WHEN WE MEET
What to Expect from Counselling
Your First Session
Those who seek personal counselling, are looking for help. They’ve already tried various strategies on their own and things are still not quite right. Mental health professionals are specially trained to take people to the next level, to help them attain clarity and resolution of their problems.
Coming to a counsellor’s office for the first time can be somewhat daunting. People wonder, “will the counsellor be welcoming and understanding? Will he or she be helpful? How much can I say? What kind of help can I expect?” The whole idea of opening up one’s private thoughts and feelings can be stressful. Fortunately, professional counsellors understand this and help new clients to express themselves by inviting and welcoming discussion, asking questions, listening patiently and explaining the process of counselling.
Usually, before problems are discussed, there is routine paperwork that needs to be done. For example, in my own office practice, I might ask you for your contact information (name, address, phone numbers and so on) and may also ask your age, your marital status, what kind of work you do and other personal questions. This is all to help me get a sense of who you are. I may also take a few moments to explain office policies like the details around payment, cancellations, privacy and confidentiality. I will skip all of this if you have already completed the "digital intake forms" and spoken with my assistant.
Some counsellors, including myself, may talk a bit about their philosophy of counselling – something that can help you know whether you and the professional are on the same page. It certainly helps if you feel in alignment with a counsellor’s approach but if you don’t, you can always find a different counsellor whose beliefs about therapy are more in line with your own.
After completing the preliminaries, the therapist will direct the session. If you have come for an assessment or diagnosis, the mental health professional may spend the session asking you questions or giving you questionnaires and/or tests to respond to. However, in personal counselling, such as I myself do, diagnosis is not usually part of the process and therefore structured tests and interviews are less likely to be part of your meeting. Instead, I and other counsellors may simply invite you to explain why you’ve come to therapy. Some people pull out a sheet of paper or a notebook in which they’ve jotted down the issues as they see them and they read this to the counsellor. Others have no such written work with them – they simply start talking about their concerns. Some therapists will just listen and make notes, others will make comments and ask questions. I tend to do a bit of both. Some counsellors will let you take the entire session explaining your problems, while others will stop you at a certain point to make suggestions or to ask you to fill out some questionnaires or forms to help them understand you better.
Some will give you a homework assignment of some kind even after this first session such as a questionnaire to fill out, a book to read or an exercise to do. (Some counsellors see this homework as an essential part of therapy and others see it as an optional opportunity.) Most counsellors will leave time for your questions and comments and some will even have you fill out a form to give feedback about the session you just had (not me - but oral feedback is welcomed!).
It’s important to end your session on time, so the counsellor usually lets you know when things have to wind down. I might make suggestions about what can transpire at the next meeting or describe how I'd like to address the issues you’ve come for and how long that might take (although only rough estimates can be offered after just one meeting).
If you felt the session was productive, you may decide to come back for more. However, you need to be aware that most “first sessions” cannot usually be all that productive because they are spent, for the most part, in helping the therapist to understand what you’ve come for. The real help will come in subsequent sessions. A bit of patience is required on your part to allow the process to unfold; indeed, it can take weeks before you get a sense of whether this is the process for you and to determine whether or not something significant is being accomplished.
The good news is that research shows that counselling tends to really help. Chances are good that you’ll get what you came for. I certainly hope that this will be your experience and will try my best to ensure that it is!