Do your friends always unload on you? Here's how to build on your soft counselling skills

Embracing in group therapy

By Dr Peter Richard-Herbert

Senior lecturer at the Australian College of Applied Professions, Dr Peter Richard-Herbert shares strategies to help your friends when they need to unload their issues onto you – without feeling overloaded.

Being the ‘friend indeed’ to your ‘friend in need’ is something we all believe friends are for. Many of us think that a sympathetic ear and some reassuring advice are the least we can do, when a friend is struggling with life’s many troubles. And frankly, it’s what we would be seeking ourselves if we had nowhere else to turn to when a life issue pops up and gets us down.

People are far more aware of how important mental health is today, particularly with our growing understanding of the effects of the media-sharing society, so we should be able to reach out to each other and start a conversation with R U OK?

However, in any case, if a person has a serious mental health problem, then it is recommended that they see a professional – this might be their GP, a counsellor, psychotherapist, or a psychologist. Someone specifically trained in helping people get their lives back on track.

Grab a tool bag of soft counselling skills

Sometimes people struggling with mental ill health might not immediately reach out for professional help, but rather seek advice from their friends. If you happen to be the one your friends come to in times of mental struggle, having access to a small tool bag of ‘soft counselling skills’ could be very useful.

Below I want to outline a few useful tips to help you look after your own emotional wellbeing, including guidelines on what to do and what not to do when supporting you ‘friend in need’.

However, before I jump into the tips, I want to remind you that professional counsellors have firm guidelines to follow and ethical boundaries they must work within for the best interest of their clients. For information on how counsellors work or to find a counsellor for your family or friend, visit the Australian Counselling Association or PACFA.

What is unconditional positive regard?

Basic counselling skills taught in colleges like ACAP often start with the classic approach of ‘unconditional positive regard’. This counselling method was initiated by psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1950s and is still widely used (and seen as the most fundamental method) as a way to help others through issues or crisis in a positive, respectful way. His methodology is called Person-Centred Therapy and involves what he defines as ‘active listening’.

Active listening is a good takeout for helping your friend in need. To be an ‘active listener’ you need to:

1. Pay attention. Give the speaker your undivided attention and acknowledge their message.

2. Show that you are listening, by using appropriate body language (and micro-skills).

3. Reflect on what is being said and present it back to the person.

4. Don’t judge or give an opinion.

5. Respond appropriately.

These steps help to ensure the person knows that you are really listening and hearing what they are saying. You may think, ‘I do all of those things anyway’, and you may be pretty good at one or some of these soft skills but beware….

A hair-raising job

You could be in a job where people naturally relax and unload onto you. Many hairdressers and beauty therapists find this happens to them. Responding with an animated conversation may come naturally to you but be aware of the pitfalls of getting too deeply involved by offering advice or relating similar issues back to the person that has happened to you or someone else you know. This can cause a ‘negative transference’ meaning that when that person thinks again about their problem, they will associate you with being the trigger for the tears and ongoing bad feelings.

Friends can also experience this negativity when they remember feeling rotten around you even though you were trying to help them. Sometimes this kind of transference can make them feel vulnerable or inferior around you, meaning in the future, they may avoid you and move on to another circle of friends where they can feel strong again.

Having the best intentions, warmth and empathy for people around us are good qualities to possess. However, you need to be a good friend to yourself first. This means being aware of the after-effects of your well-meaning counselling on someone else, that may publicly expose their vulnerable side.

Solving the problems of the universe

Having a drink with a friend and solving the world’s problems is something many of us have likely done. However, remember this is not counselling and it may not always turn out the way you thought it might.

Alcohol can add an element of instability to this scenario and instead of helping a friend you may end up losing a friend. Even if it’s a non-alcoholic conversation over lunch or a coffee, be mindful that you are actually listening and acknowledging the person’s opinion instead of appearing self-opinionated and giving advice. Remember how to use your ‘active-listening skills’ and display unconditional positive regard for the other person.

Acknowledgement is something all humans crave, even more so than wanting to be right, so just a nod of the head, a smile and plenty of eye contact mixed in with the occasional “ahuh, ahuh” may be all a person needs from you that day. Such magic ‘micro-skills’ can make a world of a difference as appropriate feedback for your friend.

Make sure that ‘U R OK’ too

Even after learning of the potential difficulties in store for the amateur counsellor, don’t be afraid to ask “R U OK?”. Keep being a friend, having and showing empathy for your fellow man, and in this way, making a difference in your family and friends’ lives.

My advice as a counsellor with over 40 years of experience in clinical practice is to brush up on your soft counselling skills (like active listening), and be aware of your own self-care. Be a friend to your friend and be kind to yourself. Always remember; to have a friend – you have to be a friend.


If you or a friend need to talk to someone urgently, call Lifeline on 131114. They are available 24 hours every day.

For information on a counselling career, visit the Australian College of Applied Professions (ACAP).

Dr Peter Richard-Herbert is Senior Lecturer Discipline of Counselling at ACAP, and has a private clinical practice in Bowral, Southern Highlands, NSW. For more information visit: Highlands Counselling & Therapy.

This article originally appeared in Body&Soul

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