Developing Respect for the Counselling Client
If not the most important feature of professional counselling, “respect for the client” is definitely high up on the priority list. Geldard and Geldard (2005) explain that regardless of who the client is, and regardless of their behaviour, the client has come to the counsellor for assistance and deserves to be treated as a person of worth and value.
Many counsellors believe that there is good in each of us, and for the potential of that to surface, individuals need to feel appreciated and valued. Counsellors therefore have a responsibility to assist clients to feel good about themselves, and to increase the client’s sense of self-worth.
Values and Beliefs
It is not respectful to impose personal beliefs and values upon clients. It is the counsellor’s role to accept the client for who they are and where they currently are in their life. Geldard and Geldard (2005) emphasise that when a counsellor’s values are imposed on an individual, they tend to react by rejecting those values without consideration and withdrawing from counselling.
An involuntary client, who is unable to physically withdraw from counselling, may withdraw emotionally, and become unmotivated to accept the counsellor’s suggestions. Imposing one’s values upon the client is indicative of judgement. Paradoxically, when therapists accept the client for the person they are regardless of their values, over time, the client’s values tend to grow closer to the values of the counsellor, as counsellors do become role models for their clients.
Appropriate use of language is essential, to showing the client respect, (Brems, 2001). Many counsellors work with clients whose colourful language is simply a part of their vocabulary. Some individuals who have been raised in households where swearing is an acceptable part of everyday language, yet others find it abrasive or disrespectful.
It is imperative that counsellors are always aware of the language they use and its aptness in relation to the context and the client. The case study below outlines the need for appropriateness when communicating with clients:
“Joanne, who worked as a counsellor for a prestigious counselling organisation, would always present at work immaculately. She took pride in her appearance and always pursued a professional image.
Joanne would always read through her client case notes to remind herself of the content of the previous appointment, prepare a clean glass of water for the next client and organise any handouts or relevant material required for the next appointment.
Joanne also volunteered some nights for a community organisation that worked with ‘street kids’. She felt that this work was most rewarding to her in that she gained satisfaction seeing the changes brought about in the kids due to the community organisation’s policies of supporting young people. They learnt to examine their lives and make goals, and then were encouraged to return to their education or find apprenticeships.
Joanne enjoyed the company of the kids, the stories they would tell of their adventures during the day and minor brushes with the law. These stories were told in a jovial manner with much enthusiasm and colourful language. Joanne would often use the same colourful language to breakdown barriers and help to put the relationships on a more equal basis.
While preparing the paperwork for her 10:00 am client, Joanne reminisced about her work the previous night. She was pleased a young 16 year old adolescent was beginning his apprenticeship next week, and remembered how he playfully boasted about his future and dreams to one day own his own car repair company.
When Joanne’s 10:00 am client arrived early and was mistakenly shown into her office by the receptionist, Joanne had not been able to gather her thoughts. For the first few minutes of the counselling session, Joanne spoke to the formal Ms Cartwright as if she were back with her adolescent clients, asking Ms Cartwright, “How the *&^&^^ was she?” And “What the *&^%% had she accomplished since their last appointment”?
Seeing the shocked look on Ms Cartwrights face, Joanne immediately realised her mistake and profusely apologised.”
Brem (2001) explains that counsellors must practice patience and accommodate a client’s pace in counselling. Some clients will come to counselling unsure of what they want to say. When this happens, clients can take an extended length of time to choose the word that best describes their situation or feeling.
This is when the counsellor must sit quietly with the client and simply be present. It would be inappropriate to complete client sentences for them, try to rush them or use some other behavioural cue to encourage the client to move along quicker with their story.
Each individual has particular boundaries to protect their privacy as an individual. They can shift and change depending upon the situation or with whom we are interacting at the time.
For example, when beginning a new job, our interactions with our colleagues mostly focus on our previous work experience, as we become more familiar with our environment we reveal more personal information about ourselves, such as our families, hobbies and week-end activities. Not until relationships have proven the test of time, do we begin to trust our colleagues to speak about personal or family problems. It is the opposite in a client-counsellor relationship.
The client-counsellor relationship is unique because it begins with the client entering into counselling with the expectation that they will find a safe environment where their interests are given the utmost consideration by the counsellor; where they can find assistance to work through their problems and trust their counsellor to have their best interests at heart.
The client-counsellor relationship is not an equal relationship. Geldard & Geldard (2005) explain that regardless of how much effort a counsellor puts into making the relationship equal, the counsellor will inevitably be in a position of power and influence.
Clients are often highly emotional when they visit a counsellor, and are therefore vulnerable. The way in which a counsellor relates with a client is uncharacteristic of human behaviour (Geldard & Geldard, 2005). As the counsellor devotes most of their energy to listening to and understanding the client, the client will only see a part of the counsellor’s character, and under these circumstances, a client could perceive the counsellor to be unrealistically caring and giving.
Hence, the counsellor’s power and the client’s biased perception combine to make the client very vulnerable to offers of friendship. Conversely, the counsellor is also vulnerable in the counselling relationship.
Inevitably the relationship can develop real closeness as the client shares their innermost and personal thoughts. While counsellors learn to be compassionate and empathic, their unique client-counsellor relationship can become closer than is appropriate for the professional relationship.
The counsellor may often experience conflicting responsibilities toward their client, the agency that employs them and to the community. A counsellor who is in any doubt where their responsibilities lie must consult with their supervisor.
Of utmost importance is the responsibility the counsellor has to address a client’s request for counselling assistance. There is always an implied contract of confidentiality between client and counsellor unless the counsellor informs the client that it does not exist.
While counsellors must always be aware of their ethical and legal responsibilities to their clients, first and foremost they have a responsibility to their employer, to ensure that all the work carried out while employed by that organisation fulfils the requirements of the organisation or institution first. If the counsellor feels that there is a conflict of interest, they must speak with their supervisor or approach management to discuss the issue.
Counsellors must be aware, at all times, of their responsibility to the community and this may clash with the confidentiality status of the client. Counsellors must report to the appropriate authorities if they believe their client or a member of the community is at immediate risk of harm.
These responsibilities can cause conflict for the counsellor who may wish to be loyal to their client. Often these decisions are not black and white, but many shades of grey and it can be difficult for the counsellor to serve the needs of the community and the client. The counsellor must speak with their supervisor if there is any doubt.
- Brems, C. (2001) Basic skills in psychotherapy and counselling. CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
- Geldard, D., & Geldard, K. (2005) Basic personal counselling: A training manual for counsellors. NSW, Australia: Pearson Education.