Guest post: The counselling relationship

December 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm 2 comments

Gemma Sweet, a psychology student also in my year, has very kindly offered to write a post for Psycho Hawks. I’m sure you’ll agree the post is informative, well written and a good addition to the blog, so please comment – or at the very least, rate the post at the bottom. It takes less than a second to click! Depending on how well recieved this post is, Gemma may become a frequent writer for the blog, so your ratings/comments help!

Thanks, Sam.


People use counsellors to get help and understanding for their problems. However, whether this works or not depends on how good the counsellor is, how able the client is to speak about their problems and the relationship between the two.  The relationship between the two can be demanding and hard work. It’s hard for the client to speak for hours to someone they don’t know about personal problems and it’s hard for the counsellor to be non judgemental and to actively listen for hours. The client may have trouble accepting the counsellor as being genuine; they might not trust them to keep their information confidential which can cause them to hold back.  There are boundaries that can arise in the counselling relationship.

Time is one boundary. A counselling session is 50 minutes (therapeutic hour) which isn’t a lot of time. Clients may go over this by talking deeply about their problems and the counsellor can’t stop this because it may ruin the client’s confidence and may mean information is missed out. Clients may also be late which means they lose even more time. Physical space is another boundary. Is the room suitable? Is there enough personal space for the client to feel comfortable?  Information is another boundary. How much should client know about the counsellor?

Another boundary is intimacy. The relationship between counsellor and client should be professional but they should still be close in order for the client to feel comfortable to talk about their problems. But should the counsellor touch the client? What if the client gets attached?  And should they meet outside of the therapy room? Langs (1988) argues for clearly defined boundaries, creates a ‘strong therapeutic frame’ – client can then explore painful and threatening feelings and memories. However humanist counsellors tend to be more flexible.  They argue that if boundaries are too rigid it can foster a detached and distanced relationship where the therapist is viewed as aloof.   Jorden (2000) suggests that aloofness  is linked to separation anxiety and is potentially abusive . They need to develop a growth-fostering connection. Mearns & Thorne (2000) suggest that  there have been ethical challenges towards over-involvement such as hugging a client, home visits, telephone contact but no challenge to “identifying “under-involvement such as detachment in the face of pain”.

Gender in the counselling relationship is also a big factor. There are more female counsellors than males, the BACP suggest that this is 83% female to 17% male.  Women are the primary users of counselling services and counsellors are predominantly women but why is this? Is it because women are more sensitive, understanding and are better listeners? Men may go to counselling less because they are socialised to deal with problems themselves (“big boys don’t cry”). It may lead to ego deflation and embarrassment.  Research suggests that female and male therapists express a preference for female clients. Female clients are often offered more sessions than male clients. One possible reason being that women are seen to ‘do better’ in therapy and are more responsive to therapy than male clients (Kirschner, 1978). Female counsellors may prefer to work with women from a safety point of view and because they are tired of doing men’s emotional work for them whereas male clients may feel safer with a female counsellor.  They may find it easier to project feelings onto her that are associated with other women in his life. Male counsellors may feel threatened by a woman who behaves seductively or shows signs of becoming dependent.  They are more likely to be the object of projection associated with other men in the female’s client’s life.

There are different types of counselling that can affect the relationship between the client and the counsellor. There is short term counselling and long term counselling. Short term counselling works on trying to emphasise client’s own strengths and resources and accepts that many changes will occur outside of therapy, therefore will not be observed by the therapist. There are benefits to this type of therapy such as it reduces waiting lists. Long term therapy has better outcomes than short term counselling. The therapist is required to be there as significant changes occur. Person centered therapy can be short-term or long-term. It traditionally takes client lead on length of relationship. Its focus is on the client and how long they take to heal themselves.  Whereas psychodynamic therapy is traditionally a long-term therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy usually offers a limited number of sessions (8 sessions).  Telephone counselling is an increasing form of counselling for therapists. There are benefits such as confidentiality whereby the counsellor doesn’t know what the client looks like which gives the client privacy and more confidence.  There is anonymity which encourages clients to be honest and this can speed up the counselling process. Grummet (1979 suggests that  telephone counselling increases intimacy, as the speakers lips are only inches away from the clients ear. Rosenbaum (1974) suggests that the ringing of the phone symbolically represents the cry of the infant, then an immediate response.  However counsellors are less likely to receive feedback from the client . There is the worry that the client can slam the phone down at any time which may mean they are going to commit suicide and the counsellor has no way to stop them. Counsellors need to work quickly, be flexible and intuitive and able to cope with silence.  There are other advantages such as it’s easier to pick up phone, than to make an appointment and it gives clients control; it puts the client in a powerful position. Internet counselling is another new form of counselling. Clients can access a counsellor anywhere in the world, night or day. However is it possible to establish a relationship behind a computer screen or over email? There are advantages of using internet counselling though. Typing is a good way of externalising problems and writing helps reflection. Research by Lange (1994) found that the majority of clients reported highly significant gains at the end of therapy and they claimed that it was just as effective as face to face counselling.  However how can it be known whether or not the counsellor is legit. Internet counselling would not work for person centered counsellors as this method is focused on the presence of a counsellor therefore it would be more difficult to establish a relationship between counsellor and client. It wouldn’t work for psychodynamics’ either as they need to develop a relationship face to face aswell. But it could work for cognitive behavioural therapy. Internet counselling could be effective due to the teaching aspect. The counsellor could set structured exercises and homework.

There are different ways therapy can be delivered but the relationship between the counsellor and the client must be strong yet professional for the therapy to continue.


Grummet, G.W. (1979).  Telephone therapy: a review and case report. Amercian Journal of Orthopsychiartry, 49, 574-84.

Lange, A. (1994). Writing Assignments in the treatment of grief and trauma from the past. In J. Zeig (ed.).  Ericksonian Methods: the Essence of the Story. Ew York: Brunner/Mazel.

Langs, R. J. (1988). A Primer of Psychotherapy. New York: Gardn

Jorden, J. V. (2000). The role of mutual empathy in relational/cultural therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 56, 1005-16

Mearns, D. and Thorne, B. (2000). Person-centred Therapy Today: New Frontiers in Theory and Practice. London: Sage

Notes from introduction to counselling module.

Rosenbaum, M. (1974). Continuation of psychotherapy by `long-distance’ telephone. International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 3, 483-95.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. counsellor in west yorks  |  April 2, 2015 at 12:23 am

    I am a person-centred counsellor who has trained in Online Counselling and also used this skill whilst working with adolescents with some success, as evidenced by client feedback. It takes more time to build up a good relationship compared to f2f but it is possible to do this in a person-centred way.

  • 2. teesha  |  May 1, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    seems like a great place


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