The power dynamic in the counselling room

A key objective of person-centered counselling is empowerment. This is an important part of discovering one’s own path towards personal growth. The therapist helps the client achieve this over time by developing his or her own understanding of the client’s issues. The therapist does not direct or exercise power over the client. Counsellors generally prefer terms such as ‘coming alongside’ or ‘accompanying’ the client. So it is a collaborative process and the therapist does not aim to adopt the role of ‘expert’.

But what is the reality for the client who enters the counselling room for the first session with their counsellor, probably at an unfamiliar location and with a person who will almost certainly be a stranger? Where does the power really seem to lie from the client’s point of view when they are confronted with a new place, a new person and some very personal issues that they have to find the courage to bring up?

This issue was explored by therapist Mark McDonnell in 2013 when his findings were published in a journal for BAPCA[1]. He explained how, in the late 1950s, the power dynamic in therapy was shaped by the medical profession and the then more prevalent psychodynamic[2] approach to counselling. At that time power was very much with the doctor or analyst. However, these more established forms of therapy of the day began to be challenged by the increasing appeal and effectiveness of the evolving person-centred approach.

McDonnell’s article in November 2013 – Power and the Person-Centred Therapist – highlighted that the very process of person-centred therapy was aimed at developing the client’s autonomy, facilitating freedom from guilt, fear and inhibitions. The process therefore also challenged the traditionally accepted concepts of power (such as the therapist being the expert and knowing what’s best for the client). In today’s more enlightened times power is identified as something about which the client does, in fact, have a choice. Realising that this choice exists can itself be an empowering revelation for the client.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that an ideal balance of power exists between client and counsellor at the outset. But as therapy progresses the power dynamic shifts away from the therapist and towards the client. The client develops more of a ‘stand-alone self’ and a sense of personal agency, both within and outside the counselling room.

McDonnell’s article concludes that as we are relational beings none of us can exist in isolation. That is why gaining a greater sense of control over how we interact with others is such a liberating consequence of becoming empowered.

(This is an update of a post originally added on 1 December 2013)


[1] The British Association for the Person-Centred Approach.

[2] Psychodynamic therapy grew out of psychoanalysis, pioneered by Freud in the late 19th century.