Research shows that client engagement in the counselling process strongly predicts the success of treatment.1 In other words, when you arrive, you are not coming to be fixed by a counsellor, but instead to work in partnership with them. There are several ways that you can prepare yourself for a successful experience in counselling, but ultimately your only job is to show up, and however, you do so is commendable and brave.
Know Your Preferences and Needs
Here are some things you might consider before coming to see a counsellor at Alongside You. First, think about what kind of counsellor you believe would be a good fit for you. Your preference may vary depending on your phase of life, and unique circumstance, and that’s okay. Some people prefer a female or male counsellor (for reasons of comfortability or life experience), someone within a certain age demographic, or someone who works within a specific therapeutic model. You may also have a need for someone very soft and gentle, or you may need someone who is willing to challenge you directly. If you can come up with ideas on these preferences, we can help to guide you in picking a counsellor.
It’s also helpful to know what it is you’d like help with. You may feel like your list of concerns are long and complex. That’s ok, you’re not alone. Although it can feel overwhelming to narrow it down, it is often helpful to come to your appointment with one or two issues that are, at present, the most problematic for you. It doesn’t mean this can’t change over time because it often does, it just means there’s some focus to start out the work. That said, sometimes we don’t know what’s wrong, we just know that something is not right and we need help figuring out what’s going on. That’s okay too!
Openness in Counselling
When you arrive for your first appointment, try to be as open as you can to establish a relationship with your counsellor. Research indicates that the therapeutic alliance (the relationship between the counsellor and client) strongly determines the effectiveness of therapy.2 The therapeutic alliance will go the distance when you work through difficult things together and so we (as counsellors and as clients) cannot overlook the significance of trust, empathy, and connection. We understand that it’s a big ask! As part of our professional practice, counsellors do clinical supervision, and many also have their own personal counsellors that they see. You may find it helpful to know that it’s not easy for us either when we’re the ones “on the couch.”
Honesty & Feedback
If part of what makes counselling effective is the therapeutic alliance, the relationship between the counsellor and the client should be strong enough to handle honesty. As counsellors, we value when clients provide honest feedback. This can occur at the moment (“I don’t think you have a clear understanding of what I meant by that”), or after working together for some time (“I find that I feel frustrated when we start our sessions a few minutes late, and I wanted to let you know”). Counsellors want to hear if something is, or is not, working for you. When you don’t agree, or don’t feel your counsellor is fully understanding you, your counsellor prefers that you speak up. Statistically, when a client offers feedback, it usually serves to strengthen the therapeutic relationship, not weaken it.3
Furthermore, be honest about what you believe you need from counselling, whether it be guidance, problem-solving, empathic response, acceptance, non-judgement, or practical insight. It is okay to communicate this. Although each counsellor and client will naturally create a dynamic (or a certain way of being with one another), your counsellor will be better equipped to work with you if they have a clear understanding of your needs. It helps your counsellor to know your objectives for therapy, but also, it can provide insight as to who you are as a person.
As you participate in counselling, aim to implement some of the homework (sometimes called “between-session interventions”) agreed upon in counselling. Counselling homework usually consists of experimenting with new behaviours, making cognitive shifts, acknowledging feelings in specific moments, or keeping track of a combination of all three during the time you are not with us. Homework, at its best, enables integration between the counselling hour and the client’s regular life. Ultimately, homework can be a meaningful way of facilitating healing and growth outside of the time spent with your counsellor.4 As my supervisor, Andrew Neufeld, sometimes illustrates – if you go to see a physiotherapist for your knee and the only work you do is with the physio in session, your knee will likely eventually get better but it will be a long, drawn-out process; whereas, if you do exercises in between sessions your recovery will likely proceed exponentially faster. The same is true for counselling – the work you do between sessions will significantly influence the speed at which you recover and heal.
Last, and perhaps most significant, try to practice self-compassion as you enter and proceed with therapy.5 Counselling can be exhausting, and emotional, and it always requires bravery. Your counsellor knows this and appreciates this about you. Try to be especially gentle with yourself during the process, and treat yourself with tenderness, care, and grace.
- Shaw, S., & Murray, K. (2014). Monitoring Alliance and Outcome with Client Feedback Measures. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 36(1), 43–57. https://doi.org/10.17744/mehc.36.1.n5g64t3014231862
- Duff, C. T., & Bedi, R. P. (2010). Counsellor behaviours that predict therapeutic alliance: From the client’s perspective. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 23(1), 91–110. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515071003688165
- Murphy, K. P., Rashleigh, C. M., & Timulak, L. (2012). The relationship between progress feedback and therapeutic outcome in student counselling: A randomised control trial. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 25(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2012.662349
- Cronin, T. J., Lawrence, K. A., Taylor, K., Norton, P. J., & Kazantzis, N. (2015). Integrating Between-Session Interventions (Homework) in Therapy: The Importance of the Therapeutic Relationship and Cognitive Case Conceptualization: Therapeutic Relationship and Homework. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(5), 439–450. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22180
- Galili-Weinstock, L., Chen, R., Atzil-Slonim, D., Bar-Kalifa, E., Peri, T., & Rafaeli, E. (2018). The association between self-compassion and treatment outcomes: Session-level and treatment-level effects. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 849–866. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22569