I’m asked this sometimes, and variations of it, when a conversation with someone new gets round to what it is I do. It’s a question that most of us are familiar with in various social and business settings. I’m drawing attention to it here following a recent article in the BACP’s monthly journal that focuses on how differently individual counsellors describe the work they do. Here are some of BACP’s examples:
- ‘helping people who are distressed or affected by experiences that have happened in the past’;
- ‘enabling people looking for change to discover what they want’;
- ‘I work with men, exploring thoughts, feelings and behaviour and what changes they want to make’;
- ‘… like an ordinary conversation except that you go towards the pain rather than away from it’;
- ‘… a chance to talk with someone about the things in our lives that don’t make sense or that make us angry or sad or afraid’;
- ‘counselling helps people have a greater awareness about themselves and influences how they are in the world’.
These are all good, although quite different, descriptions of what counselling might involve. And while the examples are from six different counsellors (male and female), it is quite possible that any one counsellor might have given all six responses. In other words, they are not incompatible.
How would I answer the question? I usually start by explaining that I am now semi-retired and working part-time as a personal counsellor in both voluntary work and as a private practitioner. If pressed further, my follow-up might be that people come to counselling because they feel that something in their lives needs to change; I explore with them what might be driving this feeling and support them through any difficult or painful aspects of this.
But I’m also fascinated by the different responses I then receive. For some people this subject feels awkward because it feels too personal, or maybe touches something difficult in their own lives. In such cases the conversation quickly moves on to something else. Others are genuinely interested, or know someone who benefited from therapy or they have been in therapy themselves, and the conversation flows easily. Still others become wary because they worry that I am reading their mind (or trying to) – which is quite untrue by the way. And others find the subject perplexing, and I get questions like ‘so what sort of people come to counselling’ (to which I have previously responded ‘take a look around the room we’re in’).
And finally there are cultural differences in how counselling is perceived. In some cultures it is viewed as alien. In others it is the most natural thing in the world for people to talk with a counsellor about difficult personal issues that they are facing. Fortunately we are getting closer to that in the UK, but we still have some way to go.
 British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy