Some people think that being a counselor is analogous to being a mechanic. Counselors, in this view, perform the psychological equivalent of realigning a client's suspension or putting in new shock absorbers. Once the adjustments are made, the client's problems are solved.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Unlike automobiles, people don't come with manuals. Everyone is different and effective counseling can't be done on a one-size-fits-all basis. Counseling programs instill the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to begin working as a counselor. But to meet the challenge of counseling, counselors must bring their own life experiences and humanity to the table.
The most common definition of counselor is advisor or "one who gives advice." But a better one is "guide." While part of counseling may very well be giving advice, most counselors are trying to help their clients discover their own solutions, not provide solutions for them. They guide clients along the road to finding a solution. And the forms that guidance take can be as varied as people themselves. That means a counselor needs both creativity and flexibility. The idea of taking a temporary job as a barista might be greeted with relief by one out-of-work executive and with absolute horror by another.
It all starts with listening very carefully to the client.
It's been suggested that Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, is the true patron saint of counseling. Why? Well, for one thing, he's reputed to be the remover of obstacles. Just as importantly, he has big ears and a small mouth. He's a good listener who never violates a client's confidentiality. A counselor is often the first person a client has met for a long time who truly listens to their problems with sympathy and respect. While good listening won't solve a client's problems by itself, it's the first step on the road, and a very important one. It also helps establish trust.
To understand the importance of building trust, think back to your own life. How many times have you rejected good advice from other people simply because you didn't trust them?
Once clients understand that you have a genuine interest in helping them, they'll be much more inclined to listen to you with an open mind. Together, you can explore possible solutions. Just as people can't see the tips of their own noses while everyone else can, often clients can't see some very obvious path out of their difficulties. This rarely ends up with the counselor telling a client what to do; it's more a case of counselors helping clients see options they might not have recognized on their own. The client is the expert at living his or her own life and is the one who needs to make life changes. A counselor is a partner who helps the client along the way.
Helping with honesty, empathy, and flexibility will serve your clients better than all the book training in the world.