At its core, counseling is a relationship, and like any relationship, success depends on our expectations. But those expectations should reflect the reality of a relationship that is professional rather than personal. The issues we discuss may be quite personal, but the relationship isn’t.

Three things we should probably not expect from a counselor:

  • Expressions of sympathy
  • Offers of advice, and
  • Much personal self-disclosure

Why not sympathy? Because it’s a feeling, and therefore extremely personal. We can get sympathy from our friends. Counseling is based on empathy, or understanding. Expressions of sympathy can give the mistaken impression that the clinician feels sorry for, or even pities, the client. And that’s not helpful.

Why not advice? Because advice comes from many sources, is often contradictory, and at some point may begin to confuse the issues. The counselor will instead provide feedback — a form of constructive commentary.

Why not much personal self-disclosure? Because the focus needs to stay on the client, not the clinician. Counseling is a working alliance to achieve something of importance.  When a counselor makes a personal disclosure, it’s ordinarily for a specific purpose related to the course of treatment.

Counselors are often taught that the best way to make progress is to let the client determine the direction the relationship takes. As clients, we get to address the problems that are important to us. The counselor may point out particular aspects worthy of attention, but if we’re not interested, ordinarily doesn’t push the issue.

Counselors are also taught to strive to remain objective. Real objectivity is uncommon in everyday conversation. It’s easy to find somebody willing to offer their opinion (and the more opinionated they are, the more willing they may be to share it), but it’s rare to find someone who can consistently maintain enough distance and perspective to help us find our way out of a confusing personal dilemma.

If we go into counseling with those expectations — that it’s our responsibility to choose the direction of treatment, and the counselor’s to provide constructive, informed feedback while maintaining objectivity — chances are we’ll be satisfied with the result.