Monthly Archives: July 2014

On The Necessity of Theory in Counselling

Counselling, generally referred to as the “talk therapy” is now gaining wider popularity in the Sri Lankan context. However the myth still remains that it can be performed simply by anyone. The general assumption is that it is just talking. The validity of this commonly accepted belief is rather doubtful as counselling has its foundation on theory.

            Theories work as the base of all branches of science. They are governed by empiricism and can be proven. Simply speaking the function of a theory is to explain a phenomenon so that it can be understood and allows prediction. According to Maddi (1996), theories are meant to foster an understanding of something hitherto not understood. Even in counselling the theories assist in dealing with clients and their issues. Counselling can be defined as a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals. (American Counselling Association, 2010) To achieve the pinnacles of success in counselling, the competence of counsellors plays a pivotal role. This idea of competence is made up of theoretical knowledge, skills and expertise. Hence the role of theory in magnifying counsellor competence and laying the foundation on which the entire process of counselling is grounded is rather obvious. A theory in this sense works as a blueprint for action. The counsellor’s choices of interventions, reactions, analysis and understanding all flow logically from a theoretical model of what people are like, what is good for them and what conditions are likely to influence them in a self determined, desirable direction. (Kottler & Sheppard, 2008)

Today in counselling there are a variety of theories categorized under 4 or 5 conceptual orientations. All these fall under two categories.

  • Insight theories
  • Action theories

Insight theories such as Psychoanalysis, Existential theories are based more on philosophical grounds without much empirical and substantial evidence whereas Action theories like Behaviorism are based on empiricism. The significance of having two types of theories operating in different levels is beneficial in the field of counselling as it can, not only cover what is apparent but most importantly what is implies. This is why theory is the foundation of good counselling. It challenges counsellors to be caring and creative within the confines of a highly personal relationship that is structured for growth and insight (Gladding, 1990).  According to Boy and Pine (1983) there are mainly six functions of theories in counselling. They are as follows.

  1. It helps counsellors find unity and relatedness within the diversity of existence.
  2. It compels counsellors to examine relationship they would otherwise overlook.
  3. It gives counsellors operational guidelines by which to work and help them evaluate their development as professionals.
  4. It helps counsellors focus on relevant information and tell them what to look for.
  5. It helps counsellors assist clients in the effective modification of their behavior, cognitions, emotional functioning and interpersonal relationships.
  6. It helps counsellors evaluate both old and new approaches to the process of counselling.

These functions highlight the necessity and also significance in having theoretical models which assist to heighten the counsellor competence and its effectiveness. But in elaborating the use and the need of theories I will be using the following arguments.

Firstly, Theory works as a set of guidelines by which a counselor works. When a counsellor encounters a client for the first time, and as he allows the client for self revelation, in the counsellor a certain perception of the client and his/her issues are being built. This understanding comes to the counsellor through the theories because the theory offers a comprehensive system of doing counselling and assists in understanding our client, in the application of techniques and in predicting client change. In addition by examining what we say to our clients, we are able to evaluate whether we are acting congruently with our theory. Theories in this sense work as heuristics; that is they are researchable and testable and ultimately allow us to discard those aspects shown to be ineffective. Even more significantly having a counselling theory tells the world that we are not haphazard in how we apply our knowledge because to function without theory is to operate without placing events in some order and thus to function meaninglessly.(Neukrug, 2003)

Theory also works as a prediction of behaviour. In theory construction we are indirectly trying to establish a basis for predicting

  • A client prognosis
  • Likely consequence of certain interventions
  • Connections between experience and non experience in a client’s life
  • The impact of our therapeutic efforts (Kottler & Sheppard, 2008)


Here it is necessary to highlight that counselling is different from just talking with a close associate because we are dealing with a professional who is equipped with theory and expertise. This is why counsellors have the ability to predict client behaviour. For an example let us take the use of Psychoanalytical theory in explaining this idea. A client that comes to a counsellor and explains his condition and issue may not be consciously aware of the issue that is really disrupting him. The counsellor here has the ability to dissect the latent and manifest cause of the condition through prediction. In this case it could be a case of abuse in childhood that comes out in a different from in adult age. Hence theories help the counselor to understand the behaviour and predict. Even when using techniques this prediction helps because it allows him/her to choose the most effective method.

Theories also help to focus on relevant data and what to look for. In this sense theory plays a vital role because as the counsellor listens to the client it helps him/her to grasp and pay attention to the important parts of his speech while continuing the conversation and keep track of these for elaboration later. Also they not only tell the counsellor what to look for but to be cautious of things that he/she might miss out. These theoretical modals have their origins in the values and beliefs of persons who in turn have converted these in to a philosophy and a theoretical modal for counselling. These values and beliefs form a rationale for what one does, how one does it and under what circumstance. It predicts probable outcomes for different sets of conditions. Thus theory summarizes the information base of the philosophy to draw conclusions.(Gibson & Mitchell, 2005) So being open to all these models directs the counsellor and helps to look for the relevant data based on the situation. It also helps him/her to avoid mistakes and used the most effective theory to progress with.

The most important function of all is to assist the client to modify his behavior effectively. After all the necessity of being competent for any counsellor is so that he/she can assist the clients in the best manner possible. For an example when taking the In the Person Centered theory, the main idea that people had an actualizing tendency and if placed in a nurturing environment would develop into fully aware, fully functioning selves clearly highlight that utmost importance should be given for client betterment. In order to get to this stage Rogers recommends the conditions that need to be created as empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. So this suggests that theory has been formulated in a way that develops the counsellor competence. When the counselor is equipped with these the competence would naturally go high. To elaborate, empathy allows the counselor to get into the clients hoes and yet be objective so that he has potential to assist the client.

Yet each theory is an approximation of truth, one person’s/ group’s attempt at explaining phenomena that are difficult to understand and virtually impossible to describe fully. These theories, as with all other human structures are imperfect working hypothesis subject to distortion, biases and limitations. (Kottler & Sheppard, 2008) This is why counsellors should adopt an integrative approach. Here, counsellors use various theories and techniques to match their clients’ needs. As needs change, counsellors depart from a theory they are using to another approach. It is not easy because it requires the counsellor to be familiar with all theories and processes involved. If a counsellor is not well-versed with the different counselling theories, it is likely that he or she may do harm than good.

Thus theories play a vital role in laying the foundation for counselling and counsellor competence. Without theory it would not be scientific and would be a mere discourse between two individuals which will not guarantee a solution. Theories open up different gateways and perspectives to the same issue allowing the counsellor to use the best methods possible. Simply theory is on what everything else it being built. It creates an unending cycle of discovery and testing, evolving theories of ever increasing scope so they that they can guide counselling practice.






American Counselling Association. (2010). Consensus Definition of Counselling. Retrieved From the American Counselling Association website:


Boy, A. V. & Pine, G. (1990). A Person-Centred Foundation for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.


Gibson, R. L., & Mitchell, M. H. (2005). Introduction to Counseling and Guidance. New Delhi: Prentice Hall. (3)


Gladdiing, S. T. (1990). Counselling: A Comprehensive Profession. New Jersey: Pearson.


Kottler, J. A., & Sheppard, D. S. (2008). Introduction to Counseling: Voices from the field. Boston, MA: Thomson Higher Education. (2)


Maddi, S. R. (1996). Personality Theories: A Comparative Analysis. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.


Neukrug, E. (2003). The World of the Counselor: An Introduction to the Counseling Profession. California: Brooks/Cole. (1)


Ravi, M. (2010). Counselling: What, Why and How. New Delhi: Viva Books.

Nedha de Silva