Helping you help yourself: What counsellors do for their clients

In the fourth of a five-part series, a lecturer from JCU Singapore shares with Douglas Chew the intrinsic value of good counselling

According to Dr McNulty, professional counsellors facilitate the process for clients to achieve greater self-awareness. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

The demands of a fast-changing and fast-paced world can take a toll even on the best of us. While many people turn to their friends and family to de-stress, some may choose to suffer quietly, afraid to seek professional help for fear of being seen as inadequate, weak or even crazy.

"It is invariably always good for your own psychological and physical well-being to be able to talk through issues with a skilled, listening, empathic and objective ear," says Dr Geoff McNulty, senior lecturer in education, guidance and counselling at JCU Singapore.

He questions the idea that friends and family can provide the type of counselling he describes because it can be difficult for those close to us to remain objective. A counsellor provides such objectivity and, in doing so, helps people see issues more clearly.

"Counselling has sometimes been described as most suitable for the 'worried well'. We all could do with counselling at certain stages in our own personal and professional journey through life," he adds.

"The fact that the majority of us do not seek out a counsellor is more a fear of stigma than making a logical and empowered choice."

Echoing the Greek aphorism "Know Thyself" inscribed on the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi and a common theme among philosophers from Socrates to Sun Tzu, Dr McNulty believes the path to personal effectiveness is to know oneself as much as possible. He sees counselling as a way to facilitate this kind of introspection.

"Through the process of counselling, you are helped to hold a mirror up to yourself and take stock of the issues that brought you to the counsellor in the first place; to dig down until you are at a place where you can be really honest with yourself. In knowing yourself more, you will develop the increasing capacity to know what to do next. This is what is known as self-insight," he explains.

According to the Singapore Association for Counselling (SAC), counsellors are professionals with significant post-graduate training in counselling theory and skills or its equivalent through on-the-job experience. While Singapore has no governing body that regulates counselling, the SAC has established standards of counselling training and practice.

To be an SAC-registered counsellor, the registrant needs to graduate from an accredited institute of higher learning or currently be a social and counselling service practitioner. He needs to complete recognised training courses in counselling theory and skills practice.

Graduates must have a counselling practicum or internship during their degree programme of at least 100 hours of face-to-face counselling under supervision. Subsequently, they need to complete 600 hours of face-to-face counselling within a period of two to three years. The SAC currently has 300 registered counsellors.

JCU Singapore's Master of Guidance and Counselling programme is accredited by the SAC and the Australian Counselling Association. It covers counselling theory, case conceptualisation and assessment, counselling skills development and professional issues faced by counsellors including ethical considerations.

Know thyself

It also includes the skills needed for settings such as social work, guidance and career development, and personal development activities to help the counsellor-in-training "know thyself".

The degree programme has a part-time six-month practicum. JCU Singapore collaborates with a diverse range of organisations on an on-going basis to facilitate these practicum placements.

Upon graduation, counsellors can find work in education, social work, social welfare, charitable and specialist settings. Increasingly, companies are also engaging counsellors.

To be a good counsellor is to be an excellent active listener, notes Dr McNulty. "Good counsellors shelve their own needs and put themselves second for the purpose of the counselling relationship, giving total attention to their clients," he adds.

Being able to empathise with their clients is another prime requirement for counsellors. They need to be able to understand and show they understand their client as if they were in the client's shoes, looking at the world through the client's eyes.

Some common misconceptions surrounding the practice of counselling include the idea that counsellors have all the answers or can solve all your problems. Dr McNulty clarifies: "A counsellor's basic job is to help the client to help themselves."

Counsellors do this by communicating in specific ways with the client, which helps them consider and re-evaluate their current thoughts, feelings and actions.

Counsellors help their clients reflect on questions such as: To what extent am I meeting my wants, needs and goals? What is stopping me? How am I stopping myself? What could I do to improve my situation? How could I do what I need or want to do?

"These are the kind of self-questions that the counselling process encourages. The client is trained to more effectively help or heal themselves in terms of their thoughts, feelings or actions. They do it for themselves. The counsellor facilitates this and never controls or orchestrates it," adds Dr McNulty.

Check out JCU Singapore's Open House on May 14. Go to www.jcu.edu.sg/openhouse to sign up.

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