Guest blogger: Counselling as a way to support agency


“Counselling provides a person with the opportunity to examine the implications of her life as she is living it now and, thereby, to give consideration to alternative paths as she might live them in the future.” In these excellent terms, the late Canadian professor in counselling psychology R. Vance Peavy (1999) described counselling. The description is broad and indicates that counselling is suited for a wide range of professional groups and different working life situations.

I personally worked in counselling for a long time. with the focus on counselling to encourage people to move forward in their careers or studies. As a vocational psychologist at a labour office, for twenty years I helped my clients find life-size solutions guiding them towards working life, studies and sometimes even retirement. At the University of Jyväskylä, I taught counselling to future school study and student counsellors, and in my most recent roles in state administration, I transferred knowledge about counselling to TE Offices' customer service staff. In cooperation with Ari-Pekka Leminen, a fellow psychologist who worked at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, we formulated the following definition of career- and learning-related counselling.

Counselling means good discussions and work done between the client and the counsellor using various methods. The aim is to expand, deepen and diversify the clients’ view of both themselves and the world of learning and work. With the help of counselling, the customer can create a functioning personal relationship with learning and work, make decisions related to them, and build a functional learning and working career.

In counselling, the essential thing to remember is to let people make their own decisions – they are not delivered ready from the outside. Furthermore, the counsellor does not take responsibility for another person's life. Especially when I was a young psychologist at the beginning of my career, I remember carrying too much of the clients’ burdens, bringing their concerns even to my own home. Until, as time went by, I came to the realise that everyone lives their own lives and, as a counsellor, I am just one person among many more in their reality.

When working, it is important to listen to (and also to hear) the clients, to be present in encounters with clients and to give enough time to them. Effective counselling does not always require long processes with the client. That is not what giving time means. Sometimes, it is enough to have space for a short, high-quality encounter, where great realisations are made. When doing client work, I was sometimes prepared for long-term collaboration with them, but they surprised me by showing up to the second meeting with a ready-made career plan. In my opinion, flexibility and taking account of what the client needs in the situation, including in terms of time, are essential in counselling. And the only way to find out the client’s needs is to be present and ask the right questions.

Unfortunately, there is a wide variety of factors that may disturb the moments of counselling: inflexible structures, space solutions that do not take the nature of the work into consideration, excessive focus on quantitative issues and performances, or even the counsellor's own tiredness, or sometimes uncertainty about the objectives of the work. I have also worked as a work counsellor for a long time, and many of my clients doing counselling have expressed strong concerns about the impact of external factors on their own work, client encounters and the quality of their work – and, naturally, their own coping.

What is the key message of the book, and why does it remain valid even twenty years after it was first written?

It would be extremely important for counselling professionals to take care of their own counselling competence. That also helps in situations where external requirements become excessively high. Studying provides both new competence and supports one's own well-being at work. As such, a university or university of applied sciences degree rarely provides readiness for demanding counselling tasks. Useful options include specialisation studies in career counselling, sometimes continuing training in counselling offered by one's own organisation, work counsellor training and student counsellor training. But if you do not have the opportunity to acquire training, you should at least familiarise yourself with the topic independently through literature. There is at least this one book I can recommend.

In 2000, a green paperback appeared on my psychologist's desk, with the following text written on the cover: R.Vance Peavy. Sosiodynaaminen ohjaus.  Konstruktivistinen näkökulma 21. vuosisadan ohjaustyöhön (originally Sociodynamic Counselling. A Constructivist Perspective for the Practice of counselling in the 21st Century), Psykologien kustannus Oy. The book had been sent to me by the Ministry of Labour. It made a great impression on me with its philosophical and pragmatic approach and the warmth with which author saw his clients. At the University of Jyväskylä, the book was one of the key reference works on counselling interaction, along with two other books by the same author. The book's message has not gone out of date over these years, but the edition has been sold out and it has stated to look outdated. When I ended my career in the Employment and Economic Development Administration in 2021, in collaboration with many others, we succeeded in making a digital version of the book available to everyone easily and free of charge.

What is the key message of the book, and why does it remain valid even twenty years after it was first written? Peavy takes a holistic approach to people's life and counselling – all people have their own fields of life, consisting of many things and people, where everything affects everything else. In counselling discussions, it is a good idea to make this “everything” visible, preferably also in a visual format. Although I am a psychologist by background, I also have a social psychologist, a sociologist, a philosopher and sometimes even a theologian living in me. In counselling, it has been easy to apply Peavy's versatile thinking to everyday life, where these different disciplines amicably coexist. In my current work as a psychotherapist, Peavy's views remain a strong part of the way I work.

Peavy's important message to counselling professionals is related to the roles of the client and the counsellor. Counselling is cooperation in which the client is an expert of his or her own life, the subject, not the object of measures or a patient. Collaborating with the client, the counsellor establishes an understanding of what the situation is all about. The counsellor's task is to support another person towards finding a wider vision. Put into modern terms: counselling supports the client's agency.

My own message to those doing counselling is that at best, the work brings joy and energy to the counsellors themselves too, especially when it helps the clients find solutions and make progress in their affairs.

Merja Niemi-Pynttäri
Psychologist, work counsellor, psychotherapist