A counselling card: active listening thru holding a space

Alastair Somerville
3 min readAug 12, 2018

I’ve been on a short course on counselling skills this week and it’s been very helpful.

How counselling differs from other forms of listening was of great interest.

For my workshops I often make props and materials. I made a counselling card on Thursday. I will use this post to explain the features of the card that represent what I found interesting about counselling.

Making the card

The absolutely essential element of the card is the hole in it.

Counselling is about creating clear boundaries to hold a space for a person to listen to themself.

A counselling session is absolutely clear that it happens at a set time and place for a set time with a specific person.

Trust is founded on that clarity.

Clear boundaries.

Set boundaries.

A space held for a person.

Compassion and Conversation

The second prototype is about factors that the counsellor must consider outside of the space.

The space is the client’s space. It is somewhere the counsellor needs to take care about entering.

This is why reflection and paraphrasing are key skills. Intervening to enable the person to hear themselves.

Interventions are short. The reflections of words, the paraphrasing of ideas are quick. This is to prevent the counsellor’s stories and ideas taking up room in the client’s space.

Secondly, the idea of care through sympathy.

The counsellor does not know the life or history of the client. They only know what the client wants to say.

The counsellor is there to be alongside the person in that space they hold. They do not share it. They do share the person’s experience. They can sympathise.

Finally, empathy is used sparingly.

Empathy is stepping into the space. That demands trust and respect.

It should only be done for short periods as it has high emotional demands on the counsellor.

The counsellor must care for themselves. Care thru sympathy, self care when using empathy.


The very short but intense course on counselling surprised me.


Counselling is much more structured than I imagined. (This is compared to Nonviolent Communication which I studied lately).

Counselling makes a space for a person.


It uses listening to paraphrase, summarise and simply reflect back the words of a person as they talk.

The space is made for a person to hear themself.


Counselling is ethically clear about care and compassion. To be sympathetic alongside a person but not to confuse that with empathy with a person.

The space held enables compassion. Moving into it has consequences.

I would recommend counselling as a method of active listening. It enables more than I imagined. It is not about providing solutions to a person but it does allow for clarity.

Obviously, this is simply my experience for a one week course and counselling training takes years. However, there are elements in that experience of one week that can be applied elsewhere.

The card is a small summary of some of elements. You can download it here.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX