There are nine core counselling skills, those nine skills being:
- Unconditional positive regard- a counsellor who possesses this skill attracts clients who feel able to open up and speak about their difficulties without fearing being criticised/judged. Counsellors must therefore react to their client in a non-judgmental/non-critical way, responding warmly through acceptance.
- Genuineness- to be ‘genuine’ means to be authentic. Counsellors should, for example, admit if they don’t understand something so that clarification can be sought. This aids in the creation of a trusting relationship between counsellor and client.
- Empathetic understanding- counsellors must show empathy. This means that they must try to understand the thoughts and feelings of their client.
- Active listening- active listening in the context of counselling refers to a counsellor paying full attention to their client(s), ensuring that they thoroughly understand what is being said before responding appropriately. Ways in which counsellors can demonstrate active listening is by having an open posture, maintaining eye contact, and being natural/genuine.
- Questioning- a counsellor should ask questions throughout counselling sessions as this can help to open up new areas for discussion, areas that perhaps might have otherwise been overlooked. There are two types of questions that can be asked; open and closed. Open questions should be asked at the beginning of sessions, examples being ‘what has brought you here today?’ Open questions such as this encourage the client to speak in depth so that counsellors can gather information about their client and their concerns. Closed questions should also be used, and are often utilised when a counsellor wishes to gain very specific information (e.g., do you enjoy your job?) A combination of both open and closed questions helps counsellors to positively draw out and clarify issues relevant to the counselling session.
- Paraphrasing- if a counsellor is to ‘paraphrase’, they are to repeat what their client has already said, but in their own words. This helps the client to feel understood and valued since they have proof that they are being listened to, leading to a trusting relationship being built in which the client feels as though they can share things ‘without judgement’, therefore increasing the likelihood of counselling being a success.
- Reflecting- reflecting involves listening intently to a client and observing non-verbal factors such as body language. A counsellor should repeat key words back to their client so that they can hear what they have said and make sense of it themselves. This can in turn help clients to keep track of their thoughts and feelings.
- Summarising- it is recommended that counsellors summarise what is being said to them to show that they have an understanding, and to prove that they have been listening.
- Challenging- in certain situations, it can prove effective for counsellors to gently challenge their clients, encouraging them to consider viewing something from a different perspective. It can also be used to encourage the client to ‘move on’, prompting them to consider the prospect of changing their ways.
Though all the skills above are of high importance, the first three (unconditional positive regard, genuineness, and empathetic understanding) are identified as being ‘core conditions’- those being skills that are absolutely necessary to aid a counsellor’s growth.
But, why? Why do counsellors need certain skills? Well, Gerard Egan attempted to ‘make sense of it all’ by developing a three-stage model, aiming to show counsellors how they can put the necessary core skills they learn to good use.
Based on Egan’s model, counsellors are reminded that their aim is to help their clients make decisions, clarify, and set any goals, and support their clients in implementing their actions. To achieve these three things, counsellors are taught, via the three-stage model devised by Egan, to first ’get the story’ (stage 1), before transitioning to stage two whereby they discuss the possibilities for change with their client. They should then move onto the third and final stage which involves suggesting strategies for change and, finally, closing the session. The skills, as described above, should be used throughout stages 1-3 of the counselling session. Specifically, the skills active listening, questioning, paraphrasing, reflecting, and summarising should be used in stage one, with ‘challenging’ being used in stage two. The three core conditions (unconditional positive regard, genuineness, and empathetic understanding), should be used in stages one, two, and three.
It is important to note, however, that core counselling skills are not reserved exclusively for use by counsellors. The fact is, these skills can be used in a range of ‘helping activities’ in which ‘listening’ is at the forefront. Examples of ‘helping activities’ in which counselling skills are useful to have include nursing, social work, and teaching. The skills are useful in such settings since they help clients to feel valued, therefore meeting the overarching aim of each activity.
Since it is fair to say that counselling skills are very much ‘sought after’, how can people develop and use them to create positive change in society?
People in a ‘helping’ profession can practice core counselling skills by, for example, genuinely and actively listening to their clients, showing them unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding, and questioning them and paraphrasing. They can also reflect and summarise what has been said where necessary. Experienced counsellors/helpers can progress on to challenging their clients, though this should be done with sensitivity in mind. When used sensitively as I have recommended, such core skills can help to move the counselling process forward, therefore increasing the chance of clients going on to lead satisfying lives away from the distress they might have first presented with.
I have acknowledged that counselling skills can be practiced by a range of ‘helping’ professions, however the reality is, they can be practiced by anybody, whether they are in a traditional ‘helping’ profession or not. How so? Because at some point in their lives, most people will find themselves in a situation whereby they have to take on the role of a counsellor, despite having had no training in counselling. This is quite common when a friend or family member needs some guidance. In this situation, in the same way that a paid counsellor must demonstrate core skills, so too, must they. They can demonstrate the same skills by genuinely and actively listening to their friend/relative, showing them unconditional positive regard, empathetic understanding, and then questioning them and paraphrasing, reflecting, and summarising, as necessary.
It is therefore fair to say that core counselling skills are not just limited to counselling, they are important skills that everyone should develop because, one day, you might just find yourself needing them to help someone you love.