Basic Counselling Skills and Their Usefulness - Empathy, Acceptance, Warmth and Genuineness

Basic Counselling Skills and Their Usefulness - Empathy, Acceptance, Warmth and Genuineness

This essay explains the three essential qualities needed to become a good counsellor. The first part looks at Empathy, the second part Acceptance and Warmth (unconditional positive regard) and finally Genuineness (Congruence ).

Carl Rogers suggests that these three basic qualities are needed for a helping relationship to be successful. He also suggests that the counsellor’s skill to communicate these qualities would be sufficient in deciding if a helping relationship would have a positive outcome.

I will now examine each of these qualities:

One dictionary definition explains empathy as ‘the power or state of imagining oneself to be another person and so of sharing his/her ideas and feelings’ ( Longman’s Dictionary ). But Carl Rogers gives a more precise definition. Empathy, according to Rogers is the ability to experience another person’s world as if it were one’s own without ever losing that ‘as if’ quality.

I believe that it is important not to confuse empathy with sympathy-there is a big difference. Sympathy is to give another person support and emotional comfort because of the pain or distress they may be experiencing. Empathy is to enter the private world of another person so as to understand that world, whether sympathy is offered or not.

What is needed to understand another person’s role as, say, a child going into care, a man going through divorce, a person in great physical pain, or a wife recently bereaved is an understanding of the general condition of being in that role. Empathy is needed for the counsellor to be sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing experiences of the particular person seeking help. Empathy is precise, not general, it is to share and understand, not judging and supporting. Empathy requires you to enter the world of another person ‘as if it’ were your own so that you can understand in a better way what it is like to be that person who needs help.

This is not easy. In fact it is extremely difficult to achieve a state of complete empathy with another person; But it is important to try to one’s best ability in achieving accurate empathy. A failure to communicate empathy will make the person in need of help to think of you as not understanding what he or she is going through, or in fact not caring.

The idea that empathy is a condition or frame of mind to aim at has some practical implications for helping. First it implies that you should check your understanding of what is being said and how that you recognise its meaning for the person. This is known as ‘reflection of content’.

A second practical way of attempting to reach and communicate empathy concerns ‘reflection of feelings’. When reflecting content the aim is to check that the message the person is offering is accurately understood. But in reflection of feeling the aim is much harder. There are many phrases and adjectives that can describe feelings like ‘depressed’ ( down in the mouth, sad, got the blues, miserable ) or ‘anxious’ ( nervous, shaky, panic-stricken, stressed ). Each of these phrases or adjectives has subtle different meanings, the degree of which might be very important to the person you are trying to help.

Sometimes the way a person fidgets, the tone of voice or the way the person looks can tell us as much as what the person is actually saying and in some cases more.

Developing empathy skills

Practice reflecting content with other people - friends, relatives, family. Paraphrase what they have said and check your understanding.

Improve your vocabulary of emotions, the use of poetry, films, novels and music may help you to describe what a feeling ‘feels’ like.

By undertaking these tasks and others you might devise for yourself you will gradually be able to improve the extent to which you communicate your empathy correctly with others.

ACCEPTANCE and WARMTH (unconditional positive regard)
The second essential quality is ‘unconditional positive regard’. Other words for this are acceptance or warmth.
Carl Rogers coined ‘unconditional positive regard’ and wished counsellors to ‘prize the person’ to respect people for what they are, for their uniqueness and for their individuality. He wanted counsellors to be able to communicate to a person from the outset that they accepted them, no matter who they are or what they may have done.

It is important for the counsellor to create an atmosphere within which the client can feel safe.

Carl Rogers attached such importance to this condition for change and effective helping. His argument goes something like this:

• someone who needs help has come to you.
• for them to be helped they need to know that you understand how they think and feel.
• they also need to know that you accept them for who they are despite how you might think of what they may or may not have done. You need to respect that they have a right to choose their own way in life.
• by them knowing that you accept and understand them they will then start to open themselves to the chance of change and improvement.
• but if they feel pressurised by you to change, they may close-up and reject your help.

Acceptance is about communicating the warmth you really feel for a person in crisis. By active listening, making observations and valuing their opinions, thoughts and feelings and communicating that you truly have empathy for them will show you respect them and can help to gain acceptance as a counsellor.

Warmth is not a practical skill but is in fact a frame of mind. It is not easy to develop this frame of mind - but by showing warmth to others and developing a relationship in which both parties are there to learn from each other you can gain respect and acceptance.

To create a climate within which changes can take place warmth is really essential.

GENUIENESS (congruence)
The third important quality a counsellor needs is Genuineness (congruence) or another name for it is authenticity. As with warmth this is also not easy to explain. The easiest way to think of genuineness is to regard it as open communication. To make it easier for the client to understand you, the counsellor needs to be direct and open in the way you communicate. You should not try to put yourself on a pedestal and let the client think you are the teacher and he / she the pupil - you do not have all the answers and solutions to their problems. You basically need to be yourself as you really feel at that time, you should also encourage the client to communicate this way too. By being open yourself you will set an example for them and this may encourage them to stop denying, pretending, concealing their thoughts and feelings.

Though a counsellor may work at different levels of intensity, for effective help to take place genuineness needs to be present. A misunderstanding in thinking about warmth is that it involves the suppression of the thoughts and feelings of the helper. But when empathy, warmth and genuineness are there, it is a clear sign that the counsellor is open to share thoughts and feelings with the client.

By the counsellor having the condition of genuineness it shows an openness and willingness to share and express themselves just as much as the client and can show that the counsellor has his / her own needs when in session. It is also important for a counsellor to be spontaneous and able to express his / her own thoughts and feelings and not hide them.

Genuineness is not something learnt by training or reading books but is more of a way a person is. However there are ways in which you could improve the way in which you communicate your genuineness to others.

• learn to understand yourself and be able to describe yourself to yourself.
• understand your changes in mood and your strengths and weaknesses.
• read books about personal growth, and acknowledge how you think and feel when reading this type of literature.
• learn to understand your own behaviour and examine why you react sometimes in a way you did not intend to.

I recommend ‘The Quiet Voice of Soul’ by Tian Dayton, Ph.D published by Health Communications Inc.

The purpose of the above mentioned activities can help you to be honest with yourself and improve self-understanding. This is very important since you may be asking the people you are counselling to perform the self-same tasks.

I have in this essay explored the three essential qualities needed to be a good counsellor and also given some examples of there usefulness. I would like to state that all of these qualities are of equal importance and are needed for a client to be able to feel truly at ease with the counsellor and then and only then can a successful relationship start to be attained.

Margatroyd, Stephen: Counselling and Helping
Published by The British Psychological Society and Routledge (1994)