5 Stages of a counseling session


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Page last updated: 12/06/2021

5 Stages of a counseling session

The current blogspot will be based on the question “what are the 5 stages of a counseling session?”. We will learn about the unique characteristics of each of the five stages of a counseling session. We will also discuss each stage and its significance in the counseling session as a whole in this blogspot.

What are the 5 stages of a counseling session?

The counseling session is structured into 5 different stages that occur one after another during the counseling process and enable the counselor to take the client towards the goal fulfillment.

The five stages of a counseling session are :

  • The initial disclosure
  • The in-depth exploration stage
  • Commitment to action or goal setting
  • Counseling intervention
  • Termination or referal

The initial disclosure stage

The first stage of the counseling session is known as the initial disclosure or the initiation stage. This is the most important stage in the counseling process. This stage is significant in developing a professional relationship with the client. 

The counselor is focused on developing a therapeutic alliance based on a professional relationship. The professional relationship in turn helps the counselor to establish rapport with the client that is used throughout the counseling process and helps the counselor to get a deeper insight into the client’s world.

The therapeutic alliance established in the initial disclosure stage is based on mutual trust, care and respect. The counselor tends to attend well to the client and provides empathy and unconditional positive regard.

The client, knowing that he is being attended well is able to trust the counselor and in turn the counseling sessions have a greater potential to be more productive and goal directed.

The initial stage of counseling is aimed at maximum utilization of the basic counseling skills by the counselor.  The counselor uses his skills of empathy, unconditional positive regard, genuineness, active listening, responding and effective verbal and nonverbal communication to gain the client’s trust.

For the initial disclosure session, it is necessary for the counselor to:

  • Have a positive energy that welcomes the client in the counseling session
  • Introduce oneself warmly to the client 
  • Depict hospitality and openness while welcoming the client to the counseling session
  • Avoid non verbal body posture like a rigid stare, glaring into the client’s eyes, maintaining a rigid posture, being very loud or speaking at a fast pace.
  • Ensure that the client is comfortably seated in the counseling room, ensure the temperature of the room and the light is not too low or too high for the client.
  • Remember to practice a warm greeting session in the first 5 minutes of the session. Make the client feel that you are pleased to meet them. Address the client by their name so that they know you are interested in helping them through the process.
  • Let the client explain in their own words the nature, quality and intensity of their problem. Use active listening and responding skills to attend to the client while they share their problem areas.
  • Encourage conversation with the client by using open ended questions
  • Show your client that you are interested in their issues and are available to help them through the path to conflict resolution through attending them well.
  • Don’t try to push the client to a certain direction, let the client speak about all the factors related to the problem area and just be there for the client.
  • Learn to maintain the silence while the client goes through an emotional breakdown during the session, let them cry in your presence or shout over someone who mistreated them, while remaining available for them. Offer them a tissue paper or a glass of water if they need.
  • Let the client learn about the counselling contract. Enable them to fully understand the professional boundaries and ethics of the counseling process. Explain to them in detail about their right to confidentiality about all the information being shared by them in the session and the counselor’s right to breach the confidentiality in case of threat of life to the client’s or the counselor’s life or someone else involved in the client’s life.
  • The biggest threat to the therapeutic alliance is the counselor taking the client at his pace instead of allowing the client to go on his own pace. This betrays the mutual trust between the counselor and the client.
  • The  counselor needs to let the client unfold at his own natural pace during the initial session while practicing the skills of patience and tolerance.
5 Stages of a counseling session

The in-depth exploration stage

The second stage of the in-depth exploration stage is a crucial stage in the counseling process. It is related to developing an in-depth insight into the client’s problem. Since the client goes to the counseling sessions to resolve the daily life related conflicts and overcome the barriers to his optimum functioning in all spheres of life.

The counselor is expected to be an effective tool for the client to push him towards the various necessary modifications that are needed across the life and overcome their barriers to effective functioning. 

During the in-depth exploration stage, the counselor assesses the various factors and the various aspects that are a determining, mediating or causing factor in the client’s problem area. 

The counselor tends to gather information through the client’s verbatim and body language along various subjective and objective techniques to relate the provided information to the underlying personality processes. 

The counselor needs to take care in the in-depth exploration stage that it should not feel like an interrogation stage to the client, rather the counselor needs to slowly and gradually build up the aura of the counseling sessions to facilitate the clients to unfold their thoughts, perspectives, emotions and opinions related to the problem area.

The clients need to feel that the counselor is genuinely interested in their life and is focused on facilitating them to grow from their current life phase and set them free from the anxieties and insecurities related to the problem area.

The various areas of concern for the counselor during the in-depth exploration stage are:

  • The problem presented by the client

The counselor needs to know the exact problem being presented by the client. He needs to explore it and take explanation for the related behavioral and emotional aspects of the problem.

  • The history of the problem

The client’s problem is probed in terms of history. The symptoms are discussed in detail and the time frame for which the problem has been in the client’s life is discussed. The counselor explores if there has been any time period in the client’s life that is symptom free or the client has experienced any episodes of partial remission or full remission during the course of the problem.

  • Current lifestyle of the client

The counselor explores how the client’s problem is affecting the life pattern of the client. They explore the impact of the problem on the client’s personal, social, professional and executive life. They also discover the changes in client’s behavior and thought content as a result of the problem area.

  • The family history of the client

The family history of the client is explored by the counselor to gain in-depth information of the family dynamics of the client. The client’s  familial patterns are explored along his relationships with the siblings and the family members. The client’s relations with the extended family members, in case they are living in a joint family setup are also explored.

  • The cognitive abilities

The cognitive abilities of the client are checked for having any impact due to the problem area. The counselor explores the client’s memory, organization skills, concentration on various life tasks, thought content of the client, any suicidal ideations, the negative thought patterns, mood and affect.

  • The social life of the client

The client’s social life in terms of hobbies, interpersonal relationships, friendships, romantic relationships and socializing skills is explored in detail. This helps the counselor to know the social relations that the client has with people around and the tendency of the client to trust other people.

  • The non-verbal makeup of the client

During the in-depth exploration stage, the counselor keenly observes the client’s non-verbal gestures. The mood and affect of the client are noticed if they are congruent or incongruent to each other. Further, the client’s speech is observed whether a client interestingly shares about a life aspect or feels resistant to share about it.

The importance of the in-depth exploration stage can be stated as follows: 

  • The indepth exploration stage helps the client with case formulation
  • The indepth exploration stage allows the client to diagnose the client properly
  • The indepth exploration stage enables the counselor to formulate a treatment plan that is effective.
  • The indepth exploration stage enables the counselor to strategize various alternate options for dealing with the client.

Commitment to action or goal setting stage

The commitment to action or goal setting stage is the third stage in the counseling process. It is aimed at setting realistic and measurable smart goals and framing strategies that can help the client to achieve their desired outcome.

In the commitment to action stage, the client is facilitated by the counselor to frame out a desired behavior and prioritize a direction that can help the client to move towards the desired outcome.

Establishing clear goals enables the client to clearly see in which direction they need to go and what behavior modifications are required to meet up their goal. The client breaks the path to their goal in small achievable steps that further strengthens the clients need for achievement and acquisition and brings a positive addition to their self worth and self image.

During the commitment to action or goal setting stage of the counseling session the counselor might come across clients who resist from setting goals or who are defensive towards bringing the required change in their life. Yet they are apprehensive of taking a step forward to get away 

from the problem behavior or they are fearful that changing their behavior might affect their life negatively.

For example, a client living in a toxic and abusive relationship with a drug addict is physically tortured by the partner. Yet she is codependent on the partner and is not agreed upon taking a new direction in life. 

For such clients, the counselor needs to create a positive insight and utilize motivational interviewing to help them analyze the advantages and disadvantages of sustaining the current life phase or changing it for better.

Following are some of the main characteristics of the goal setting stage:

  • Goal setting should be done in accordance to the client’s potential to change
  • The goals need to be connected to the desired outcomes that the client has described in the initial session
  • Goals need to be formulated as per the knowledge and skills of the counselor.

Counseling intervention Stage

The fourth stage of the counseling session is counseling intervention. In the counseling intervention stage the counselor summarizes the problem of the client, identifies a strategy to work with the client  and selects an intervention to be implemented to reach the desired outcome.

The problem is summarized by the counselor during the counseling intervention phase by using the following four components:

  • Affective component
  • Behavioral component
  • Cognitive component
  • The interpersonal or systematic component

Affective component

The counselor looks for the ways that the problem or area of concern has affected the client’s feelings. They try to find out the answers to the following questions:

  • How do the problems make the client feel since its occurrence?
  • How does the client’s positive emotional state as a result of the problem have decreased?
  • How much negative thoughts and cognitive distortions have overtaken the client’s feelings?

Behavioral component

The counselor seeks to know the impact of the problem on the behaviors of the client. The client seeks answers to the following questions:

  • How has the problem affected the client’s behavior since it’s occurrence?
  • How has the client responded to the triggers behaviorally?
  • What behaviors are making the client sustain his current situation?

Cognitive component

The counselor collects information about the effect of  the problem area on the client’s cognitive functioning. The counselor seeks answer to the following questions:

  • How has the problem affected the client’s thinking abilities?
  • What negative thoughts are preventing the client from making a change in his behavior?
  • What are the various cognitive distortions that are enabling the client  to focus more on the problem than the solution.

The interpersonal or systematic component

In the interpersonal or systematic component the client seeks to gather information about the client’s interpersonal relations. The dynamics of client’s familial relations are explored by the counselor and also the socialization skills are assessed by the counselor to understand how the problem has affected the client’s social life. 

The counselor tries to understand :

  • The trends behind the client’s relationships with family members
  • The client’s ability to form functional relationships with workplace colleagues
  • The effect of the problem on the client’s socializing abilities.

After finding the answers to the affective component, the behavioral component, the cognitive component and the interpersonal component, the counselor then plans a counseling intervention that best suits the client for reaching the desired outcome.

The counselor chooses the most appropriate therapeutic intervention that can be utilized to effectively reach the desired outcome and reach the goal. 

Before choosing a strategy, the client’s intellectual level and cognitive abilities are kept in focus. So that the counselor selects the strategy that is according to the client’s mental abilities. 

After choosing the appropriate intervention for the client, the counselor implements it to achieve the desired outcome. The goal behind using a strategy is to aid the client to overcome the emotional anxiety and enhance living skills by teaching them coping mechanisms and emotional regulation.

The goals of affective interventions are to help the counselor to facilitate the client regulate their feelings and manage the unpleasant emotions. 

Similarly the goal of the affective strategies is to help the counselor facilitate the client to identify, analyze and restructure the cognitive distortions and restructure the client’s cognitive patterns with helping them learn to substitute their negative thoughts with alternate positive thoughts.

Termination or referral stage

The last stage of the counseling session is termination or referral. Termination happens when a client feels relieved from his underlying distressing situation. As the counseling session reaches towards the desired outcome and the client has achieved his goal, the client feels that the problem is more manageable and hence the counseling session is terminated.

The counselor should ideally discuss the termination with the client in the initial disclosure session. He should discuss with the client the number of sessions that will be required for resolving the problem through the counseling process and the timeline of their professional relationships.

The counselor shall let the client get prepared for the termination by:

  • Frequently reminding the client about the termination as the termination is 3-4 sessions away.
  • Giving space between the last couple of sessions and reducing the frequency of sessions per week.
  • Let the client be able to express his thoughts and feelings related to termination
  • Inform the client about the possible chances of relapse
  • If there is a need, refer the client to another counselor for any other problem area or a psychiatrist for medicine review.
  • The counselor should also explore his or her own feelings regarding the termination of the client. If there are any feelings related to countertransference, the counselor shall discuss the counter transference with the supervisor.

BetterHelp: A Better Alternative

Those who are seeking therapy online may also be interested in BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers plenty of formats of therapy, ranging from live chats, live audio sessions and live video sessions. In addition, unlimited messaging through texting, audio messages and even video messages are available here.

BetterHelp also offers couples therapy and therapy for teenagers in its platform. Furthermore, group sessions can also be found in this platform, covering more than twenty different topics related to mental health and mental illness. The pricing of BetterHelp is also pretty cost-effective, especially considering the fact that the platform offers financial aid to most users.


In the current blogspot we discussed the 5 stages of the counseling process in detail. We found out that each stage of the counseling session has its own significance in bringing the desired outcome of the client. The initial stage, the in-depth exploration stage, the commitment to action stage, the counseling intervention stage and the termination or referral stage are the 5 stages of counseling sessions.

Frequently asked questions: The 5 stages of counseling session

Name the 5 stages of the counseling process?

The 5 stages of a counseling process are :

The initial disclosure
The in-depth exploration
The goal setting stage
The counseling intervention stage
The termination stage

What is the importance of rapport in counseling?

Rapport building is important in the initial disclosure stage of counseling as this helps the counselor build a mutual relationship of trust and care that develops therapeutic alliance between the client and the counselor.

What are the necessary skills of a counselor for rapport building?

The necessary skills for building rapport with the client are:

Active listening skills
Active responding skills
Unconditional positive regard
Effective verbal and non verbal communication skills





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