What is Counselling About?

December 1, 2019

Fellow, Dr. Kwong Wai Man

I offer here a crude version of what counselling is about. It is about helping people to address troubled experiences, often described as ‘a problem’. Why do people perceive themselves facing problems so difficult that they turn to seek professional help? How did ‘a problem’ come into being and become aversive to a person’s sense of well-being? Counselling is about helping the person making changes that respond positively to troubled experiences. How do people change (presumably for good)? Put it differently, how do counsellors bring about client change? It is the ‘how’ in the last two questions that counselling is concerned about.

Counselling takes place primarily through verbal medium a conversation between the counsellor and the client, but the non-verbal part also communicates in the encounter between two people. It is basic to the craft of counselling that the counsellor is able to effectively use the conversational medium to engage the client in a thoughtful articulation of her/his troubled experience and to scaffold the conversational process towards self-directed change by the client, sometimes being facilitated by the counsellor.

There are things done by a counsellor in a counselling conversation, such as listening, acknowledging, assuring, probing…. The counsellor, by artfully joining, sometimes leading, the conversational process, support the client to disclose troubled experiences by seeking to understand the client’s point of view, and provide a structure and focus for the client to reflexively examine how such troubled experiences

came about, what meaning it carried to her/him, and how they disrupted her/his sense of


Counselling is not simply about giving information and advices, though information is occasionally given if appropriate and in a timely manner. Preoccupation with information giving, particularly if it is not what the client actively sought, will likely interfere with the counsellor’s quality of understanding of the client (the client’s affective experience in particular) and undermine her/his sense of agency.

Counselling is not about handing out advice, until and unless the counsellor knows what advice the client needs and will examine it with critically before heeding. If the counsellor is too eager in giving advice, s/he risks alienating the client if the latter felt being put in an one-down position.

Counselling is not about influencing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors by persuasion, though interpersonal influence is what goes on in the counselling process. Influence attempts, if ever the counsellor considers appropriate, should be weighed in terms of how such influences may be received and followed through by the client in ways that may serve the client’s best interest. The latter is an ethical requirement; it also requires the counsellor making ethical judgment. Influence by persuasion, even if the client complies, amounts to inducing change by an external agent, but not self-driven change.

Counselling is not interviewing, though it takes the overt form of interviewing – verbal transaction between a counsellor and a client. The counsellor is not an interviewer hosting a talk with the client. Rather, the client is the person to host the talk because it should be a talk that will serve the client’s


Counselling involves a basic acceptance of the client’s perception and feeling. Otherwise, the client will not accept the counsellor’s attempt to help. Counselling involves the counsellor responding to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of the client in an empathic way because counselling help is always premised on reaching a new, shared understanding of the troubled experiences that motivated the client to seeking counselling help in the first place.

Counselling is voluntary because it is about the life of another person. Involuntary clients will likely reject/resent the imposition of clienthood by the counsellor’s initial attempt to relate to them as ‘a client’.

Put in a nutshell, counsellor education is about enabling would-be counsellors to learn and develop the craft of artfully using conversation as a medium for a client to talk troubled things through with a listening and caring other.