What to look for in a counsellor or a coach, and the difference.

I am not an expert.

The expertise I do have is around myself, my perception and my response. Why is that important? Because I’m trying not to mess up my stuff with your stuff. We naturally seek out to understand a situation by searching for similar situations we’ve been in ourselves. That’s why our friends will go “oh yeah, something like that happened to me” and then go off on a tangent and completely forget that they just asked you how you are and didn’t listen to the response. They mean well (we really hope they do).

The main point of my counselling training (which was in the person-centred approach) is that I’m learning to juggle three components — empathy, genuineness (aka congruence) and unconditional positive regard (aka respect).

So that means I’m trying to understand what’s going on for you (empathy) by drawing upon my own experiences (either from my own life or other clients/stories) but in an objective and fluid manner so that it gives me a framework for understanding but I can integrate new bits of information as they emerge.

It requires genuineness on my part to recognise when my own stuff distracts you (e.g. don’t be ill in front of a client!) or gets in the way of my understanding — when something you say triggers something, perhaps unresolved, in my own life, and I can’t separate your response from my response. I notice it when I don’t understand — “but you could do A or B etc.” — and that’s where I think I’m walking in your shoes, but only you wear your shoes. The third component, unconditional positive regard, is this recognition, a respect for your position and your choices. I may not agree with your behaviour, but I can be curious as to your reasons and show my willingness to understand your position.

A counsellor follows you, side-by-side, in the direction you want to go (to the point that some purists won’t even start a session with “how are you today?” because they don’t want to lead you on! Again, they mean well!). To me, a counsellor is a soundboard and a mirror. They hold the different conflicting parts that leave you stuck, allowing you to consciously see each part and their agenda so that you can figure out which part or parts need attention.

For me, a coach has a similar mindset but is a bit pushier, like a personal trainer, with a strategic approach. You’ve pre-agreed where you want to be and want to be pushed to achieve it. You want the accountability of a coach to propel you forward. You have a goal.

In counselling, there may not be a clearly defined goal other than to get through the day. You do not push someone out of bereavement for example. This is about being a companion to someone’s difficult journey.

Being counselled/coached can feel strange because that person is trying to listen with both ears, to you and to their internal dialogue — don’t worry about what you’re going to say, they’re working hard to give you the right response. Whatever approach they are using, these three components of empathy, genuineness and respect are key and they should leave you feeling heard and accepted.

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