16 September 2012

Counselling Training - Meeting the next counsellors in training

Today my Shared Space Counselling colleague, Robin and I went along to The Iron Mill Institute in Exeter to meet the new Advanced Diploma students to talk about our experience of the course, and to talk a bit about what we had been up to since qualifying.

It was a really good experience to meet the new, intrepid, students and to remember what it is like to be at the start of a two year training course, full of curiosity and struggling with doubts about the course requirements. It was an honour to be a (albeit small) part of their training experience and I hope I made sense.

I gave a handout, which I originally wrote last year when meeting last year's new students. I tweaked it a little, but it all remained relevant. This is what I wrote:

Dear Advanced Diploma Student

Going through the Mill – some things to bear in mind

Taking responsibility for your learning

The learning comes, in no particular order, from the tutors, your reading, journal-writing, essay writing, presentations, personal therapy, placement work, supervision, group process and group discussion. All of these are important. During the second year most of the learning could well be from placement work and supervision.

It is worth mentioning that the Iron Mill does not spoon-feed students.  An element of student-directed learning is part of the philosophy of teaching which contrasts with many people’s former experiences. I fully appreciate the benefits of a less didactic approach.

By the fifth session, something definite had happened…Students spoke to one another; they by-passed Rogers. Students asked to be heard and wanted to be heard, and what before was a halting, stammering, self-conscious group became an interacting group, a brand new cohesive unit, carrying on in a unique way; and from them came discussion and thinking such as no other group.
What caused it? I can only conjecture as to the reason. I believe that…for four sessions students refused to believe the instructor would refuse to play the traditional role….(that) if they really wanted something to happen, it was they who had to provide the content – an uncomfortable, challenging situation indeed. It was they who had to speak up, with all the risks that that entailed….their persons, their deepest selves were involved; and from this situation, this special unique group, this new creation was born.

Samuel Tenenbaum, on Carl R Rogers and non-directive teaching, in On Becoming a Person, Carl R Rogers (1961)

Finding and fine-tuning your own approach to counselling

One of the things I really loved about this course is that it isn’t a specific technique that you rote learn and copy. About 6 months into it I fully realised that it was, for me, about learning different theories and approaches and then seeing which resonated with me.  As I discovered more about myself through personal therapy, using different approaches through skills practice and through essay research and writing, I could begin to form a coherent, authentic, personal philosophy and approach to counselling that correlates with who I am in relationship.  This is what they are looking for in your Viva.

Use the tutors!

Don’t bottle it up. They are there to help.  You could sit back and wait to be summoned for your tutorial.  Or you could take action and ask for 5 mins at break/the end of the day at the time that you need the help/advice/assistance/calming measures. 

Personal therapy

Find a great therapist that challenges you. If you don’t like them or find them annoying, have the gumption to tell them what you are struggling with.  Seize it as opportunity for self-development. If they collude with you and allow you to manipulate them to stay in your comfort zone then you are wasting your time, money and a great opportunity.


Spend the time and effort writing good letters to go with your applications. In interviews be prepared to articulate what you are good at and what makes you feel vulnerable.  Be honest. If they don’t accept who you are then do you want to work for them?

Once you are in a placement it is essential for good learning that you have excellent supervision. Yes, it is costly if not provided by the agency, but given the overall cost of learning in terms of tuition fees, lost earnings, personal therapy, it is worth getting this right.

The personal journal and learning log

However you do it, keep on top of it. The paperwork increases as the course progresses. I know some who had a bit of a nightmare as they slipped behind in keeping their notes organised, or had huge gaps in their journal.  I tried to write in the journal at least once a week – preferably straight after college. A few lines is better than none. Sometimes it was hard, especially if there was drama in my life, but sometimes I printed off significant emails if they were relevant to my process.  3 years on, my journals are a source of pride and joy.  I open then up and can see my process so clearly.  I don’t journal as often, but I still do write in there from time to time.

Essays and Presentations

The essays and presentations are essential. You have to do them anyway, so take the opportunity to really dive into learning more about the areas you want to know more about.  It encouraged me to research my particular areas of interest more thoroughly. I also advise you not to slip behind…leading to…


This may crop up anywhere – journal writing, essays, personal therapy, turning up at college, acquiring student membership of the BACP. Always ask yourself – why the reluctance? You want to be a counsellor, right? You have agreed to do what is required of you on the course, yes? So what is preventing you from doing it? If this happens it could be a good one to take to therapy.

Embrace the group experience

Being in a group (of counsellors!) is a unique opportunity to learn a lot about yourself. The more students opened themselves up to being vulnerable in the group, the closer we got and the more okay it was for others to express their vulnerability. 

If somebody rubs you up the wrong way then it is a gift! For you can use this to learn more about you and why you have that reaction to that person. It can help you to take responsibility for your own reactions. You can learn experientially about transference or projection.

Taking responsibility (again!)

My understanding is that being a counsellor requires ongoing self-development and dedication. What I told myself is that if I want to make it as a counsellor, (which I truly did), then  I have to do at least what is expected of me on this course. The reality is, that there is a high level of commitment, administration and organisation involved. The work involved on the course is the ideal preparation for being a responsible and ultimately, self-sufficient practitioner (with ongoing supervision, naturally).

Learn to attend to your own needs

For those of you that find this a struggle, you now have the perfect reason for looking after yourself. It makes you a better counsellor. It helps to take responsibility for one’s own happiness too. In our relationships and outside interests.

“…a good case could be made for requiring counsellors in training to make in-depth studies of some of the world’s greatest creative writers. The counsellor who never reads a novel or never opens a book of poetry is neglecting an important resource for empathic development.”

Mearns and Thorne, Person-Centred Counselling in Action (1988),

Wishing you the very best for your journey.


Amanda Williamson is a professional counsellor with a thriving private practice in central Exeter, Devon.

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