Personal Qualities of a Competent Counsellor
Peter Ruddell and Berni Curwen
A common view exists that the helping professions consist of many people who have been psychologically wounded. A recent study investigated the wounded healer phenomenon among trainee counsellors and found this not to be so (Hanshew, 1998). A further study found that 'personality traits contribute to the prediction of counselor trainee effectiveness . . . trainees who are better adjusted, alert, social, assertive, confdent and verbally fuent, tend to be more effective than trainees who appear socially awkward, distant, or who have diffculty establishing relationships' (Williams, 1999). Scragg, Bor & Watts (1999) found that the personality traits of trainee counselling psychologists infuenced their preferences for particular models of counselling. In this chapter, we will consider some of the personal qualities which we believe are important for you to become a resourceful and competent counsellor. Counselling itself usually involves aiding others to achieve balance in their lives or in some particular aspects of their lives. Similarly, the counsellor will not necessarily have all of the positive qualities we discuss developed to a high degree but will have a reasonable mix of them.
GENERAL PERSONAL QUALITIES AND COUNSELLING SPECIFIC QUALITIES
The personal qualities of a counsellor might be thought of as divided between general qualities needed to succeed in any venture or profession and personal qualities needed specifcally for counselling. For example, if you are disorganised to the extent that you always fail to get to appointments on time, this could present a major problem.
Therefore the ability to manage your time and yourself effciently and effectively is an important general personal quality for counsellors. If you intend to eventually become a selfemployed counsellor, perhaps working at a number of different locations, these qualities will be even more necessary. In this chapter, we will frst consider the most general qualities we believe a counsellor requires and move towards those which are more specifc to counselling and allied professions. However, the distinction is somewhat arbitrary and therefore some of the qualities we highlight as being particularly germain to counselling may strike you as necessary to other professions too and vice versa.
Two general qualities needed by a counsellor are an adequate level of intelligence and a reasonable memory. Intelligence is involved in a number of the other qualities we go on to discuss in this chapter but aside from these it is necessary for a number of other aspects of counselling. Starting with counselling training, it is necessary for processing all of the material within the course and internalising various components of the chosen model(s) of counselling. These are taken into the counselling sessions (if you progress to this stage) and here you require adequate intelligence to piece together in a comprehensive and meaningful way the sometimes disparate elements of the life of the individual before you. This will sometimes involve you in a form of detective work along with factfnding missions to fully understand the diffculties facing your client. Here you may sometimes need to be able to add complexity and at other times to simplify a complicated picture. It will also be important to be able to develop a new meaning to ft the 'facts' the client presents on some occasions -a technique known as 'reframing' (Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974). A reasonably good memory is needed for this, as well as for remembering the important details of a number of different individuals on your caseload if each is to feel respected by you.
Respect for other individuals is at the heart of counselling and can very quickly be lost if you do not honour a client's confdentiality. While confdentiality is a component which will be covered in counsellor training, and to this extent can be learnt, the counsellor's desire to maintain a client's confdentiality, as well as respecting the individual, both fow from the quality of integrity.
A further general quality which it will be useful for you to have to a reasonable degree if you are to become a counsellor is the ability to work autonomously. At frst glance this may seem odd as counselling always involves working with people. However, within the counselling session the counsellor is required constantly to make decisions about interventions and move the therapy in a particular direction. Doing so involves counsellor confdence with the therapy process which itself entails training, intelligence, memory and qualities discussed elsewhere in this chapter. The process also involves developing a working therapeutic relationship with the client and this will also inform the direction that therapy will take at any particular point within a session. Sometimes it will be important to be able to tolerate uncertainty and allow your clients to make their own choices. Conversely you will also need to be able to act decisively and be comfortable acting directively when appropriate. None of this is intended to deny that supervision, which occurs between sessions, can to some extent reduce the degree of autonomy required by the counsellor. Nevertheless, situations occur within the session which demand your ability to make decisions without professional input from others at that time.
Within counselling, counselling psychology and psychotherapy, much emphasis is currently placed on evidencebased practice to ensure that the most effective and effcient therapy is offered for a given person and their problems. Keeping abreast of recent research through continuing professional development requires not only a reasonable memory and degree of intelligence but also a considerable degree of perseverance if you are to offer a good enough service to prospective clients.
Such perseverance is closely linked to stamina. Stamina is an attribute which will be useful not only for the rigours of training but also to enable you, as a counsellor, to remain with a person through sometimes very diffcult and upsetting aspects of their life and in some cases to death, without severely affecting your ability to continue working creatively with other individuals on your counselling caseload. Supervision will play a key part in aiding this process but will alone be insuffcient without a degree of stamina.
Related to stamina is the ability to focus and to see the wider picture for a client even though he or she may wander. A degree of disintegration comes with a number of diffcult psychological conditions and it is essential that the counsellor is able to remain focused in the midst of such life. This focus will be better maintained if the counsellor has the ability to heighten or decrease the emotional intensity within the session.
Whatever form of counselling, counselling psychology or psychotherapy you eventually engage in, and regardless of both the specifc problem area (for example, HII, alcohol abuse, bereavement, cancer, disfgurement, eating disorders, relationship problems, sexual abuse, sexual problems or substance misuse) and the therapeutic model which underpins your practice (for example, cognitive behavioural, multimodal, personcentred or psychodynamic), you will probably be faced with clients who are each very different from the other. Personality characteristics, socioeconomic class, intelligence, education, cultural background, ethnic group, fnancial status, geographical location, religious and political beliefs, spiritual leanings and gender are but a few of the factors which help to make each of us unique individuals. A reasonable degree of maturity is therefore necessary to be able to interact effectively with differing individuals who present with a wide variety of problems. Part of that maturity is the ability frst to realise that individuals exist within much wider systems and second to accept that you will not necessarily be able fully to understand the totality of that wider system. A recognition of this diversity coupled with appropriate training will hopefully enable you to answer the important question posed by Paul (1967): 'What treatment, by whom, is most effective for this individual with that specifc problem and under which set of circumstances?'
Being a good listener
The ability to listen is an important quality in a both caring and noncaring professions, but is perhaps the most essential quality necessary for counselling. Listening has a particular meaning within counselling and if you decide to take up counselling training, some of this will be devoted to developing a range of different listening skills. But prior to training the potential counsellor will probably have the ability to listen to what other people have to say, and be able to maintain this ability in the face of individuals who may recount events which at times may not be exceptional, entertaining or interesting. If you fnd it diffcult to listen to another person for more than a couple of sentences without jumping in with ideas and long utterances of your own, if you monopolise conversations and keep interrupting, or if you cannot curb your tendency to complete other people's sentences for them, then you may fnd counselling training particularly diffcult.
We previously suggested that the ability to act autonomously was an important counsellor characteristic. When coupled with listening, a further quality emerges of being able to stand back or engage more fully. As you gain ever greater knowledge about psychological problems through study, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing you are ever the expert. It is important to be able to suspend your 'expert role' within sessions and demonstrate your active listening skills.
Flexibility and unconditional positive regard
Coupled with seeing others within the context of a wider system are the qualities of fexibility and openmindedness. For example, if you are a socialist (or conservative, or Christian) and only able to value people with similar views to your own, or if you narrowly demand or deny political correctness, it will prove diffcult for you to be a useful practitioner not only to those who have differing views to yours but even to those with similar views. The reason for this is that the inability to accept other people as they are, with warts and all and regardless of their views, suggests that you have rigidly held beliefs. At some level you are demanding that people be different to the way they are. This will usually be countertherapeutic. Challenging rigidly held beliefs and helping people to adopt a philosophy of selfacceptance and acceptance of others is central to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy developed by Ellis (see, for example, Ellis, 1979). Recognising all humans as worthwhile in this way and being able to convey unconditional positive regard to people with different views on life to your own is a central quality in counselling. If you entirely lack this, it is likely to render you unsuitable to practise as a counsellor, counselling psychologist or psychotherapist. Rather than opening your mind and heart to others, you will be closed and judgemental. Of course, we all differ in the degree to which we are able to accept others and regard them positively. However, the quality of openmindedness to the extent that you can positively regard others who have different views to your own goes hand in hand with being fexible. Another way in which you will beneft from the quality of fexibility is connected with the way you relate to others. If you are to relate to a wide range of people with differing views and backgrounds, the ability to adopt different styles of interaction with a client to discover the interpersonal approach that may best beneft the particular therapeutic relationship may be helpful.
The term, 'authentic chameleon' has been coined by Lazarus (1993). It is important to distinguish between being genuine and being an authentic chameleon. An analogy may help. You will probably relate to your partner, young son or daughter, older son or daughter, mother and father quite differently while being sincere with each. If one son is bright while another has learning diffculties, you will probably engage differently with each while loving both. To try to interact in the same way with each would be to deny both their individuality. Doing so would indicate a naive view of personal relationships and ignore that as a human being you may take on a wide variety of roles while retaining your authenticity or 'youness'. You may be just as authentic as a mother, partner, writer, musician or artist, but fulfl each of your human roles differently. Similarly, you will relate best to a wide range of individuals as a counsellor, psychotherapist or counselling psychologist if you are able to bring a range of personal styles of interaction to the counselling relationship or be an authentic chameleon.
BASIC COUNSELLING SKILLS
Within social sciences generally, a debate continues about the relative importance of nature and nurture to organisms in general and to human beings in particular. In the context of this chapter, you may ask yourself the following question: Is it possible to acquire the qualities necessary to become a counsellor? In other words, are they innate qualities or learnable skills? We believe it is a bit of both. If you had all of the qualities and skills we discuss, developed to a high degree, you would certainly have the potential to become a competent and resourceful counsellor. Few potential counsellors are fortunate enough to start from such an advanced level. To succeed as a counsellor, counselling psychologist or psychotherapist you will need to have a reasonable mix of the qualities we identify as a foundation for development. If you have none of them, it is unlikely you would succeed in such professions (but also unlikely that you would wish to be engaged in this work).
Truax and Carkhuff (1967) identify fve core elements thought to be essential for good counselling to take place:
They later identifed empathy, genuineness and warmth to be the core conditions necessary for effective counselling to take place.
Empathy is often considered to be one of the most important qualities required by a counsellor (e.g. Rogers, 1957). Empathy is where the counsellor understands the client in a meaningful and accurate way and it can be achieved on different levels. Empathy has been likened to climbing inside the skin of another individual and taking a walk around. Some people distinguish empathy from sympathy. Sympathy has taken on a negative connotation in recent times as it has become associated with being patronising. A phrase which captures and caricatures sympathy is: 'there, there; never mind; it will all turn out okay'. Sympathy is peripheral while empathy is central and involves the whole individual in a meaningful and realistic way.
We now consider two main levels of empathy. First, the counsellor communicates his or her understanding by showing the client that he or she understands the client's world and viewpoint through both verbal and nonverbal communication. This demonstrates that the counsellor has listened and understands how the client feels. Second, the counsellor infuences the client and enables him or her to dig deeper into his or her personal issues to take a more objective look at what is happening in his or her life. You will fnd this process requires the qualities of genuineness and respect and an ability to build rapport and gently challenge the client's perception where appropriate. Hence, advanced empathy is not simply about agreeing with a client. If you are unable to challenge or confront a client about appropriate issues, it may be that you have an overly strong need to be liked or approved of by others. This may be an obstacle to you becoming a counsellor and will require you to work on this area before moving forward (see 'Contraindications').
Genuineness can be explained as knowing yourself and like other qualities is one we all have to varying degrees. We all have many roles in life; for example, husband, wife, partner, brother, sister, parent, friend or colleague. As a counsellor it is benefcial to identify as many of your prejudices and stereotypes which contribute to your unique personality. Genuineness is being yourself in every situation and not attempting to be like another individual: you do not change your attitudes towards people just because you are in another role. This is not to be confused with the desirability for you to alter your style of interaction with different people (as described above under 'Flexibility and unconditional positive regard'). Doing so will involve you in becoming more selfaware and recognising your own feelings if you are to be viewed as an authentic person. This process requires both genuineness and fexibility.
Warmth and unconditional positive regard go hand in hand and are important factors in building a therapeutic alliance with your client provided they are successfully conveyed. Qualities of warmth are conveyed through smiling, gestures such as nods and head position and open postures. Warmth is expressed mainly through body language and nonverbal communication and is usually involuntary but can be focused upon and altered through counselling training. It is important not to force these attributes or lose them in the intensity of the moment, but to allow yourself to relax and be natural. Counsellor warmth should aid the therapeutic process and encourage your client to continue in a sometimes diffcult dialogue. Counsellors disagree about the extent to which counsellor warmth be shown and some believe that minimal warmth is preferable to avoid the client developing or extending a need for approval from the therapist. However, with selfawareness on the part of the counsellor, the transmission of counsellor warmth may highlight the client's need for approval and other dependency issues which can then be explored. We believe that counsellor warmth emanates from the counsellor's genuine respect and unconditional positive regard for the client. Potential counsellors who gush warmth may be masking their own need for approval and this is something which training and the counsellor's own therapy will hopefully highlight.
Some of the traditional schools of counselling, psychotherapy and counselling psychology would view humour as a form of defence mechanism, and undoubtedly some clients cover up their emotional pain by the excessive use of humour. A number of therapists regard humour as a legitimate component of the therapuetic relationship (e.g. see Ellis, 1977) and we regard it to be important for several reasons. Before considering these, it is important for you to recognise that it is only appropriate if it is associated with one of the primary qualities we outlined above: respect for the client. If you respect the people you counsel, then any humour you may bring to a counselling situation will be born of this respect. Being so, your humour will be able to be described by others as 'laughing with' rather than 'laughing at' the client. In many counselling situations, you may fnd that even though your humour is congruent with respect for your client and is therefore the 'laughing with' variety, your client may think that you are 'laughing at' him or her. This is easy to appreciate as clients come into counselling with a range of sensitivities and insecurities. If a client thinks that you are laughing at (rather than with) him or her, the therapeutic relationship will probably be damaged. This is also unethical as it could be construed as harmful. In most cases, provided a good therapeutic relationship has been developed with the client, it will not be the end of the world as it may highlight or exemplify personal material the client has which may need to be worked on in therapy. Nevertheless, the use of humour in therapy is best used sparingly when you are new to counselling and its effective use as a therapeutic tool will develop as your counselling practice matures.
We now consider why therapist humour is important, but before doing so need to make a distinction between recognising humour in situations and expressing it. As discussed elsewhere in this chapter, the quality of being a good listener is fundamental to counselling. As you listen to the story of your client's life (or that part of your client's life for which counselling is sought) a very wide range of thoughts and refections will pass through your mind and only a small proportion of these will involve humour. Of all the different thoughts, you will only express a few: those which have a therapeutic aim. Your use of humour in the counselling room is no different. It is deployed solely for therapeutic reasons which will become clearer as your training proceeds.
Therapist humour is an important quality for the therapist's own wellbeing as it can help in achieving a sense of balance when faced with a caseload of people's diffculties. This recognition of the humourous is usually tied in with accepting things which cannot be changed, changing things which can best be changed and recognising the difference between the two. The expression of humour within counselling is usually with these three components in mind and humour can be an important catalyst in helping clients to see things in a different and more helpful light.
We will now consider some qualities or characteristics which may be detrimental to the counselling process. We noted previously that you do not need to have all of the positive qualities or characteristics we identifed developed to a high degree but beneft by having a reasonable mix of them. Similarly, having some of these negative characteristics developed to a lesser degree will not necessarily prevent you from progressing to become a counsellor provided you can recognise their potential effect on the counselling process and work on these characteristics in your own therapy.
Mission to solve other people's problems
If one of your personal qualities is that you tend to want to solve other people's problems for them, this may interfere with the professional counselling process. Obviously, anyone interested in the caring professions will have a desire to help solve other people's problems, but this is very different from solving them yourself. Counselling is partly about helping others to fnd ways to deal effectively with their own problems by empowering or validating them to do so. In some situations this may involve you in training or coaching the client (depending on the therapeutic orientation of the counselling model you adopt), but always the client takes action -not you. To do so would take power away from the client which would be countertherapeutic. We noted above that an effective counsellor will endeavour to understand a client's situation from their perspective by 'being in their boots'. The person with a mission to solve other people's problems tends to view those problems from their own, not the client's, point of view.
Rigidly held beliefs
We have already discussed some of the negative effects for the counselling process of you holding certain beliefs rigidly. The counselling process requires you to be fexible in your thinking and beliefs if only to understand the client. Rigidly held beliefs are often at the centre of a person's emotional or psychological distress. Some models of psychotherapy, such as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (Ellis, 1994) regard rigidly held beliefs as central to emotional disturbance. Most of us have some rigidity in our beliefs, but if you hold a wide constellation of strongly held beliefs, this may prove to be countertherapeutic.
Lack of willingness to learn and closure to feedback and inputs from others
We noted above that counselling involves a fairly well developed understanding of the client as part of a wider system (his environment) and also that as a counsellor you can be most effective by continually developing your selfawareness. Neither of these is possible if you operate as a 'closed system' and if you try to prevent others from infuencing you. Some of you may fnd that the process of becoming more selfaware can be quite personally painful, if ultimately rewarding. This may be particularly so when large areas of awareness about yourself open up fairly quickly, such as at the beginning of counsellor training. Of course, this part of the process of counsellor training is no different from the process which your clients will undergo. If you are unwilling to learn from others, then you are unlikely to develop your selfawareness very far which will make it diffcult for you to proceed as a counsellor. Another important aspect of counselling is about learning from your clients and many counsellors will attest to the fact that it is the clients or users who reveal to the counsellor some of the most important learning points which make it possible for the counsellor to develop a wealth and depth of experience about the counselling process. Similarly, if you are unwilling to listen to your supervisor (assuming that he or she is adequately trained to fulfl the supervisory role), you will fnd it diffcult to progress very far in the feld of counselling, psychotherapy or counselling psychology.
Need for approval
Few of us would deny that we enjoy or value others approving of us. This is both natural and human. But if you need all of your actions to be approved of by others and focus excessively on whether or not this or that deed would be seen as acceptable to certain others (but what about. . .) then it may be that you have turned a natural desire for approval into an absolutistic demand. As a major aspect of counselling is about change in people seeking it, a counsellor's excessive demand for approval will be countertherapeutic. It will block you from confronting clients at appropriate points in therapy. Additionally, some clients may come across as manipulative, and some of these people will be skilled at focusing in on your need for approval, which in order to be given will lead the therapy to become stuck and unhelpful.
Major psychological illness
The codes of practice of the various organisations responsible for accrediting counsellors, psychotherapists and counselling psychologists all have a practice point which requires you to carry out your work only when you are in a ft state to do so, and to cease work (temporarily if necessary) when you are unft. People with major psychological problems will probably fnd it diffcult to counsel while they are in the midst of an episode of that illness as it will disrupt their ability to counsel and will also be a drain on their own system which will be struggling at such periods. Apart from this, and provided that a reasonable mix of the qualities discussed above are in place, we believe that users of psychiatric services may have an advantage over those who have not suffered as their practice will be userled and their empathy founded upon appropriate experience.
We hope this chapter has helped you to decide whether or not you have a reasonable mix of the qualities necessary to become a competant counsellor. If you think that you lack some of the necessary qualities, it may be helpful to recognise that they may be developed to a considerable degree. This may be aided by taking an elementary counselling course, reading some introductory counselling literature, engaging in some voluntary work that involves you meeting people and dealing with their problems, considering personal therapy for yourself or engaging in a personal development programme which will include selfrefection and may include some or all of the above.
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