Essential skills for a career in counselling

Jemma Smith, Editor
October, 2018

Having the right combination of skills will ensure that, once you become a counsellor, you're providing the best possible service to those who need it most

Once you're fully qualified there are opportunities to work in a variety of settings. However, for a successful and fulfilling career, you'll need the right mix of personal skills and personality traits.

Gain an insight from the experts as to the skills you'll need to be a good counsellor.

Excellent listening and communication skills

'The essence of counselling is the establishment of a therapeutic relationship in which the client experiences being heard and understood with sensitivity,' explains Kate Mahoney, professional standards manager at the National Counselling Society (NCS). 'An effective counsellor can communicate empathic understanding as well as being able to listen carefully.' Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at counselling charity Relate, agrees. 'Advanced listening skills are important, these can be learned through training courses although some people find that this skill comes more naturally than others.'

The ability to develop a non-judgemental approach

A counsellor's job isn't to pass judgement or give advice on a client's actions or feelings; instead through talking therapy they aim to help clients see things clearly, from a different, more optimistic viewpoint. 'To do this client's need to feel free to express their thoughts and feelings without judgement, criticism or rejection. As a counsellor you need to contain and manage your own reactions in a supportive and professional manner,' says Kate.

An understanding of confidentiality and professional boundaries

Confidentiality issues need to be strictly observed. Only in exceptional circumstances should anything that is discussed in client sessions be passed on to third parties other than the counsellor's clinical supervisor. You will also need to be aware of, and keep up to date with, the ethical and legal responsibilities you have towards your clients. In terms of professional boundaries Ammanda believes that clients should be supported to come to their own decisions and conclusions without being influenced by their counsellor's views.

Resilience, patience and humility

The work of a counsellor can be very intense and demanding. 'You need to develop sufficient emotional robustness and a high degree of self-reflexivity,' says Ammanda. 'You will also need a capacity for self-care and a willingness to recognise your own limitations,' adds Kate.

A genuine interest in others

Not technically a skill, but essential none the less. For a lasting and gratifying career you will need to remain curious and committed to improving the emotional wellbeing of your clients. Being able to demonstrate real interest in clients' individual situations will promote a positive and trusting client-counsellor relationship.

Counselling training

You don't need a degree to train to be a counsellor as there are separate training courses available.

'Training providers offer a number of options at entry level, as well as further training to support qualification and career progression,' explains Kate. 'Providers also offer courses in a variety of specialist areas such as children and young people, trauma therapy or couples counselling. The options are vast and enable you to choose a flexible programme that allows you to learn more about a particular area of interest.'

The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) recommend a three-step process to qualification, which involves an introductory course to counselling and gaining a certificate and diploma. For more information visit BACP - Career in counselling.

First degrees in related subjects such as education, nursing, psychology and social work are also useful and may help you to secure a place on a counselling or postgraduate course.

Higher-level qualifications, such as Masters courses accredited by BACP are available and study at this level could give you a head start in the hunt for work, as it demonstrates your commitment to the profession and highlights your breadth of experience.

Search for postgraduate courses in counselling.

Careers in counselling

Once qualified the majority of counsellors make a living by setting up their own private practice and combining this with part-time work, however becoming self-employed requires experience.

Within the education sector you could work in schools, colleges and universities, helping to support students with study and personal issues. Opportunities exist in the healthcare sector, although NHS posts are limited. You could find work in hospitals, GP surgeries, community and occupational healthcare teams helping clients with a range of problems. The voluntary sector also provides an array of job options. You could work for the charity sector focusing on mental health, homelessness, domestic violence, adoption, the rehabilitation of offenders and family relationships.

Throughout your counselling training and work experience it’s up to you to decide which area you feel is most suited to you.

According to Ammanda to set yourself above the competition you need to demonstrate that you know when to stop talking and start listening. Kate also suggests becoming a member of a governing body such as the BACP, NCS, UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) or equivalent. 'This will help, as it shows recruiters that you observe and maintain their high professional standards.'

Currently there is no well-developed career structure for counsellors although opportunities for progression are increasing. 'Guidelines produced by recognised professional associations can support counsellors with their progression. Continuing professional development is a constant feature of the job,' says Kate.

'Successful private practice becomes increasingly viable with some years of experience and further counselling training can support specialisation in areas such as bereavement, substance abuse or sexual health. The management of agencies offering counselling and related activities is another progression possibility.'

You could also move into clinical supervision. 'This involves helping counsellors to monitor their work. In this capacity you would provide quality assurance that their work is being ethically and safely carried out,' explains Ammanda.

Another option is to use your knowledge and counselling skills to move into settings such as teaching and social work.

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