Building trust with counseling clients

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One of a counselor’s first objectives when meeting with a client is to build some form of trust. If clients don’t have confidence in their relationship with their counselor, they are less likely to open up about the challenges that they’re facing, much less be open to discussing these challenges with the person with whom they are meeting. However, as important as trust is, it is not something that can be built overnight. Creating rapport in a professional counseling relationship requires work, planning and dedication.

To interact with clients as effectively as possibly, it is necessary for counselors to first build trust by connecting with them, demonstrating a desire to understand their perspective and persevering with empathy and active listening skills.

Connect with clients

According to Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association (ACA), no matter what model or technique a counselor uses, its potential will be limited severely unless the professional can build a strong therapeutic alliance with the client. The publication reported that this idea is based on a 1957 article by Carl Rogers, which asserts four specific properties about this relationship: that counselors must have empathy for their client, be truly engaged in the interaction, show unconditional positive regard for the person and not only have these attitudes but clearly express them.

As with any other relationship, building trust in counseling sessions takes time. It is a process that cannot be rushed.

“It’s a difficult lesson to learn — to allow space for the client to take the session where he or she wants it to go and at the pace he or she feels comfortable with,” Olga Gonithellis, an ACA member in New York City, told Counseling Today. “This requires therapists to challenge their automatic tendency to want to direct the session and [instead] approach certain topics only when the client has opened the door.”

Building Trust

Demonstrate a desire to understand

When working to connect with clients, active listening is important. This step is necessary not only so counselors can obtain the information that they need to start helping the client, but also so they demonstrate a genuine desire to understand where the other person is coming from. When counselors use active listening skills to connect with a client, the person feels heard and trust begins to develop.

Keep it professional

Counselors do not build friendships with their clients nor is the therapeutic relationship meant to be based on commonalities between counselor and client. Self disclosure is a skill that requires tact and clinical intent. It never is recommended that to build trust, counselors discus irrelevant topics (like movies or trips or watching fireworks) that lie outside the client’s concerns. The therapeutic relationship is always for the purpose of promoting the client’s well-being in clinical terms. Everything a counselor does requires theoretical intent and a commitment to wellness.

Most important, counselors must remain aware of their emotions and avoid countertransference: “You remind me of” or “You make me feel.” When these experiences arise, counselors must seek assistance from other experienced therapists, so they do not let these emotions impede their clients’ work in therapy. Counselors are not supposed to share same experiences with clients at any level. Counselors and clients must never work in a way that resembles friendships, and reflecting on clients’ feelings is not validating their emotions or taking sides to support them. To prevent these serious unethical issues, counselors engage in clinical supervision for a considerable amount of time before they can begin to see clients on their own.

Interested in filling the need for counselors? Bradley University offers an online Master of Arts in Counseling.


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Bradley University Online Master’s in Counseling