Please Tell Me What to Do!! The Role of Advice in Counselling

The Motivation to Seek Help

Most people enter counselling during a period of distress in their lives.  Usually every effort is made to cope until we become frustrated and feel like we’re at a dead end.  Maybe someone suggests that we should see a counsellor or a therapist, maybe we come up with this idea ourselves.  We might know of someone who benefited from it or we regularly watch Dr. Phil,  hoping we’ll pick up something important.  “Maybe counseling could help me?” you think.

If you’re curious about counselling, that’s a good sign.  Motivation has a huge role to play when it comes to making change happen.  When someone is pushed into therapy, usually by someone else, I’ve rarely seen it work.

Because distress is often high when we start counselling, it’s normal to say to the therapist, “Please tell me what to do!”  You want things to be better. Yesterday.


Advice in counselling is an interesting beast. In some schools of therapy, it’s never given. Never.  Even if you plead with the therapist.  A common response is to turn it back to the client, or “patient” and ask about their motivation in asking that question.  Some people do really well with an approach like this or a version thereof.  And to others, it’s just plain maddening.  So maddening, there is no session two.

In other counselling approaches, there many very specific advice given for things that could improve, for example, your mood: exercise, changes to your diet, sleep hygiene guidelines, cognitive restructuring exercises, and the like.

Many therapists will not tell you what to do when it comes to major life decisions or sometimes even questions about your specific situation, working instead to assist you to develop your own solutions.  Experience has shown me that when change comes from the client, the change is always more meaningful and life-altering.

But What About…

Okay, so you’ve read what I have to say and you still want direction.  You may even say, “I don’t pay someone just to listen to me.”  You are right. Listening is rarely enough.

Common questions I hear are:

  • “Can you give me some tools to help with….?”
  • “What is the best way to help with…?”
  • “What are the next steps?”
  • “Can you give me some homework around…?”
  • “I need skills, strategies.”

These are all excellent, valid questions and need to be addressed in the course of therapy.

The Importance of Understanding

And, if we go straight to these important questions right away, what can get lost is an important first step: understanding.  This is sometimes referred to in therapy as an assessment. It’s when the counsellor asks detailed questions about the circumstances and situation which brought you to counselling and also explores any relevant background information with you.

Why is Understanding Important?

  • Your specific challenges are uncovered, particularly those which have made change difficult
  • Your strengths and personal assets are revealed, which help mobilize the change process
  • Factors that make your situation unique are identified, especially in your immediate world

In other words, the counsellor gets to know you as a unique human being and then can partner with you in making recommendations specific to you.  If advice or suggestions are offered prematurely, before the counsellor understands you or your situation, the best one can hope for is generic advice.  This is what self-help books are for!  They’re written for general audiences.  When you hire a therapist you are implicitly asking for a customized experience and in order for that to happen, the therapist has to understand, on a deeper level, why you’ve come to counselling, what you need for you to reach your goals and how meaningful change can occur in your life.

Person vs. Problem

“Person vs. Problem” is a reference to how you want to position yourself, orient yourself, ‘pilot your ship’ in the counselling process.  If advice is the main goal you hope to achieve in counselling, it’s likely you have assumed a “problem” orientation and I won’t dis that.  You may be thinking, for example:

“What is the treatment for anxiety?”

“What is the standard approach for depression?”

“What do I need to do to deal with my grief?”

“Please tell me about DBT for borderline personality disorder.”

But there is another way, and it relies initially on the suspension of advice giving: the “person” orientation to counselling.  Make no mistake: this approach is not advice-denying, unless this would undermine a client’s personal growth and goals for counselling. Advice, when given, comes from a solid understanding of the person that the counsellor is meeting with. Suggestions flow from an intimate knowledge of the situation that has brought the individual to counselling. And if counselling evolves from this perspective, there is sufficient trust, developed over time, between counsellor and counsellee to search for solutions that are truly relevant and beneficial and that any avenues can be discussed, accepted, or rejected.

And Still…

The voice of the client is an essential part of the counselling experience. If you feel at any point that you are not getting what you need out of counselling, by all means, speak up!  I cannot underscore how fruitful this kind of conversation can be. If you are willing to take responsibility for what is important to you in therapy and you have hired a counsellor who is open to, or even thrives on feedback, good things can happen!