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So you want to be a counsellor?

John Talbut

This is a guide to some of the issues that you may want to consider if you are thinking of learning more about counselling or perhaps taking up a career in counselling.

What is counselling?

Counselling is a way of helping someone else to change, to feel differently about something, or many things, in their lives.

People often come to a counsellor for help with some sort of a problem. Usually it is not the problem itself that is the difficulty but the way that the person feels about is. It may be that the only problem is the way that the person feels about something, it may be that they feel that there is no way of solving the problem or that they cannot do any of the things that they would need to do to solve it.

The counsellor's role is to help the person to change those feelings so that they can solve the problem themselves. This is a learning process, the person is learning how to deal with their problem.

The key part of counselling is listening - and often that may be all a counsellor needs to do. At other time people can be helped by a counsellor being more active and different counsellors have many different ways in which they can help someone to feel differently about things.

Counselling, psychotherapy and counselling skills.

Counselling is not distinct from psychotherapy. There is a tendency for people who call themselves psychotherapists to charge more, to have longer and more academic training and to have specialised in a particular psychotherapeutic approach. In practice, though, people who call themselves counsellors may work in exactly the same way as a psychotherapist and psychotherapists sometimes call their work counselling.

If, therefore, you are thinking of taking up counselling, consider psychotherapy as well. There tends to be a wider range of approaches that are taught as psychotherapy than as counselling. And it may be easier to earn a living calling yourself a psychotherapist.

In the rest of this article references to counselling include psychotherapy.

The skills used by counsellors can be extremely valuable in many other situations. Management and leadership, education and training and in the caring professions - social work, health work etc. all benefit from skills in helping others to learn and sort their own problems out.

Approaches to counselling and personal change

There are many different approaches to counselling and all of them work for some people some of the time. Any claim that a method is "the right" method or the only method or any approach that makes no reference to other approaches should be treated with suspicion. The Dodo bird conjecture

The different approaches can be put into four categories Maslow (1982):

Another way of categorising different approaches stems from the idea that they are all seeking to help the client to make changes in their subconscious mind - so that they feel differently about things. The approaches differ in the ways in which they try to work with the subconscious: through the conscious mind, through behaviour, through the emotions, through the body, through spirituality or by trying to access the subconscious mind directly.


There is currently no general requirement for counsellors in the UK to have any form of accreditation, qualification or registration. There are no laws to regulate counselling either in the UK or Europe wide. Current attemts to make such laws are being hotly contested and have probaly been abandoned.

Employers may have some ideas about forms of accreditation that they may require but there is no requirement for counsellors in private practice to have any form of accreditation. Probably a majority of counsellors do not in fact have a formal accreditation in counselling or psychotherapy.

There are strong arguments against accreditation:

The whole field of counselling accreditation seems to be characterised by struggles for power and control amongst the accrediting organisations. For more information see Mowbray(1995), Postle (2007) or the The P2P Foundation.

However, despite all this, you may still want to go for some form of accreditation - possibly because potential employers ask for it. These are some of the bodies that are involved with accreditation:

The Independent Practitioners Network (IPN). Becoming a member of one of IPN's member groups may be the most meaningful form of accreditation you can get. IPN as a whole does not accredit people. To become a member of a group you have to satisfy the other group members on an ongoing basis that you are doing what you say you do - and they have to satisfy you about their practice. There will be at least three other members and they can be from a variety of different practices as well as counselling.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) offers one of the most widely recognised counselling accreditations. It is based on hours of training and practice and a written submission.

The UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) is an umbrella organisation for bodies that offer accreditations in psychotherapy. Accreditation is usually by completing an approved training course.

The British Psychological Society accredits psychologists who often practice in ways that are effectively counselling. Some employers, notably in the public sector, tend to employ people qualified as psychologists. Accreditation is usually via an approved degree course.

The real requirements

The essential requirements for someone to be a good counsellor are:


Your real trainers will be your clients. You will learn more from them than from any other form of training. This is why you always need to have supervision. What a good supervisor does is to help you to learn from your clients by giving you an opportunity to reflect on what they have been doing with you. Supervision does not have to be expensive. Sometimes voluntary organisations will provide supervision in return for voluntary counselling. Some training courses include some supervision and there are various possibilities for peer supervision, i.e. counsellors supervising each other.

Otherwise, there is a huge variety of training courses available for anyone involved in counselling. Find out something of what there is. Think first of what interests you, what you would like to learn more about. Secondly, you might want to think about things that you feel weak in or unsure about and want to develop.

Many courses in the field, especially in the more academic institutions, are more about studying the process of counselling than about learning how to be a better counsellor.

Self development

Counselling is an area in which the maxim “physician heal thyself” really should apply. It is very difficult to help others to explore aspects of themselves that we are not open to in our own selves. Either we find ourselves caught up in something in us which our client has brought to light or we subtly and unawarely steer our clients away from things we don't feel comfortable with. Hence counsellors should always be involved in some form of ongoing self-development. This may involve getting you own counselling or therapy or it could be by being part of some sort of therapy or personal development group.


This is something different. It is a form of self-help therapy in which people take it in turns to be “client” and “counsellor”. In this case, however, it is the “client” who is in charge of the session, effectively being their own counsellor with the other person mainly just giving supportive attention.

Co-Counselling helps people to become better at counselling others. It helps to develop all the qualities discussed above. It is an excellent approach for a counsellor's own therapy and self-development as well as giving access to a network of support. It can be used as a basis for supervision with other counsellors who are co-counsellors. And it gives an effective counterweight to the power and control issues involved in counselling - in co-counselling people get used to the idea that clients really can do it for themselves.


These are a few sources that introduce a number of approaches and journals etc. where you can find courses advertised:


Boadella, D., (1991). In the Wake of Reich. London: Coventure Ltd.

Ernst, S., & Goodison, L. (1981). In Our Own Hands: Book of Self-help Therapy. London: Women's Press.

House, R., & Totton,N., (2011). Implausible Professions: Arguments for Pluralism and Autonomy in Psychotherapy and Counselling . Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Jones, D., (1994). Innovative Therapy: A Handbook. Buckingham, Open University Press

Maslow, A., (1982). Toward a Psychology of Being . New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Mowbray, R., (1995). Case Against Psychotherapy Registration: A Conservation Issue for the Human Potential Movement . City: Trans Marginal Press 1995.

Postle, D., (2007). Regulating the Psychological Therapies. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.


Therapy Today (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)


Human Givens

Self and Society (The Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain)


Co-Counselling International

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Updated 13th May 2021