What are the rules of engagement between a client and a therapist?

Following ethical guidelines works for both the therapist and the client

Shabari Bhattacharya

If you are a person who is considering starting the counseling journey, a good start would be to check the background of your counselor which in turn will help you assess the ethical guidelines that your counselor follows. Good counseling can help clients deal with almost any issue, but unethical counseling has the potential to do more harm than good.

What are ethics in counseling?

Ethics are the general guidelines governing counseling practice that serve the dual purpose of protecting both the client and the counselor. These rules try to protect the client from any potential harm that could come from the counseling process. Often the source of the potential harm is not clear to the client. For example:

  • Why should a counselor inviting the client home be a problem?
  • Why shouldn’t counselors and clients be friends?
  • Why shouldn’t the counselor attend the client’s family get-togethers?
  • Why can’t the client give the counselor gifts in appreciation for a good relationship?
  • Why can’t a counseling session happen in a café?

The answers to these questions are not always obvious. It is important to understand that counselors have power in the relationship, although they may try to mitigate their influence. As clients, we are vulnerable because we share our most difficult feelings, memories and weaknesses with the counselor. Without this, the counseling process cannot be effective, and yet counselors are human beings too with the same human needs as anyone else. As human beings we like to feel needed, appreciated, loved and wish that our contributions are appreciated. When these needs are not met in other aspects of the counselor’s life, these needs may find themselves inserted into the counseling process which has the potential to divert the attention away from the clients’ needs in a way that isn’t obvious to the client.

For example, clients often share relational fears in counseling. The counseling relationship is unique, in that the counselor shares relatively little about themselves, but listens attentively to the client’s concerns and fears. This process of active listening forms the basis of talk therapy. It is common and natural that the client would feel a connection with a person focusing wholly on them, which is not the norm in life. This often leads to wanting to know more about the counselor in other contexts. Ethically a counselor should in such situations maintain appropriate boundaries, and contain the relationship within the counseling space. This involves being careful about self-disclosures and not seeing the client outside of the counseling sessions.

Unfortunately, if the counselor’s own needs for friendship or connectedness are not being met then it is possible that the counselor will share personal information, or try to meet the client in social situations. Meeting clients outside of counseling changes the relationship, while endangering the client. The counselor-client relationship is naturally skewed in terms of power. The client cannot know as much about the counselor as the counselor does about the client, opening up possibilities for manipulation and harm.  

Ethical guidelines also protect the counselor’s interests in counseling by defining the limits of the counseling relationship. They serve to help the counselor decide when there is a safety risk to the client, and when further support may be needed. Commonly discussed safety risks to the client may include the client’s suicidality, potential child abuse, or the desire to harm others.  Counselors need to take social, legal and environmental factors into account when making decisions to protect the client’s wellbeing. Other less obvious risks to the counselor involve basic counseling norms. Should a counselor see a client in his or her home? If a client cannot afford to pay what should they be charged? If you know of the client socially should you see them as a therapist? These are some examples of grey areas that most counseling organizations have ethical guidelines for to protect both the counselor and the client.

These guidelinesis protects the counselor from having to make the decisions on their own without support. Ideally, if professional decisions are made with the support of preexisting ethical guidelines, the counselor can fall back on support from fellow professionals when a judgment call made in the counseling room is called into question.

As a rule of thumb, if something feels uncomfortable in counseling, the client should trust their feelings and seek clarification from the counselor. If the concerns are not addressed, consulting another counselor or counseling organization may help to bring clarification to the process. Although it may be difficult, common counseling ethical guidelines also talk about how to seek support in times when the client may have an issue with the counselor.

Unfortunately for a potential client in India, there is no parent body or licensing authority to certify counselors and ensure that all individuals who call themselves counselors follow a common ethical practice. It falls on the training organization to follow a set of ethical guidelines that their trainees then adhere to. There are few laws that apply to counseling as a profession, and as a result, the responsibility of the client when seeking therapy is to check the training of the person offering counseling services It becomes the responsibility of the client to do a background check on the training of the person offering counseling services). Also the words counseling or counselor are used loosely and often counselors, perhaps with good intentions, claim certification without disclosing where the certification may have been obtained.

From a client’s point of view, it would be helpful to find out where the counselor has been trained, the kind of training received and the ethical guidelines that the counselor is adhering to. This would help the client to establish that their interests are being looked after to the best of the profession’s ability.

Shabari Bhattacharya is counselor and trainer with Parivarthan Counseling Training and Research Centre.