Psychological counselors work in behavioral health settings such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers and community agencies. To be an effective therapist, you need to develop certain key counseling skills, from your questioning technique to your ability to demonstrate empathy. If you're interested in becoming a counselor, focusing on the following attributes will help you gain your clients' trust and be effective in your role.
5 key counseling skills
The following five skills are essential to success in a career as a psychological counselor.
1. Active listening and responsiveness
As a counselor, a vital part of your job is to help clients feel heard, respected and validated. One way to do this is through active listening, which may include eye contact, nodding, facial expressions and body language. Active listening shows you’re engaged and focused on what your client is saying.
It's part of the job to ensure your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice don’t inadvertently convey frustration, boredom or judgment. How you respond to your clients, both verbally and nonverbally, will affect how comfortable they are sharing with you and whether they choose to continue the counselor–client relationship.
2. Questioning ability
Counselors should be as skilled in asking questions as they are in listening. There are two types of questioning styles used in the counseling field: open and closed.
- Open questions don't require a "yes" or "no" answer and leave room for the client to elaborate. They’re intended as a way for the counselor to gather more information. "How does that make you feel?" is an example of an open question.
- Closed questions are asked in pursuit of specific answers. For example, "Does that make you angry?" elicits a "yes" or "no" response.
To ask the right questions, counselors must be able to build on past sessions with their clients. Good questioning techniques can help a counselor better interpret their clients' responses and gain insight into their experiences.
3. Ability to interpret information
Your clients won't always say exactly what they're feeling or experiencing. You'll need to be able to interpret vague or nonverbal information, such as body language and facial expressions. Counselors also need to be able to perceive general expressions of distress, such as, "I'm just so angry all the time," in the context of the client's experience.
This ability to read between the lines is essential to being a good counselor. What a client doesn't say, or seemingly avoids saying, is just as important — if not more so — than what they are saying. Many victims of intimate partner abuse, for instance, may not be forthcoming about their experiences or may try to downplay or make excuses for their partners' behavior.
Clients must feel like they can trust their counselor. The client needs to trust that the counselor will maintain confidentiality, respect their experiences and withhold judgment. By building a sense of trust, the counselor helps the client feel at ease as they share personal and difficult feelings and information. A client should never feel like a counselor is judging them for thoughts or behavior that don't align with the counselor's own personal sense of ethics, morals, religion or decorum. Some clients might rely on humor as a coping mechanism, so being able to relate to clients on a more personal level can also help establish trust.
As a counselor, you need to display empathy, or the ability to look at the client's situation from their perspective to understand their experience. In essence, this means putting yourself in your client's shoes. You should also be genuine and authentic. Remember, the client must feel safe and nurtured. At the same time, healthy client–counselor relationships depend on the counselor being able to compartmentalize their emotions, maintain professional boundaries and prevent their own experiences or feelings from affecting how they treat clients.
Self-disclosure can be one way to express empathy, but be judicious and try to bring the conversation back to the client. For example, you could say something like, "It's very common for new parents to feel overwhelmed. I certainly did. Do you think you're being too hard on yourself?"
Earn your counseling bachelor’s degree
Enrolling in an online, accredited degree program in counseling is an excellent route to acquiring and practicing these five essential counseling skills. Arizona State University's Bachelor of Science in counseling and applied psychological science program online, for example, is a great path for students who want to learn how to become professional counselors. This ASU Online program offers foundational training in counseling theories, addiction, trauma, lifespan development, group counseling and professional ethics. It also focuses on cultural diversity, touching on everything from age and gender to race and sexual orientation.