Counselling and therapy – how does it work?

“Even after just the initial session, I started to feel better and less weighed down”.


This and similar phrases are typical of comments that many counsellors will have heard from clients. The experienced therapist will quickly acknowledge, albeit quietly, that this beneficial effect is probably not so much a direct result of her or his individual skills but more a reflection of what often happens at the start of therapy. That reaction can emerge soon after the start of the counselling process irrespective of what the client brings or whoever the therapist is.

This sudden change in mood invites a question ‘why’; how does this work? After all, counselling is just two people sitting in a room and talking. What is so remarkable about that? Yet ‘remarkable’ does seem to be the right word to use. That initial feeling of relief enjoyed by the client can be so different from the sense of despondency, desperation or gloom which may have been prevalent in the weeks prior to the first appointment.

There is no single straightforward answer to that question of ‘how does this work’. Maybe that is not surprising. People are complex beings with very different internal approaches to the myriad of challenges which life presents. Yet there is something around the environment created within the counselling room which can empower clients to begin to speak out on issues of real concern. If two people can sit together for an hour in a room and talk, shielded from outside influences with no recourse to phones, internet or external interruptions, then perhaps we should expect something to happen.

In practice, much will depend on what both counsellor and client bring into the room.  From the client, there may be fears, apprehension and perhaps sometimes even a degree of cynicism. But he or she is also likely to bring a sense of hope, a willingness to risk and an expectation that she or he will be heard. There can be a newfound sense of autonomy and freedom even if those feelings are initially wrapped in a shawl of trepidation.

‘Why not? What have I got to lose?’The client will come expecting to be able to talk without being judged, to be listened to without disapproval and to be heard without interruption. For some that reality may be an unusual experience not found in day to day life.

The second participant in the room, the counsellor, will be carrying ideas and thoughts on what may prove to be useful for the client. The effective therapist is likely to be open in her or his approach with a professional tool kit which will encompass different approaches. The therapist will also bring compassion for the client and also admiration for the undoubted bravery which has enabled the client to walk into the counselling room.

‘Bravery’ is a strong word but the correct one to use. To talk openly with a stranger about what will often be highly personal and intimate issues takes much courage as well as some desperation on the part of the client. The experienced therapist will recognise and acknowledge this.

There is another important aspect of the human condition which both will bring into the room; that is curiosity. What is going on for the client and why? What is happening? There is a reflection of ‘Pandora’s Box’ within the counselling process with reference to both the force of curiosity and the importance of hope. Perhaps the difference between the myth and counselling is that in the therapy room it is known at the outset that this particular Pandora’s Box will be opened at some stage in the therapy work.

Initially, it may only be possible to guess at the content and the consequences that will flow from that opening. Nevertheless, hope continues to play a vital role in the counselling process. It is hope which feeds the work each week. It is hope which empowers counsellor and client to seek out change, personal development and lasting improvement in emotional well-being.

But that is in the future. At the start of the work, there are many unknowns. Nevertheless, if after that first session there is a sense of relief, a feeling that something important has started and that a voice will now be heard, it is not that surprising that the immediate reaction from the client can be a positive one.   

That opening refrain that “even after just the initial session, I started to feel better and less weighed down” can be a comment to be expected. It is a conscious acknowledgement that the client has at last begun the process of change. And that this change will continue.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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