Making the Most of Counseling

Advice to clients.

Posted Feb 28, 2021

 Sageet Kumar/Dreamtimes, CC0
Source: Sageet Kumar/Dreamtimes, CC0

Two identical twins could see the same counselor for the same issue, yet one twin could derive far more benefit. Here are ways to make the most of your counseling, whether career, personal, relationship, whatever.

Choosing a counselor. Your friend’s recommendation is likely less valid than reviews on sites such as Yelp or HealthGrades. The latter are based on many clients’ opinions.

Consider identifying three candidates, based not just on having high ratings, but on whether the user comments suggest that the counselor specializes in your kind of problem and that their style seems well-suited. To that end, also visit the practitioner's site. If s/he feels like a possible fit, phone. That will provide an additional sense of their approach, intelligence, etc. Unless that call makes clear that the practitioner is worth at least one session, phone a second or even a third candidate.

Preparing for a session

Based on the initial conversation, agree on a tentative agenda for the first session. Perhaps put it in writing. The good practitioner appreciates seeing an agenda in advance because it helps in preparing for the session and in getting clear on your objectives. Of course, the practitioner can, in advance, or during the session, suggest a change in the agenda. Consider sending an agenda for each subsequent session.

Respect the practitioner's time

If you need to reschedule or cancel, give the practitioner at least 24 hours' notice. Good practitioners are busy and giving notice allows time to get someone from the wait list. Besides, it shows respect. Much as professionals try to treat all clients will maximum care, they’re human and so may not be able to resist doing a little more planning, being a little more present, with a client who is respectful. And, of course, show up on time. That's another sign of respect as well as it ensuring you get the full session.

Record the sessions

Ask the practitioner if you can record sessions. Listening to the recording can be more useful even than the session. That’s because you can reflect on and perhaps generate a better answer to the counselor’s questions without having to come up with it on the fly. Also, in listening to yourself, you may learn about yourself in the same way as reviewing a video is useful in mock job interviews or in taking a sports lesson.

Consider using the traffic-light rule

It’s normative in counseling for the client to feel OK about talking at length. But generally, more is accomplished if you can be concise. If you tend to be long-winded, consider using the traffic-light rule, which I’ve described often on these pages and, here, merely adapt it to the counseling situation: During an utterance's first 30 seconds, your light is green. In the second 30, it’s yellow—It may be wiser to let the counselor talk. After one minute, your light is red: The counselor likely feels s/he should respond. If you need to say more, you can do that after the response. Not only does that ensure that you get to hear what the counselor has to say, your allowing him or her to be active in the session can keep the person alert and motivated—It’s tough for a counselor to stay fully focused all day if having to be in listening mode most of the time.

Think twice before disagreeing

When a counselor makes a suggestion, it can be tempting to disagree. Perhaps your disagreeing is legitimate but sometimes it’s because of defensiveness or feeling embarrassed that you didn’t come up with the idea yourself. When in doubt, at least consider the possibility that the counselor’s idea is worthy. Few counselors like being disagreed with or yes-butted most of the time. After the session, you can reflect on a suggestion and, of course, accept or reject it as you deem wise.

Redirect if needed

Sometimes, a counselor may be taking you down a path that you’re confident is unwise. Don’t be shy about tactfully redirecting, for example, “I’ve considered what you've said and wonder if revisiting it might not be as profitable as (insert a suggested change of direction)."

Offer feedback

During a session, when the counselor does something effective, consider saying so, for example, “I’m glad that you reined me in. I was going off on an irrelevant tangent.” Conversely, if a counselor does something that you’re unhappy with, you might tactfully mention it, for example, “I like hearing your suggestions, but when I reject them, I'm not crazy about your continuing to push them.”

Request homework

Only so much can be accomplished within the session. So at the end, ask the counselor for a homework assignment. It's usually better if you propose it because you may better know what you need and are motivated to do.

Say thank you

At the end of sessions and perhaps occasionally in a thank-you note, thank the counselor. We all like to be appreciated. For example, you might say, “I know I was difficult this session. I appreciate your patience.”

Ask if you could email between sessions

Ask the counselor if you might email or text a question in between sessions. That way, if you get stuck, for example, in doing your homework, you needn’t be inert until the next session. Of course, don't abuse the privilege: Once between sessions is reasonable; four times isn't.

Of course, do your homework, adapting it as needed. That may seem obvious but many clients don’t do their homework. That, of course, limits progress and can even demotivate the counselor.

Take charge of termination

You may know, better than the counselor does when it’s time to stop the sessions, if only temporarily. For example, you might say, “I’ve learned a lot from our sessions and have a lot to work on. So I’d like to take a break. Perhaps in a month or two, we’ll resume. I do want to thank you for (insert specifics.) It’s been helpful.”

Make the most of counseling and it could greatly benefit your life.

I read this aloud on YouTube. I recently wrote a post with tips for counselors, which may also help you make the most of being a client.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.