How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Non-Professional Counselor
Many counseling situations do not involve a professional counselor. Whether it is with family, friends, teachers or colleagues, many seek the counsel of others and many offer their counsel to those who seem to need it.
The first and most important thing that the counselor does is accept the person without conditions, no matter what has happened. They do not judge, and in so doing allow the person to talk about their problems without fear of criticism.
Acceptance is always a good first step towards developing a good relationship as when the counselor accepts the person, then the person is much more likely to accept the counselor and whatever they might suggest.
An important and another relatively easy part of counseling is to listen to the person, attentively and without judgement.
Even if the counselor does nothing else, having someone to listen to their woes can be a big help the other person. When you tell someone your troubles it makes you think about them and in doing so you may discover things you can do by yourself. Also when a problem is spoken in this way it can seem less important than when it is being churned over within the internal mind.
Beyond acceptance is showing of concern about the person and their situation. Displays of empathy and care create a closer bond which further increases the likelihood that the person will accept advice given.
Advice by non-professionals is often moderate and based on common-sense, rather than the more specific direction for action that the counselor or therapist might give.
For example when Strupp and Hadley (1979) observed college professors counseling students, they would make suggestions such as
'try to get on with with your father over Thanksgiving weekend...just try...the world isn't lost if you don't succeed.'
Such advice may be criticized for being a bit weak and vague, but it at least nudges the other person into action.
Strupp and Hadley also found that after a while, the counseling sessions degenerated into irrelevant conversation about unrelated matters. This is at least harmless and there is always the opportunity for the person to bring up issues if they wish.
This also highlights a difference between the amateur and professional context, where social norms overtake the amateur counselor whilst the trained person is constantly vigilant for such forces and focuses constantly on helping the client.
There are of course risks when a person who has not been trained in counseling or therapy finds themselves in such a role.
When the other person opens up and talks about their problems, it is very easy for the counselor to take judgemental position, criticizing the person for their actions. This is not a good way of building an effective working relationship as it casts the people into roles of the judge and the accused.
A real danger in an amateur situation is that the 'counselor' gives the person advice that, whilst it is well-meant, is ineffective or makes the situation worse.
It is surprisingly easy for amateur counselors to reverse the situation, for example when the other person describes a problem the 'counselor' responds with a related problem of their own.
This happens as the person's problem simply triggers a memory in the counselor. In everyday conversation this is common and the roles are easily reversed mid-flow. In a counseling context the focus is on the other person and the counselor may only briefly mention a situation of their own for the purpose of showing empathy and not to seek sympathy or advice.
Strupp, H.H. and Hadley, S.W. (1979). Specific versus nonspecific factors in psychotherapy: A controlled study of outcome. Archives of General Psychiatry, 36, 1125-1136.