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“But I can always talk to my friends…” - How Counselling is different from friendly advice

Posted 30 Aug '12 by Bay Whitaker

By choosing a private counsellor, and paying for the work themselves, clients are taking ownership of their issues and their ability to find solutions. However, many people would not dream of going to see a counsellor, let alone paying for the experience. A rough and unscientific poll of my own acquaintances about whether they would pay for private counselling elicited a high proportion of answers along the following lines:

“But I know I could always talk to my friends.... “ (or mum, or husband, or sister, etc)

Some people are lucky enough that they can talk to friends and family about whatever is bothering them, but for many other people, there are times when this may not be possible. At such times, they may choose to talk to a professional counsellor instead. Counsellors have the skills and theory to make the conversation as helpful as possible to the client. Plus, the very nature of the counselling relationship is different from the relationship we have with friends or family. And sometimes, it is precisely this different sort of relationship that is needed for the conversation to happen. 

So, what makes counselling different from talking with friends or family? Here are a few of the differences:

“...but enough about me – how about you?”

With friends, we may feel as if there’s an unwritten contract to ‘take turns’ at talking about our problems. Have you ever felt that it is boring or tiresome for your friends or family members to hear you talk about your problems? If so, you have probably cut short what you were talking about, feeling it’s time for you to be the listener instead. With a counsellor, the whole purpose for the counselling relationship is for you to talk about your issues. This is clearly understood from the start, so you never need to let the counsellor ‘take her turn’.

“Stop offering me advice!”

Sometimes we want to express how we feel, even though we are not ready to change. Have you ever been talking to a friend about something that is bothering you, only to find yourself becoming irritated when they offer you a series of suggested solutions. It’s natural for our friends to want to help us, but the chances are that you will have already thought of the solutions that are being suggested. Your problem is a problem because there is something hidden that prevents you from adopting the straightforward solutions. Counsellors are trained to value your expression of feelings as an important part of your experience. They will understand that your difficulty is a complex part of your reality, and help you to explore it fully so that you can arrive at your own preferred course of action.

“I don’t want to say who...”

Relationships are often the focus of people’s difficulties. Particularly with family, partners or friends, it can be difficult to be completely open about our other relationships, as they may know the people involved and feel compromised by hearing what we have to say. With a counsellor you can speak freely, knowing the counsellor is outside the circle of family or friends.

“Is this a good time to talk?”

Have you ever looked forward to meeting a friend so that you could talk through what is bothering you, only to arrive at the meeting and find her upset about her own concerns? If your friend has problems of her own at the moment, you may feel that you can’t really burden her with your worries right now. With a counsellor you have a scheduled time that is specifically for you to talk about whatever you want.

“I’m so angry I could cry...”

Particularly in western society, we often feel uncomfortable with displays of emotion such as rage or tears. Good friends may wish to soothe or comfort these feelings away, but in doing so they may effectively be closing down the conversation. For many of us, it is the awareness that a particular topic might evoke tearfulness or rage that makes us avoid talking about it in normal social contexts. Counsellors will not be uncomfortable with displays of emotion or try to make the feelings ‘go away’, but will listen to what you have to say together with whatever emotions accompany your story.

“We used to be close, but...”

If we have shared very intimate or painful feelings with a friend whom we later lose contact with, we may be left with questions about continuing confidentiality – will the person continue to keep your secret? You may also be left wondering about how your talking about your concerns may have affected the friendship. Counsellors will always seek to manage endings very carefully, so that there are no questions left hanging for the client, and professional confidentiality continues indefinitely after the counselling relationship ends.

These are just a few of the differences between talking to friends and talking to a professional counsellor. Other differences of course depend on the specific qualifications and experience of the counsellor you choose: their approach will differ accordingly, and clients typically take this into consideration before getting in contact.
The opportunity to talk about our problems with friends is a most precious part of our social interaction, that counselling does not seek to replace. Rather, counselling is a therapeutic conversation that people seek at certain times in their life, when they feel the need to talk within a different kind of relationship, in order to find a different perspective.