The Counseling Relationship

The counseling relationship is foundational for effective mental health care. A working relationship is a pre-requisite for a multicultural conceptualization as well as many advanced counseling techniques. The counseling relationship has been considered a common factor for over 80 years, as the relationship is foundational to all counseling theories.

Carl Rogers & The Counseling Relationship

Carl Rogers is often credited as an early advocate of the counseling relationship and an empathetic way of being. Rogers encouraged counselors to be warm, genuine, and empathetic. Counselors can create an ideal environment for client growth within the context of the counseling relationship through seeking to genuinely understand their clients experiences and expressing unconditional positive regard.

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Rogers' Definition of the Counseling Relationship

According to Rogers (1942) the counseling relationship is comprised of:

  • Warmth, responsiveness, & unconditional positive regard
  • "This is expressed as a genuine interest in the client and an acceptance of him as a person" (p. 87).
  • Freedom from judgement, pressure or coercion
  • "The skillful counselor refrains from intruding his own wishes, his own reactions or biases, into the therapeutic situations" (p. 89).
  • "Advice, suggestion, pressure to follow one course of action rather than another - these are out of place in therapy" (p. 89).
  • Permissiveness regarding emotional expression
  • Once a relationship has been built, the client will feel free to express any emotion or thought.
  • Boundaries
  • Rogers notes that counselors must maintain boundaries, such as ending sessions on time or intervening if a client imminently threatens another person.

Carl Rogers on the Counseling Relationship

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Rogers believed that clients seek counseling as a result of incongruence. For example, when a client becomes aware that some aspects of what they are feeling and experiencing inside are incongruent with how they are presenting to the outside world. The counselor then strives to be congruent in relation to the client through genuineness, honesty, unconditional positive regard, and communicating an empathetic understanding of the client’s situation. If the client perceives the counselor as being empathetic, then the proper conditions are created for the client to begin to become more congruent and actualized.

Psychotherapy Outcome Research & the Counseling Relationship

Psychotherapy outcome research has consistently demonstrated that clients' perceptions of counselor empathy and attunement are predictive of treatment outcomes.

The Therapeutic Relationship with John Norcross

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Empathy & the Counseling Relationship

Empathy is foundational to an effective counseling relationship. Empathy involves understanding your clients' worlds as they do, without imposing your own values, biases, and judgments. It can be challenging for counselors to develop empathy with certain clients. For example, some beginning counselors have disclosed that they would have a difficult time empathizing with someone with different spiritual beliefs, a different sexual orientation, or a non-binary gender identity. Empathy is not the same as adopting your clients' values, beliefs, behaviors, or ways of understanding the world as your own. Empathy is about seeking to understand the experiences, feelings, and worldviews of another person. You don't have to experience everything that your clients have experienced to have empathy. Every counselor has a difficult time working with some clients. If you are having trouble empathizing with a client, we encourage you to seek supervision and to focus on self-care.

Brené Brown on Empathy

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Helen Riess on Tapping Into & Communicating Empathy

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Emphasizing Genuineness: Does Vulnerability Matter for Empathetic Connection?

This video contains edited clips from two Ted Talks by Brené Brown. The video is best viewed in high definition.

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Empathy Exploration Questions

  1. What client identity factors, presenting problems, and behaviors do you think you might have a difficult time empathizing with?
  2. What are your reactions to thinking about a client you would have a difficult time empathizing with?
  3. What values would you have to set aside when working with a client you had a difficult time empathizing with?
  4. How can you use empathy to encourage clients to explore their own emotions, values, biases, beliefs, behaviors, and worldviews?
  5. In what ways have your family and life experiences impacted your empathy?
  6. Based on your unique life experiences, what clients might you have an easier, more natural time empathizing with?
  7. How can you tell when you are having a reaction to a client? Where do you feel it in your body? What thoughts cue you that you are having a difficult time empathizing?