Essential skills for a career in counselling

Jemma Smith, Editor
June, 2016

The work of a counsellor is stressful, rewarding and in some cases life changing. If you possess a keen ear for listening and a desire to improve the lives of others then a job as a counsellor could suit you

Once fully qualified there are opportunities to work in a variety of settings but what skills and characteristics must you possess in order to be successful and how can you stand out to employers? We asked three counselling experts for their advice.

To set yourself above the competition in the eyes of potential employers you need to demonstrate that you know when to stop talking and start listening

Necessary skills

To be effective in your role you'll need to possess an array of personal and professional qualities. While relevant qualifications will enable you to practice, it's personal skills and personality traits that will make you a good counsellor.

For a successful and fulfilling career you need to build up a reputation of trust and positive results. To do this you will need:

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 Gerry Willmore, head of professional standards at the National Counselling Society. 'An effective counsellor can communicate empathic understanding as well as being able to listen carefully.' Ammanda Major, counsellor and clinical operations manager 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-judgmental 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 Gerry.

The ability to maintain confidentiality and professional boundaries

Confidentiality issues need to be strictly observed in your role. 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 Gerry.

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.


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

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.

Search for postgraduate courses in counselling.

'A diploma in counselling is considered the absolute minimum. A higher-level qualification will help when looking for work. Completing a course accredited by a professional body is a distinct advantage,' says Gerry.

Job opportunities

Once qualified you'll be able to work in a range of sectors including education, healthcare and voluntary organisations. The majority of counsellors make a living by setting up their own private practice and combining this with part-time work although this 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 health 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 charities and agencies focusing on mental health, homelessness, domestic violence, adoption, the rehabilitation of offenders and family relationships etc.

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

According to Ammanda to set yourself above the competition in the eyes of potential employers you need to demonstrate that you know when to stop talking and start listening. Also, being a member of a governing body such as the BACP will help, as this shows recruiters that you observe and maintain their high professional standards.

Career progression

As of yet there is no well-developed career structure for counsellors although opportunities for progression are increasing. Continuing professional development is a constant feature of a counselling career.

'Successful private practice becomes increasingly viable with some years of experience and further 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,' says Gerry.

'You could move into clinical supervision,' suggests Ammanda. '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.'

Another option is to use your knowledge and skills to move into other settings such as teaching, social or support work.

If you're chasing a glamourous, high-salaried career counselling probably isn't for you but if you possess empathy and the drive to make a positive difference to people's lives, in industries which could really use your expertise, then why not considering a career in counselling?

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