How to Become An Unusually Effective Counselor or Coach: 6 Unorthodox Tips that Will Change Everything

Counseling doesn’t always work. Every counselor has heard the stories: clients lamenting previous counseling relationships that were frustrating, disappointing, and ineffectual. We hear the stories and we hope our clients won’t be telling their future counselors such tales of woe about us. In the 20 years I’ve been a counselor, I’ve witnessed plenty of the wrong kind of counseling: either too meek or too arrogant; overly formulaic or aimlessly meandering; stuck in obsolete models of mental health and professional distance.

So what’s the right kind of counseling? What’s the difference that makes a difference? The counseling I teach in Interchange’s Year Long Training, often goes against the traditional wisdom in the field. To pull off the most effective counseling and build the most meaningful counseling relationships, I’ve found that you need to embrace some counter-intuitive, sometimes paradoxical-seeming approaches to counseling.

Here are 6 unorthodox principles that can make you an unusually effective counselor or coach.

1. Love your clients

That’s right. I didn’t just say to behold your clients with unconditional, positive regard. I used the L-word. I said to full-on love them! That’s another human being sitting there in front of you, and unless you can see them as the precious, exquisite, irreplaceable person that they are, you’ll be of limited use to them. When you fail to love, it’s too easy to see your client as a bundle of problems to be processed, as an outcome to be achieved. When instead you strive to see your client as they truly are, beneath surface appearances and surface behaviors, you care about the real person: whether or not they like you, whether or not they’re suffering, whether or not they change. When you love your clients, they feel safe enough to face down their shame, stop pretending, and get real with you. When you love your clients, you can attend to them with the kind of care you give to a beloved partner or parent or child. The art of falling in love is essential for counselors to master, so if something is interfering with your ability to boldly, widely, and unconditionally love, it’s time to get yourself some counseling and remove that obstacle. Loving is a prerequisite for getting down to business in counseling, for caring enough to form a true partnership with your client.

2. Be a real person

What your client needs, more than anything else, is you. Not some blank slate to project their unresolved feelings about authority figures onto, not some partitioned-out, professionally-distant expert who can apply impersonal techniques to their presenting problems. They need the real you: a human being who struggles just like they do, who can empathize with their flaws and their limitations, a human being who lets themselves be moved and hurt and influenced by the very real relationship between counselor and client. The reason they’ve come to you for help is because there are some changes they just can’t ever make on their own. They need a collaborator, a co-conspirator, a fellow adventurer to accompany them on the strange voyage they’re embarking on. That person is you. The more you bring your whole, real self to the relationship, the further they can go. Please abandon whatever you learned about the “role” of counselor. The main reason most people choose to pose in “the counselor role” is because they think they’re not enough as they are. Go to your own counselor, and get a session about the belief that you’re not enough. Then come back to your client and stop posing. It is you, just as you already are, beneath all the roles, that makes the journey of counseling possible. Your client needs you.

3. Become a skillful client

At the beginning of a new counseling relationship, you may know a lot about how to be a counselor, but that doesn’t mean your client knows anything about how to be a client. Unless you teach them, they’ll never know, and unless you know how to do it yourself, you won’t be able to teach them. Ask yourself, how skillful of a client are you? Do you know how get vulnerable? Do you know how to recognize your own defenses and risk dropping them? Do you know how to go for feelings and stay with them? Do you know how to stay real in your connection with your counselor, to make use of your relationship with them for your own healing and development? Do you know how to cut through the chaff and get to the heart of the matter? How skillful are you now, and how much more skillful could you become? You need to be able to client well to master the art of counseling, so you can do things like remove the obstacles to loving your clients or transcend the belief that you’re inadequate as a counselor. But you really need to learn to client well so you can mentor your client in the art of clienting. Unless you can show them how it’s done, how will they find out how to hold up their end of the counseling relationship? Hone the craft of clienting. Never stop working on yourself!

4. Make friends with your clients

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Through the intimacy of counseling, you may know your client better than anyone else in their life knows them. Yet, because counseling is such a rarefied kind of environment, if you only know someone through the medium of counseling sessions, you don’t know them very well at all. Their friends know much more about how they show up the world and what they’re like in their life outside of counseling. This is why you, yes you, should become one of their friends. To become friends, you have to like each other, and figuring out how to like your client, not merely love them will make your relationship much more real. To like a person, you have to learn to appreciate their personality: the strange mix of their unique capacities, their delightful idiosyncrasies, and the awkward, self-limiting, often unfortunate strategies they use to get by. Embracing the whole mixed bag is part of befriending one another. Counselors often avoid becoming friends with their clients because all this realness can get messy. It complicates the counseling relationship. It’s worth it, however, because muddling through the messiness of friendship makes counseling less of a game, less of a tidy fiction, and more about the grittiness of real life. Being friends doesn’t mean you have to spend time together outside of counseling sessions. Friendship provides the opportunity, should you choose it, to encounter your client in the richness of their lives outside the counseling room, but it also means that the contact you make within the counseling room will be more multidimensional, more complex, more human.

5. Aim for discomfort

One of your primary jobs as a counselor is to create safety for your client, the safety they need to take risks and get vulnerable and get to work. If you make things too safe, however, no one will take any risks at all. Your client won’t, and you certainly won’t. Your greatest ally in the fight against playing it too safe is the presence of discomfort. We get “uncomfortable” when we’re feeling something while simultaneously trying not to feel that something. Discomfort in a counseling session, your client’s or yours, is like a big, red, flashing neon arrow saying, “Put some attention here!”. Where the discomfort is, something is waiting to be felt, some challenge is waiting to be confronted. The balance you want to strike is between safety and challenge. When you get it just right, you leave the comfort zone (where everything remains status quo), and enter the stretch zone (where learning and growth happens), without tipping over into the panic zone (where people shut down and the work slows to a halt). Especially important to look out for is your own discomfort as a counselor. If you expect your client to face down their discomfort, you need to face down yours. Are there things you’re afraid to communicate to your client? Are there counseling impulses you’re too timid to follow? Lead the way by taking your own risks as counselor. Show your client how it’s done!

6. Make yourself obsolete

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Do your clients keep working with you primarily because they lack other sources of support in their lives? Of course their relationship with you is unique, because you’re unique, and you’re therefore irreplaceable. In the long term, however, even if your clients still want to maintain a working relationship with you, you don’t want them to need it! Instead, help your clients build more meaningful friendships, ones where the kinds of interactions that happen in counseling can become a part of their daily lives. Help them diversify their sources of support, beyond just you, and beyond that one other person in their life they get support from. And to make their support relationships mutual and sustainable, teach them how to offer support to others. Be especially careful not to hang onto your clients because they provide you a source of income. To truly serve them, help create a world where the best parts of counseling become part of our daily lives and everyday relationships. Expect them to take the counseling out of your office and bring it into their homes and schools and workplaces. Remember, your work isn’t just about your client. It’s about democratizing psychology, about creating a world where counseling is so integrated into our communities, that the job of “counselor” is no longer required.

Check out part II of this article, where I offer up 6 even-more unorthodox tips to take your counseling to the next level!

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.