be comfortable in being themselves in all their

interactions. There is an ever present danger that the counsellor might take refuge

in playing the role of a counsellor. In certain circles in Irish society, while it might

be considered that counsellors are a strange mix of bizarre people, nevertheless

this mystique attaches a certain status to those who might purport to the

profession. However, for a real counsellor, relating deeply to others and helping

are part of their lifestyle and not roles which they put on or take off at will. While

empathy brings movement, it is genuineness which brings real power to the

helping relationship.

The Counsellor – Theories, Limitations and Boundaries.

Theories provide counsellors with conceptual frameworks that enable them to think

in a systematic way about the nature of human development and the interplay

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between counsellor and client. While the main branches may be psychodynamic,

humanistic, existential, CBT, eclectic and integrative, each of these can be sub-

divided under numerous theorists and approaches. In any counselling session, the

client is striving towards greater understanding and meaning. The counsellor

assists them in the process by making available the knowledge and understanding

of proven counselling theories. Each of these have value in themselves but the

danger for the counsellor is that he may allow his favourite theory, or the new one

he read about the previous evening, to cloud the accuracy of his assessment of

what can best help the client at any given time. There is an additional danger that

counsellors will put themselves in a superior position by using a level of theoretical

language incomprehensible to the average client. As a consequence of this, there

are a number of implications if the counsellor is to remain “healthy”

The counsellor must constantly up-skill so that he is aware of recent developments

in counselling in general and specifically in the area in which he generally works.

For example, if he works from an existential background, then on going study of

the leading branches of philosophy will be important. Furthermore, new

perspectives on age old problems are constantly presenting themselves. For

example, problems of obesity and eating disorders are the presenting issues for an

increasing number of clients. In Ireland, obesity in adults is increasing by at least

1% every year. (National Task Force on Obesity, 2005). It is imperative that the

counsellor be aware of the best forms of therapy for each case. A more recent

example is the advent of online counselling services. R. Boyle (2008) is being

practical when he reports “Love it or hate it, online counselling has arrived and is

an emerging field which will continue to evolve as the use of the internet and other

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online technologies evolve”. The healthy counsellor will be open to evaluating

such developments and being client focused will ask “Can this development be of

benefit to my clients?”

Because the range of theories is so broad, each counsellor must choose a theory

and style with which he is comfortable and competent. This choice must serve to

enhance the area of work in which he generally operates. Experienced counsellors

can draw on a range of theoretical perspectives and techniques and develop a

personal eclectic style. However, it is important for all counsellors, whether

experienced or not, to recognise their personal limitations and boundaries. This is

a key skill which flows from personal attribute of positive humility which

acknowledges that “I do not know” or “I am out of my depth here”. The “healthy”

counsellor will know that an appropriate referral is strength and not a weakness.


The aim of supervision is to promote best practice in the client-counsellor

relationship. It is not training, personal therapy or line management but may

include elements of these. It is structured, collaborative and is a sine qua non for

the healthy counsellor. (NCII, Code of Practice, 2007) Within this caring space,

the counsellor‟s personal emotional energy is revitalised, and he is helped to self-

evaluate his professional work. It is here the issue of boundaries can be explored

and checked by working in a collaborative way with the supervisor. The healthy

counsellor welcomes the opportunity for Supervision as he has nothing to fear and

everything to gain by sharing his professional concerns and practical issues with

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an experienced colleague. The traditional Irish model of “Anam Chara”

(O‟Donogue, J 1997) potentially provides another perspective on the necessity for

someone to accompany the counsellor on the journey.

Supervision really comes into its own as an identifier of burnout. The counsellor is

not immune to life, must face the marketplace like everyone else, and encounters

the stresses and strains of living in an Ireland where the tempo of life seems to

increase by the day. The healthy counsellor will recognise that burnout is perhaps

the greatest occupational hazards for him as he sees the difficulty of walking the

line between an appropriate level of affective involvement with the client and

sufficient emotional detachment. He sees the need of drawing up and being

committed to a personal programme of preventive measures such as time out,

hobbies, regular contact with nature, time for self reflection and creative

expression. Commitment to Supervision is a key element of this plan for staying

physically and psychologically healthy.

Legal and Ethical Awareness

One hallmark of Irish society is an increasing level of litigation. Although not so

obvious at first, the skill of having an awareness of the legal issues involved in the

profession of counselling is an important consideration. It manifests itself when the

counsellor prudently organises his work in formal and structured way. In addition to

a discussion on the counselling alliance, clients are informed of the nature of the

counselling contract. Relevant insurance cover is arranged and the terms of an

appropriate Counselling Code of Ethics are strictly adhered to.

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Of special relevance here is the counsellor‟s practice around confidentiality. The

NCII Code (2007) is quite specific about this and will be of assistance to the

counsellor where complex issues about potential breaches of confidentiality might

arise. It must also be recognised that some clients fund it difficult to trust anybody,

even the most trustworthy of helpers. A sensitive counsellor will be skilled in

recognising this and address the issue immediately. The congruence, respect and

empathy which are integral to the “healthy” counsellor will silently speak volumes

to the fearful client and assure him that he is in safe hands.


In order to remain healthy and give the best possible service to his client, the

counselor must employ a range of core skills and micro techniques which will

facilitate the therapeutic relationship. More importantly, he must be an integrated

person who is aware that he must constantly grow and develop in knowledge, self

awareness and personal integrity. He will put in place supportive structures for his

professional work and have a sense of his place in the important lineage of helpers

that have come down the millennia and have arrived in the marketplace of modern

Ireland. Being a healthy counselor means living life to the full, facing the

challenges of a modern society and taking time to have fun and a hearty laugh.

The last word is with Sean O‟Casey when he says "Laughter is wine for the soul;

laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness, the hilarious

declaration made by man that life is worth living." Surely this is the healthy

counselor in action.

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Bien, T. (2006) Mindful Therapy p.7 Somerville MA, Wisdom Publications,

Boyle, R .(2008) An Introduction to Online Counselling. Eisteach Magazine,

IACP. Spring 2008. p.20

Egan, G (1986) The Skilled Helper p. 15 Monteray, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishers,

Tutor, K (2006) “Person Centered Counselling and Psychotherapy”

The Sage Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy Ed. Colin
Feltham and I. Horton (2006). London, Sage Publications.

National Task Force on Obesity (2005) p. 15

National Counselling Institute of Ireland, Code of Ethics (2007). Section B.3

Sections B4 and B5. cover the issue of Confidentiality.

O‟Donoghue, J. (1997) Anam Chara. London, Bantam Press.

Putnam, R (2000) Bowling Alone p. 332 New York, Simon & Schuster.

Rogers, C (1957) “The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic

personality change”. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 95 -103

Rogers C. and Traux, C (1967) “The Therapeutic Conditions Antecedent to

Change: A Theoretical View” C. Rogers (Ed.) the Therapeutic Relationship
and its Impact. p.101 University of Wisconsin Press.

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