Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide


Sandy Magnuson & Ken Norem

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    Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide was written to amplify 42 meaning-rich words: “Studies that provide an understanding of the counseling process in a multicultural society, including all of the following: (a) an orientation to wellness and prevention as desired counseling goals, (b) counselor characteristics and behaviors that influence helping processes, and (c) essential interviewing and counseling skills” (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, 2009, Standards II, 5 a, b, and c). These words appear under a variety of counselor education course syllabi titles such as prepracticum, practicum, orientation to counseling, and techniques of counseling: Courses addressing these standards are often corequisite with classes addressing ethics, assessment, and theories of counseling. These courses are prerequisites for internships. The skills within the standards are reinforced, expanded, and honed in advanced courses such as group counseling, family counseling, and consultation.

    During our combined 50 years as counselor educators, we developed and persistently revised materials to supplement text books, professional journal articles, and class activities for applied classes such as prepracticum and practicum. We developed written activities with which counselors-in-training could apply knowledge and skills and experiment with responses they might use when working with clients. We ultimately arrived at a sequence of activities that seemed to facilitate mastery of essential skills so the graduate students with whom we worked were adequately prepared to meet their first clients. When we retired a few years ago, we looked at the materials we had created and asked, “What shall we do with all of this?” We decided to develop the materials in a way that could be shared with others.

    Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide is a synthesis of the presentations, activities, and exercises we accrued since 1980. Our goal in preparing the text has been to share a versatile, efficient, and practical resource that can be used in conjunction with textbooks, journal articles, and instructor-led experiences—just as we used the materials within it.

    We have experienced our own career development as a journey. We have been fortunate to cross paths with many guides along the way—professors, supervisors, authors, workshop presenters, and colleagues. The power of that metaphor intensified for us as we walked alongside hundreds of amazing students working toward their master's and doctoral degrees. The journey unfolded with new vistas at each turn. Although we planned some of those turns, others came by surprise. We learned with and from our students. We continue to value lifelong learning as our journey continues into retirement and we write a column for a local newspaper titled “Thoughts Along Life's Journey.” Thus, Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide is conceptualized as a series of tours along that journey.

    We begin with an invitation and proposed itinerary. Our role is to guide the tour; however, those who participate are encouraged to follow their own paths as appropriate. We include orientation material, structure activities, and encourage reflection throughout. We included illustrations and activities based on clients with whom we worked. Recommended resources are provided at the conclusion of each tour; however, we emphasize that resources for contemporary counselors are abundant and readily available.

    We are among the last cohorts of professional counselors who had opportunities to learn directly from pioneers such as Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, Virginia Satir, Murray Bowen, Rollo May, Albert Ellis, B. F. Skinner, Jay Haley, Steve de Shazer, and Insoo Kim Berg. We remember when the American Counseling Association was called the American Personnel and Guidance Association. We hold in high regard those early pioneers who developed and expanded theories. We admire early leaders who had the vision to form an association for professional counselors. We respect and appreciate contemporary scholars and leaders who carry the profession now and will ultimately hand it to the generation that follows them. We hope that we captured, shared, and inspired a historical perspective without losing sight of the current and future pictures. We love the profession of counseling and remain in awe as we think about the important work counselors do.

    Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide is a revision of a parallel text, Counseling Children and Adolescents in Schools: Practice and Application Guide. The first text was written exclusively for school counselors and school psychologists; it was a complementary text for Counseling Children and Adolescents in Schools. Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide is intended for diverse counselors-in-training, whether they plan to work in community settings, hospitals, or schools. We adopted and revised materials from the original text. We added sections that are important for counselors who work with clients in a variety of contexts.

    Results of research continue to support the importance of counselor–client relationships, and their contributions to outcomes. Thus, throughout the text, we emphasized factors that influence therapeutic alliances. We have observed that counselors-in-training sometimes struggle with the process of applying theory to practice. Thus, we have given special attention to the conceptualization—the task of integrating theories and selected appropriate interventions in response to clients' unique needs. A critical factor in all work with clients is “the person of the counselor,” which is another primary focus of Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide.

    We dedicate Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide to our many former students who embraced excellence and became amazing counselors and counselor educators—as close as four blocks from our home and as far as Korea, Taiwan, and Israel. You did everything we asked and so much more! You paid us the highest set of compliments by outdoing us!

    Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). (2009). 2009 standards. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from


    Several people generously contributed their time and expertise throughout the development of Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide. We appreciated and enjoyed our opportunity to work with Kassie Graves, human services senior acquisitions editor at SAGE Publications, again. From the time the text was nothing more than a topic of conversation to the day when it reached shelves, Kassie has been encouraging, cheerful, and incredibly helpful. Elizabeth Luizzi and other professionals at SAGE Publications have consistently responded to questions, offered advice, and guided the process with grace and patience. We acknowledge the tenacity, precision, and expertise demonstrated by Diane DiMura as she copy-edited word by word, line by line, and paragraph by paragraph. We also valued Stephanie Palermini's meticulous and responsive review as we neared the end of the publication process.

    We also valued the recommendations offered by professionals who reviewed the initial structure for the text, and offered ideas that strengthened the plan: Chloe Lancaster, The University of Memphis; Chris Simmons, University of South Florida; Christine Rine, Plymouth State University; Donna McIntosh, Siena College; Geoffrey G. Yager, University of Cincinnati; Jeff L. Cochran, University of Tennessee; Kristy A. Brumfield, Xavier University of Louisiana; Mary C. Bradley, Indiana University Southeast; Michael P. Collins, Northern Arizona University; Octavio Ramirez, Oakwood University; Robin Russel, University of Maine; and Veronika Ospina-Kammerer, Saint Leo University

    As we neared completion of the draft manuscript, others assisted in reviewing content of each component. Through this tedious process, they recognized elements that were missing and components that lacked clarity. Those individuals were Michael Collins, Northern Arizona University; Martha Ellen Wynne, Loyola University–Chicago; Michael Shufelt Moyer, University of Texas at San Antonio; Nina C. Martin, Vanderbilt University; Norma S. Guerra, University of Texas at San Antonio; Adrian S. Warren, University of Texas at San Antonio; Barbara A. Mahaffey, Ohio University–Chillicothe; DeLeana Strohl, University of Wisconsin-Stout; Louis Jocelyn Gregoire, Duquesne University; Stuart Itzkowitz, Wayne State University; Ronnie Priest, The University of Memphis; and John Clements, Webster University.

    Finally, we express our appreciation to professors who selected the text for their classes and the counselors-in-training who purchased it to support development of their essential counseling skills.

    Introduction: An Invitation

    Congratulations! You have purchased your tickets for an exciting journey on which you will learn about fulfilling and rewarding careers in professional counseling. The journey can, indeed, be rewarding even though it will require hard work and introspection. We are delighted to share our experiences in this wonderful profession with you, and we look forward to joining you on this portion of your career journey.

    Your itinerary for this portion of your journey, provided in Table Introduction. 1, is somewhat flexible. Though we have presented the series of tours sequentially, your journey may not be linear. Instructors, your supervisors, and your sojourners may recommend alternate routes, additional excursions, digressions, and layovers. The tours are designed with time flexibility as well. You may stroll through some and jog through others. You may find that a few of the tours are more arduous than others.

    Table Introduction. 1 Itinerary
    Tour 1: Preparation for Departure: Who Am I and How Do I Interact With Others?
    • Reflective Practice: For Now, It Is All About You!
    • Exploring Your Beliefs
    • Giving and Receiving Feedback
    • Changes and Reactions You May Encounter on Your Journey
    • Wellness: Intentional Attention to the Person of the Counselor
    Tour 2: Preparation for Departure: Building Relationships With Basic Listening Skills
    • Exploring Authenticity, Respect, Empathy, and Engagement
    • Counseling Relationship as the Essential Ingredient: A Theoretical Review
    • Becoming Familiar With Basic Skills
    • Nonverbal Attending
    • Tracking
    • Reflecting Content
    • Reflecting Affect
    • Clarifying
    • Summarizing
    • Facilitative Questioning
    • Pitfalls to Avoid
    Tour 3: Departure: Advanced Facilitation Skills
    • Empathy: Theory and Research
    • Reflecting Meaning
    • Capturing “the Big Picture” With a Wide-Angle Lens
    • Immediacy
    • Self-Disclosure
    • Challenging
    • Reframing
    • Using Metaphor
    • Silence
    • Advanced Skills: Cautionary Guidelines
    • Respecting Cultural Differences
    • Therapeutic Use of Self
    Tour 4: Traveling With a Theory: Integration and Personalization
    • Facilitating Change
    • Our Theory About Theories
    • Integration of Theories Versus Eclecticism
    • Integration and Personalization
    • Personalization Phase One: Exploration of Personal Values and Major Theories
    • Personalization Phase Two: Examination of One or Two Theories
    • Personalization Phase Three: Integration
    • Personalization Phase Four: Personalization!
    • Importance of Empirical Support and Clinical Judgment
    Tour 5: Applying Theory: Assessment and Conceptualization
    • Assessment
    • Illustration of Functional Behavior Assessment
    • Conceptualization
    • Defining Goals
    Tour 6: Meeting Clients: Treatment Planning, Progress Monitoring, and Documentation
    • Introducing and Orienting Clients to Counseling
    • Treatment Planning
    • Monitoring Progress
    • Documentation
    Tour 7: Consolidation: Celebrating the Journey and Preparing to Go Separate Ways
    • Consolidation With Clients
    • Consolidation as We Prepare to Conclude Essential Counseling Skills: Practice and Application Guide
    • Packing to Embark on Your Next Tour
    • The Person of the Professional Counselor: That's You!
    • Integration
    • Our Final Words About All the Words!
    Source: Adapted from Magnuson, S., Hess, R. S., & Beeler, L. M. (2012). Counseling children and adolescents in schools: Practice and application guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    An unusual feature of this journey is the absence of a destination. In addition to having no destination, the journey does not have an exact departure place and time.

    This is not a round trip, although you may find that it is cyclical from time to time. You will also find that it is expansive rather than linear.

    Clearly the journey is yours. You are, ultimately, the captain. Toward the end of the tours in this Guide, you will likely find that the scenery changes dramatically as you become an active contributor. That will be a signal that our participation as temporary guides on your journey has served its purpose, and we will bid you farewell.

    At the beginning of several tours, we have provided orientation information, some of which will be a review for you. We will explore notions of authenticity, respect, empathy, engagement, and use of self. Rather than “packing” these concepts in preparation for departure, we will “unpack” them as we endeavor to make sense of them at various junctures along the journey. Your luggage will expand as you attain new skills, new tools, and new ideas. As we move from one tour to the next, we will endeavor to help you carefully package your acquisitions because you will use them throughout your journey.

    Our responsibilities for accompanying you on this portion of your professional journey will near completion by the time we begin the sixth tour, when you assume more of a leadership role. Rather than “seeing new sites” you will be invited to reflect on the meaning you personally derived on the various tours. You will likely refer to previous travel resources as you consider the merit and relevance of theories and frameworks for your work as a counselor. You will be asked to reflectively examine how all the “sites” you have viewed on these and other tours of your journey coalesce into meaningful, internally consistent methods and models that fit for you.

    As you participate in various activities, we hope you will personalize the exercises by visualizing a professional environment in which you might work and by giving faces to clients who are described. For example, you will be asked to write a response to a 45-year-old man who says, “This is about the most ridiculous situation I've ever been in. My boss sent me to you. She thinks I have an anger problem!” Create a mental picture of Thor. What does he look like? What color is his skin? What color is his hair? Your pictures of the clients with whom you might work will help you compose more personal responses.

    We also hope you enjoy your interactions with the potential clients we have included. They represent actual living, dynamic, human beings with whom you will work in your counseling skills class, during your practicum, during your internship, and throughout your career. We hope you are humbled, as we are, by the awesome privilege and responsibility that goes with being a professional counselor.

    Welcome aboard! Let's get started!
    Sandy and Ken
  • About the Authors

    Sandy Magnuson's and Ken Norem's journeys as counselors and counselor educators have been rich, diverse, and mostly enjoyable. They met at the Missouri School Counselor Association conference in October 1984. They began writing together and conducting workshops before they were married in 1985. They have cotaught a variety of courses, cocounseled many couples and families, coedited state journals and newsletters, and coauthored over 75 articles. Supervision of counselors was a primary focus of research they conducted. They were active members of many branches and divisions of the American Counseling Association.

    Sandy was an elementary teacher prior to becoming a school counselor. She received her master's degree in school counseling at Southwest Missouri State University in 1983 and her doctorate in counselor education at the University of Alabama in 1995. Sandy's years of experience include two as a college counselor-in-residence, nine as a school counselor, 11 in private practice (part time) and community mental health (full time), and 12 as a counselor educator. Since retiring, Sandy continues to spend time in schools as a Spellbinder oral storyteller and as a response to intervention (RTI) consultant. She serves on a variety of community advisory boards and committees.

    Ken completed his master's degree in counselor education at the University of Northern Iowa in 1963 and his doctorate from Iowa State University in 1978. Ken's professional experiences include 5 years as a public high school teacher, 20 years as a school counselor, 24 years as a counselor educator, and 20 years (part time) in private practice and community mental health. He coordinated counselor education programs at three universities. Since retiring, Ken has been actively involved in political activities and volunteering.

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