Counseling Skills & Techniques

What Is Counseling?

The American Counseling Association (ACA) defines professional counseling as a collaborative relationship between a counselor and their client. They work together to develop strategies for accomplishing mental health and wellness, education, and career goals.

There are four main types of professional counseling:

  • Individual counseling, the most common type, focuses on an individual’s growth and mental health.
  • Couples or marriage counseling focuses on assisting couples in overcoming conflict and working toward a stronger relationship.
  • Family counseling focuses on complex family dynamics and how they affect each individual as well as the group.
  • Group counseling focuses on treating an individual in a group environment to facilitate growth.

As you progress through your career as a licensed mental health counselor, you may engage in one or more of these counseling approaches. You may also choose to specialize in working with a particular group, such as children, individuals with addiction, the LGBTQ+ community, or members of the military.

The program cards/tables featured on this page were last updated in April 2020. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school.

Northwestern University

The Family Institute at Northwestern University


Master of Arts in Counseling

Earn a CACREP-accredited master’s in counseling online from top-9 ranked1 Northwestern University.

1U.S. News & World Report: 2022 Best National University Rankings 

  • CACREP Accredited
  • Earn your MA in Counseling from Northwestern in as few as 18 months
  • Accelerated full-time, traditional, or part-time tracks available

New York University

NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development


Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness

Aspiring mental health counselors are prepared to pursue licensure with NYU Steinhardt’s MPCAC-accredited online counseling master’s. Students can earn their degree in as few as 21 mos. GRE not req. 

  • Prepare to become a mental health counselor
  • Accredited by the MPCAC
  • As few as 21 months to complete
  • GRE not required 


The Process of Counseling

Counseling doesn’t have a fixed set of stages that apply to every client situation. However, there are common elements that they generally share.

1. Building rapport
This is an opportunity for you and your client to get to know one another. How you establish this relationship will set the tone for your future sessions.

2. Assessment
This is where you begin to understand your client. Ask questions and practice active listening to understand their concerns, establish goals and set expectations.

3. Goal setting
This involves working together with your client to define the specific, measurable, achievable goals that you will work toward during counseling.

4. Intervention
This is the process of choosing the appropriate counseling techniques that will encourage your client’s growth.

5. Evaluation
This is a collaborative assessment between a counselor and their client. Review progress and adjust goals and strategies if needed.

6. Termination
This occurs when a client’s needs have been met, and concludes the counseling process. Summarize your client’s progress and provide additional resources.

(Back to Top)

Counseling Skills

Earning a master’s degree in counseling can help you practice different techniques for working with and helping clients. However, building strong and trusting relationships with clients requires both technical and interpersonal skills. As such, a counselor should possess the following skills and qualities:

Listening and observation skills: In order to fully comprehend client needs and devise an appropriate treatment plan, counselors must have strong active listening and observational skills.

Ability to ask the right questions: Counselors learn about their clients by asking questions. It’s important to understand the psychology behind question order and type so you can set the proper tone for your relationship.

  • Closed questions can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Because they do not encourage deeper exploration, they can provide limited information and should be used sparingly.
  • Open questions cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and requires a client to reflect on an answer. Open questions should be intentional and aimed at helping a client explore their feelings.

Communication: Interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues, explaining research and treatment to clients and filling out reports are all important aspects of being a counselor. Communication techniques that you may need to employ include:

  • Reflections: Clients may not always be able to put their feelings into words. Counselors can help them identify the emotions they express in their statements or nonverbal cues.
  • Restating/rephrasing: Counselors can validate and gain further clarification from their clients by rephrasing statements made during a session.
  • Affirmations: Building a client’s self-confidence can help to eliminate harmful thought patterns and increase their propensity toward positive life choices.

Empathy: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes shows that you can understand your client’s experience and their associated feelings.

Genuineness: When your actions and words match your feelings and thoughts, you are operating from a place of authenticity. Remaining authentic is an important part of your relationship with clients.

Unconditional positive regard: Making your client feel accepted for who they are can bring warmth and respect into your sessions and make them more comfortable opening up.

Counselor self-disclosure: This can be tricky to navigate, as each client scenario is unique and may warrant different levels of disclosure. However, it can be helpful in building rapport and trust between a counselor and client.

(Back to Top)

Counseling Theories

Counseling theories can provide helpful context when working with different clients. As you become familiar with each one, you can determine which approaches you will use in your own sessions.

  • Psychoanalytic Theory: Developed by Sigmund Freud, this theory supports the idea that unconscious forces drive human actions. Psychoanalytic therapy sessions may incorporate dream analysis, free association and transference analysis.
  • Person-Centered Theory: Developed by Carl Rogers, this theory operates on the assumption that every human being has the ability to fulfill their potential. In person-centered therapy sessions, counselors act as a supportive guide.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This theory explains that human problems stem from negative thought patterns. CBT counseling challenges automatic thoughts and encourages clients to find logic in their thinking.
  • Family Systems Model: Developed by Murray Bowen, this theory states that family is the primary source of emotions and personality. It is often used in marriage and family counseling sessions.

Becoming a counselor allows you to promote client welfare and build strong relationships that empower them to obtain mental health and fulfill their goals. Start building the skills you need to empower your clients.

Last updated: October 2023