Counselors have found it challenging to settle on a single definition of their profession or agree on the best counseling methods and techniques to treat clients (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).
Counseling is a widely valued craft that provides vital support for those in need, helping them engage in the right behavior to resolve their problems (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).
Finding appropriate counseling approaches for use with clients is essential. Practitioners must acquire a broad base of counseling methods suitable for individual clients, rather than forcing clients to fit one approach (Corey, 2013).
This article draws attention to many of the best methods available to counselors and when to use them.
Counseling has many methods and techniques for changing human behavior. Together, such approaches deal with feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and while mostly supportive, they can sometimes be confrontational (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).
Counselors “draw on different techniques to change the forms in which they deliver messages to clients for the purpose of relating truths in ways that can be heard” (Conte, 2009, p. 2). How counselors engage and interact with their clients rests on their chosen methods and how and when they use them.
When used effectively, counseling methods can elicit changes in how clients view themselves, their world, and their relationships with families, friends, and colleagues (Conte, 2009).
While appropriate methods are crucial during counseling, clients typically place more value on the counselor’s personality than their methods. The outcome of treatment is therefore intimately linked to the personal and interpersonal components of the counselor (Corey, 2013).
Corey (2013, p. 19) explains that the therapeutic relationship and the methods used influence treatment outcome, “but it is essential that the methods used support the therapeutic relationship being formed with the client.”
5 Skills of Effective Counselors
The following list consists of highly valued skills necessary to become an effective counselor.
While far from exhaustive, they provide a helpful overview of where value can be added through skill practice and training (modified from Conte, 2009; Nelson-Jones, 2014):
Actively paying attention to clients may seem obvious, yet it is a skill that cannot be taken for granted. Showing an interest in the client must be accompanied by presence and focus. Effective counselors must put aside their own issues and any worries that are irrelevant to the session.
Counselors should assess, but not judge, what the client is saying. “By accepting people without conditions, therapists are able to avoid the error of judgment and set themselves up for a much greater likelihood of being heard” (Conte, 2009, p. 21).
Telling someone something about yourself and your life has risks in counseling. After all, when a client comes for support, simply swapping stories is unlikely to lead to a positive treatment outcome. Therefore, with self-disclosure, counselors must become skilled at knowing when to give back (reciprocity) and when to keep their personal life hidden (veiled).
Once rapport is built between the counselor and the client and a contract established, the counselor must be capable of skillfully refocusing clients when they deviate. Such a skill requires practice, as it may require cutting clients off or confronting them to stay on topic.
The counselor must be comfortable with both giving and receiving feedback. Practicing what they preach means that they can offer the client essential insights into their thinking and behavior while receiving input on what is (or is not) working without resistance.
Effective counselors must be aware at a meta-level of the counseling skills they are using (and failing to use) and how they could be improved while tailoring them to the client’s specific needs.
8 Popular Counseling Methods
Counseling is as much an art as a process that the practitioner can improve with practice and the right tools and methods (Conte, 2009).
Many methods are available to counselors or therapists, all designed to bring about change in others. The following list provides a brief description of three of the most helpful and popular (Corey, 2013; Conte, 2009; Nelson-Jones, 2014):
Empty chair technique
“The technique is simple, but the outcome can be profound” (Conte, 2009, p. 180). The counselor asks the client to talk openly to the person they have issues (but are often no longer in contact) with, while imagining them sitting in an empty chair in front of them. This technique can be a powerful tool for bringing up strong emotions and profound realizations.
The client is asked to picture their ideal self – how they will feel and behave if they are all that they want to be. The greater the distance between this ideal self and their present, real self, the lower their self-esteem may be. This technique can help create a path to higher self-esteem and greater congruence.
A helpful approach for practicing action skills, role-play also helps clients release and explore feelings in relationships and situations from their past, present, and future. The technique can be particularly valuable in assisting clients to see the situation from another perspective, uncovering more emotions, and heightening their awareness.
2 Methods for flawless interviewing
Interviewing is an essential technique for professional counselors, beginning with the initial client assessment and continuing through treatment (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).
Two valuable mathods for aspiring interviewers include (modified from Conte, 2009):
The listener (counselor) confirms they have understood the message conveyed by the speaker. It involves more than simply repeating back what has been said, which is likely to interrupt their flow and become annoying. Instead, the skilled counselor reflects on what is said (content) and how it is said (process), leading to a deeper understanding of the client.
It is vital that counselors understand their clients’ stories. They must be careful not to use their experience to place people too quickly in categories or give them labels. Instead, listening to their client’s narrative can offer insightful perspectives into their lives.
3 Handy communication methods
Nelson-Jones (2014) suggests there are five main ways counselors can communicate with clients:
Verbal communication – messages sent with words
Vocal communication – messages sent through the voice (such as pitch and emphasis)
Bodily communication – messages sent by the body (including eye contact, facial expression, etc.)
Touch – With obvious caveats and risks, communication can involve a touch to the arm or shoulder varied by pressure and duration.
Taking action – Non-face-to-face communication may include sending an email or a text as an appointment reminder.
The following three methods are important aspects of communication in counseling, each involving one or more of the communication channels above (modified from Conte, 2009; Nelson-Jones, 2014):
Showing a mutual understanding between the speaker (client) and listener (counselor) and involving both verbal and nonverbal communication, active listening can test whether we are attending to the client. It typically involves:
Nodding when appropriate
Staying on topic
Being able to accurately summarize what is being said
Making the client feel heard
Effective active listening shows clients that you are interested and is vital to a successful therapeutic alliance.
Unsurprisingly, good questioning techniques are vital for the counselor. Appropriate questions can help the client talk about the process – thoughts and feelings – behind their actions rather than simply describing what happened.
While it is often not appropriate to compare their own difficult times with those of their clients, it is vital that counselors can empathize with what they are saying. Counselors must be able to put themselves into their client’s situation.
12 Helpful Counseling Methods & Approaches
There are many counseling approaches with specific methods that are appropriate for clients in different situations or concerns.
2 Gestalt Therapy techniques
“Gestalt therapy is not a time to talk about one’s experiences; instead, every moment of therapy is an experience to embrace and confront” – its goal is self-awareness (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015, p. 189).
The following are two very practical Gestalt exercises (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015; Corey, 2013):
The reversal exercise
The counselor asks the client to play the role of their opposite; for example, a timid person pretends to be an exhibitionist. The technique helps clients recognize and accept the negative and positive sides of their character by plunging them into the very thing that typically fills them with dread.
Staying with the feeling
Clients typically wish to escape unpleasant emotions and fearful stimuli. This technique encourages the opposite. The counselor urges them to stay with them and enter more deeply into what they wish to avoid.
2 Best humanistic methods
“Developed by Carl Rogers, person-centered therapy is an optimistic, humanistic, and phenomenological approach to therapy” that suggests we all have the capacity for dramatic growth (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015, p. 32).
Two valuable and fascinating methods include:
Unconditional positive regard
The counselor must value the client as a separate and unique individual, accepting their feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and entire being without conditions (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015).
Expressive arts therapy
Carl Rogers’s daughter, Natalie Rogers, extended her father’s person-centered approach to spontaneous creative expression. Expressive arts therapy allows clients to create visual, written, musical, or movement-based art to express their feelings while gaining insight from the activity (Corey, 2013).
Methods for group counseling
Group therapy and counseling sessions are as effective as individual sessions for a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obesity (Novotney, 2019).
While some methods used for individuals can be scaled up for groups, others are more specific to the dynamics and interactions present:
Making the rounds
Each group member is asked to leave their seat to speak to another (saying, for example, “I don’t trust you because …”) or to do something. The technique aims to risk, confront, disclose the self, grow, change, and experiment with new behaviors. It provides a valuable opportunity for engaging clients who are holding back or fearful of trusting others (Corey, 2013).
This technique can be applied in any setting, including groups. Motivational interviewing uses counselor-led questioning to evoke the desire for change in the individual. While the outcomes are less predictable in a group environment, research suggests its validity to encourage, generate, and explore change talk (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).
6 Methods for couples counseling
The ability to solve relationship problems is a key part of any relationship and typically involves the following methods (Williams, 2012):
Define the problem
Identify and define the problem (often represented as the core theme of arguments).
Find common ground
Find out what both members of the couple agree on.
Propose multiple solutions
Each person comes up with a set of possible options.
Weigh up the pros and cons of each solution
Identify the positives and negatives of each option.
Agree on one solution and try it as an experiment.
Review the outcome
Evaluate the effectiveness of the solution. Did it solve the problem for both members of the relationship?
Becoming better at solving problems and identifying a mutually agreeable solution helps avoid future conflict.
Techniques for Treating Specific Disorders
We have many helpful articles that introduce methods for treating specific disorders in counseling, including anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Techniques for managing anxiety
Becoming more mindful is effective at reducing anxiety (Shapiro, 2020).
“Self-esteem is essential for psychological survival” (McKay & Fanning, 2016, p. 1.).
Low self-esteem, often caused by old wounds relating to rejection and hurt, can cause enormous pain (McKay & Fanning, 2016).
One of the best ways to increase self-esteem is to render your self-critic useless (modified from McKay & Fanning, 2016):
Repeating the following affirmations (and many others) can help keep the self-critic at bay:
I am worthwhile because I am alive and breathing, and I feel and am aware. I feel love and pain and do my best. I am a good person. I am like every other human that has lived. We are all trying to survive and do the best we can.
Asking the price
Ask yourself what price you pay for the attacks from your inner critic. Poor self-esteem can cost a great deal in all areas of our life.
It is helpful to create a list of the costs of your criticism and form them into a statement.
Talking back with statements such as, “You make me defensive and fearful. And you are holding me back and stopping me from being happy” can disarm the critic.
Coping With Grief: 3 Useful Methods
Worden (2018) offers several practical methods for moving forward with grief counseling. However, they should always follow an assessment of the client’s personality and behavior. They include (modified from Worden, 2018):
Tough words may sometimes be necessary to evoke feelings – for example, saying someone’s partner has “died” rather than the client has “lost them.”
Writing a letter to the deceased can be a helpful way to express feelings and take care of unfinished business.
It can be helpful for the bereaved to role-play forthcoming situations that they fear will be emotionally upsetting.
Counseling Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available for counselors to support their clients through difficult times or settings and move toward meaningful goals.
Our free resources include:
Types of Speech Useful prompts to become more aware during counseling by identifying and reflecting on talking styles.
Couples Counseling Assessment Review and assess how a couple met, what drew them to each other, and what led to their current difficulties.
Employee Counseling Assessment Form A helpful worksheet for understanding and discussing an issue or event that has arisen at work and led to an employee referral for counseling.
Compassionate Chair Work
An effective way to deal with low self-compassion is by finding a way to relate differently to the inner critical voice.
In this exercise, three chairs represent the voice of self-criticism, the sensation of being judged, and the perspective of a supportive friend or counselor. Similarly to the empty chair technique mentioned above, the client is encouraged to assess a problem from different perspectives.
Three Loving Connections
Positive emotions are essential for our mental and physical wellbeing. This exercise cultivates the emotion of love by seeking out three meaningful interactions each day and reflecting on them each night.
Step one – Look for three opportunities to interact and connect with others.
Step two – Reflect on your three interactions. Did you feel in tune with the other person? Did you feel close to them?
Seeking positive micro-moments can promote positive emotions.
17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, check out this collection of 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Individuals turn to counselors at times of need to help them handle problems, overcome obstacles, and make changes in their lives.
Counseling techniques vary in their approach, intended outcomes, and theoretical underpinnings. They typically all share the capacity to help people change or move forward.
Such methods are typically supportive but on occasion confrontational, forcing the clients to reconsider their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
While appropriate methods are vital to treatment success, so too is the therapeutic relationship – the bond formed between counselor and client. Together, they create an environment conducive to learning, growth, and change.
Initial and ongoing training is essential to competent and versatile mental health practitioners, but so is practice. An effective counselor must recognize when counseling methods are appropriate for the clients and become skilled in their delivery.
Why not consider some of the counseling methods in this article for use with your clients, adding to your portfolio of helpful and practical interventions?
Conte, C. (2009). Advanced techniques for counseling and psychotherapy. Springer.
Corey, G. (2013). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Cengage.
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. New Harbinger.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change. Guilford Press.
Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills. Sage.
Novotney, A. (2019). Keys to great group therapy. Monitor on Psychology, 50(4), 66. Retrieved March 24, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/04/group-therapy
Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. Aster.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2015). Study guide for counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques (2nd ed.). Wiley.
Williams, M. (2012). Couples counseling: A step by step guide for therapists. Viale.
Worden, J. W. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.