5 Ways to Become a Better Counselor

Being a counselor is part of life. Whomever we meet and wherever we go, we will find people with problems. We will talk about those problems. We will often try to help them find solutions. There are some people who do this as a full-time job, but almost everyone will be engaged with counseling on some level.

Because of this fact, it is a good idea for us to think a little bit more about how we give counsel. What are the methods that are the most helpful? When should we speak and when should we just listen? How do we listen well? How do we get people to open up? These are things we need to learn and which we can study and practice over a lifetime.

In my profession as a pastor, I do a lot of informal counseling. I listen to people’s problems, pray with them, and help them find solutions that will improve their lives. Because of that, I’ve tried how to counsel people from those who have done a lot of it. Here’s 5 ways I try to be a better counselor.

1. Build connection with people. When people feel accepted, loved, and safe, they are more ready to talk about their own story and listen to yours. There are specific things that we can do to help us connect with people.

Counselor Alan Loy McGinness explained what he learned from years of counseling about how to connect with people in his book The Friendship Factor. I recommend this book and his simple but important insights. Here’s a few from his list:

  • He recommends that if we see something good in someone that we say it.
  • Share things about yourself as well as encouraging others to share about themselves.
  • Find out what people enjoy and find ways to connect with that passion.

Doing these things can help us build a connection that is a context for helping others (and ourselves!).

2. Help people tell their story. When people have been through difficult things, they often have a story to tell but have not told it to many people. They may not have reflected deeply upon it. It just sits there as a sort of open wound.

Scott Floyd has written a helpful manual on how to help people recover from loss, trauma, and grief that I would highly recommend called Crisis Counseling. He points out that “[o]ne of the main struggles following a traumatic event is identifying, understanding, and making sense of the losses that result” (99). Helping people do that is one way we can help others. We can give them space and ask good questions that will help them tell their story. You can ask them to tell you the details of what happened, how they felt about it, what they were thinking, and what others around them were doing.

This process, though painful in the telling, can begin the process of healing. This is true not only with grief but with whatever problem or difficulty someone has.

3. Help people see the solutions they are already implementing. Many times, people already know the solutions to their problems. They just need to lean into them or be encouraged by them. You can always ask people, is there anything that you are doing now that makes you feel a little better? This has a twofold advantage. First, people tend to like their own things more than they probably should. When they come up with an idea, they will be more attached to it. Second, it encourages them that there is hope. Often, one of the biggest challenges to moving forward when you are suffering and struggling is a lack of hope, but when people see that they already doing things that help, even if only a small bit, it opens the door to hope.

I remember talking to a young woman who was struggling with where her finances were. She was concerned that she could not make ends meet. I then asked her, have you ever missed paying a bill? She said, no. What that helped her see was that she had always made adjustments in the past or used resources she had available to figure out how to solve her financial issues. When she saw this, she felt better. It reduced her anxiety about her finances. Ironically, the very question also helped me feel a bit better about my own finances because I can worry about them, too!

4. Tell a story of someone successfully dealing with a similar problem. Sometimes you can tell people what to do, but oftentimes this is the least effective method of moving people forward. People often don’t like being told what to do, and they may feel that you are imposing a solution on them that does not really fit their situation.

A way to get around this and help people see different possibilities and hope is to tell a story of a similar situation from your own life or someone you know. An example of this was a conversation I had with a young woman I talked to while giving her an Uber ride. She was really interested in other cultures as I am, and we talked about our encounters with other cultures.

I suggested that she should learn another language. I told her that this is a game changer in engaging with other cultures. She told me that she was discouraged about learning another language based on her studies in psychology. She said that she had learned that people could never really become fluent in a language they learn later in life.

I was puzzled by this because it did not really fit my own experience, so I told her about my daughter. She started studying Spanish in earnest last year. She got so good at it that she eventually went to a university in a Spanish speaking country and did all her classes in Spanish. She navigated life in a place where English speakers are very few and far between.

After telling this story, I could see the from look on the face of this young woman that she was very encouraged by this story. I didn’t need to tell her anything more. I didn’t need to tell her to go try it because my daughter did it. The example in the story opened up new possibilities that gave her hope.

5. Help people see that their problems are existential or general human problems. When people seek counseling, they are generally focused on a concrete problem such as money, a boss, a child, a spouse, or a parent. However, a counselor can help put these problems in a bigger context. In his numerous works, Irvin D. Yalom presents the existential therapy perspective and notes that we should recognize that our problems are the result of our “confrontation with the ‘givens’ of existence” (The Gift of Therapy, xvii). What are the givens? Yalom lists “death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom” (ibid.). The point is that there are broader issues involved in virtually every concrete issue.

By helping people understand this, we can take some of the edge off of our particular problems. For example, if we recognize that loneliness is a part of life, then we may be less inclined to blame others for not being there exactly when we think they should. We can look for a better solution than trying to get someone to pay more attention to us. We can point people to the presence of God as the ultimate solution for our perennial loneliness. The same is true of the other basic “givens” of existence.

These are just a few ways in which counseling literature has made me think differently about how I counsel and interact with others. There is a lot to learn here. We can use this literature to make ourselves better as humans, better as participants in the human community, and better as those who fulfill many roles in our daily lives. All of this involves talking and communication, and there is much wisdom to be learned to be able to help ourselves and others along the way.

Have you learned how to be a better counselor from those with a lot of experience in it by talking to them or reading a book? What insights have you gleaned about how to counsel people better? Please comment below to share your insights.


Note: Check out this post to see some of my favorite quotes from some of the books that have helped me most as I have reflected on the counseling task. I read a lot of this literature in my Doctor of Ministry program at Reformed Theological Seminary. You can read about it here.

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