Counseling: A Guide to Key Skills and Career Paths

A counselor is a trained and highly educated professional who helps individuals, couples and families through difficult periods in their lives. These problems can range from overcoming trauma, family issues, financial stress or career worries to managing everyday stresses and adopting more positive perspectives on life.

Counseling is a professional discipline which is widely misunderstood and, unfortunately, often underestimated. The breadth of knowledge and expertise required to provide effective counseling for clients takes years to acquire. While theoretical learning is essential, there are several skills and techniques which must be developed during the career and constantly adapted for each client. This guide introduces some of these essential skills and the possible career paths awaiting those who choose to take on the challenging but incredibly rewarding responsibility of becoming a counselor.

Key Counseling Skills


Counselors must be active listeners who can absorb what is being said, develop an emotionally intuitive understanding of what is being communicated and see the situation from both objectively and from the patient’s perspective.

Verbal Communication

Being able to converse naturally and confidently with clients is essential, but a counselor must also be able to articulate often complex psychological theories and concepts in a way that clients can understand and take meaningful advice from.


Clients are often seeing a counselor because they are struggling through difficult periods. A counselor should be able to provide empathy to enable them to understand and experience the emotions of their client. It’s important to note that there is a key difference between empathy and sympathy.


Counselors should not discuss their private lives with clients in detail but it can sometimes be appropriate to share some personal experiences or information if it may help the client, e.g. if the counselor has experienced a similar struggle they may share how they managed to cope.

Critical Thinking

A counselor should be able to prioritize information they receive from their clients, decide what is most crucial and ask appropriate questions to help clients navigate their own emotions. This enables counselors to decide on the best course of treatment.

Written Communication

Being a counselor involves writing reports, managing patient records and communicating with other health professionals in both formal and informal ways.

Counseling Career Paths

If you feel you have the potential to be a successful counselor, your next question is likely to be on the opportunities for employment. Counselors can work in a range of settings and can focus their careers on particular groups.

Couples, marriage and family counselors

Marriage and family counselors support clients in close relationships including romantic and family relationships. Counseling could take place with patients as individuals or groups or a combination of both.

School Counselors

A school counselor helps students in a school (or several schools) with issues from peer pressure, relationships, family issues, academic problems or even with important decisions about their education or career. To become a school counselor you will need to complete a masters in school counseling.

Mental Health Counselors

Counselors who help clients with anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, depression or other mental and emotional problems. This could include treating people who are suicidal.

Substance Abuse Counselors

A substance abuse counselor helps people who are battling with addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. This could include individual treatment or group therapy sessions but often focused on coping strategies and recovery.

Career Counselors

While a career counselors may work with students who are at the start of their career they can also support adults who are trying to improve their career or make a career change.

Counseling skills for breakup,   Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
Breakup Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
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Melissa Thompson

Melissa is a mother of 2, lives in Utah, and writes for a multitude of sites. She is currently the EIC of and writes about health, wellness, and business topics.