Giving advice is often what clients expect from counselors. When I enrolled in my first Master’s level counseling course, I expected to be taught the answers to problems so that I could properly advise clients. I was surprised and bewildered when the professor, during the first week of class, emphasized that a counselor was not supposed to give advice. According to the professor, whenever you give someone advice, three things can happen – two of them are bad and the other one is not good. The person you are advising can choose to not follow the advice (this is the one thing that is not good). So your advice may be wasted, along with the effort to help the client. Although seeking advice sometimes helps a person to evaluate options and make better decisions.
The bad things occur when the client listens to the advice and tries to follow it. The first bad thing is that the situation doesn’t change, or may even get worse. The person may not have listened well, may not have implemented the changes properly, or may have done exactly as instructed, but the counselor didn’t properly analyze the situation. Whatever the problem, people being people, the counselor will get the blame. This lowers the counselor’s credibility and discourages the client from seeking help.
The second bad thing is when the person follows the advice and it works. (This was one of the most startling, and discouraging things that I learned in my counseling training). When the counselor’s solutions work, the immediate situation may improve, but the client is damaged. How? The counselor is now seen as the person with the answers, so the client does not need to find answers, make decisions, evaluate options, in short, learn to guide their own life. Instead, this person becomes dependent upon the counselor, and the counselor is given the responsibility of making decisions for another person’s life. This is not good for the counselor either. We all have enough trouble leading our own life. We don’t need to take on responsibility for another person. (Even with children, we should accept that responsibility as a custodian to gradually return to our child. But this is the subject of a future blog.)
So, counselors are not supposed to be advice givers. Then why, you may ask, should anyone go to a counselor? Good question, glad you asked. I see myself as a guide. My clients have gotten themselves lost in the forest and can’t find their way to their destination. It is not my job to tell them where to go, and it is especially not my job to carry them there. But I can show them the way, and point out the signs that mark the path so that if they are ever lost in the same place again, they can find their own way through.
Carl Rogers advocated that clients hold the answers to their problems within themselves. His model of counseling portrays the counselor as a helper who assists the person in finding their own answers. While this view of counseling limits the power of the counselor, it is very empowering for the person seeking help. And empowering a person to take better control of their life is one of the primary purposes of a counselor.